Victor Witter Turner

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Turner, Victor 19201983





One of the most influential and respected anthropologists of the mid- to late twentieth century, Victor Turner made his name as an ethnographer of south-central Africa, and in doing so, became known as a theorist on social structure and process, with particular emphasis on ritual, symbol, and performance. In more than a dozen books and numerous articles he authored, co-authored, or edited, he concentrated on topics including social drama, social fields, symbolic action, symbolic multivocality (or compression), transition, liminality, communitas, and structure and anti-structure (a term he coined).

Born May 28, 1920, in Glasgow, Scotland, to a stage acting mother and an electronic engineer father, Victor Witter Turner attended Bournemouth Grammar School in England and did undergraduate study in modern and classic literature at University College, London (1938 1941). His studies were interrupted by war, in which, as a conscientious objector, he served as a noncombatant soldier in London. During the war, in 1943, he married Edith Lucy Brocklesby Davis Turner, with whom he would build a lifelong working partnership and parent six children between 1944 and 1963five to reach adulthood. Drawn to anthropology from about the time of the wars end in 1945, Victor Turner studied in London under Daryll Forde and other leaders in the discipline, proceeding for his doctorate as part of the University of Manchester department coalescing around the South African-born Max Gluckman. This study took him to Africa as a Research Fellow of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute and back to Manchester, where, upon receiving his doctorate in 1955, he stayed to write and lecture in anthropology for several years.

During this period he dropped and added some important affiliations. Having been active in the Communist Party of Great Britain in youth, he withdrew, disaffected, by his mid-thirties, or by about 1956, when the Soviet military crushed dissidence in Hungary, upsetting pacifists abroad. Between then and 1958, he and Edith joined the Roman Catholic Church in Stockport, near Manchester. In Catholicism they found ritual, and evidently faith, to fill a void left after leaving those to which they had become exposed in Africa. (Some other leading British anthropologists, notably Edward Evans-Pritchard and Godfrey Lienhardt, were similarly drawn to Catholicism after studying African cultures and their religious dimensions.) In their new faith and practice, the Turners also found solace after the death of their afflicted fourth child, Lucy, in her infancy in 1959. Identifying with Catholicism, however, cost Victor Turner the favor of some of his Manchester colleagues.

After a years research fellowship at Stanford University (from 1961) and a return to Manchester, the Turners moved to the United States, where Victor wrote more than half of his books and Edith several more. There Victor served consecutively as professor of anthropology at Cornell (from 1964), professor of anthropology and social thought at the University of Chicago (from 1968), and professor of anthropology and religion at the University of Virginia (from 1977 until his death in 1983).

Intellectual influences on Turner were diverse. Most centrally they included his parents (especially his mother, on drama and performance); his wife Edith; Max Gluckman (on social structure and process, and on the ritual expression and resolution of conflict); and Arnold van Gennep (whose work on rites of passage became a keystone for his own on that topic and related ones). He also gained inspiration from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, sociologist Kurt Lewin, psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, and drama scholar Richard Schechner. Not least, Turner gained intellectual guidance from informants and guides in Africa, including individuals he identified as Samutamba, Sakazao, Kajima, Windson Kashinakaji, Muchona, and Ikelengesome of whose lives and interactions he wove into his writing.


Turners career was built upon his studies in Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia), which he carried out as a Research Officer of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute toward the end of the period of British colonial rule. With Edith he conducted ethnographic research by interview, participant-observation, and other means among the Ndembu (part of the larger Lunda populationall classed as Bantu-speaking). This they did from December 1950 to February 1952 and from May 1953 to June 1954, mainly in Mukanza village, Mwinilunga District. About the Ndembu people he wrote, over many years and with much help from Edith, a chain of overlapping, theoretically innovative ethnographies that together comprised one of the most detailed and integrated records then available on any small society living in Africa south of the Sahara.

The roughly 17,000 Ndembu people practiced shifting agriculture, hunting, and gathering in forests and clearings, and some lived in mining and trading towns. Their plateau homeland lies within the so-called matrilineal belt that crosses the southern middle of Africa. Among rural Ndembu, Turner construed matriliny (tracing descent through the female line) and virilocality (wives moving to their husbands homes upon marriage) as together causing social stresses and strains. He found, for instance, fathers loyalties torn between their sisters offspring (their own known biological kin) and their wives offspring (less surely so). As the Ndembu and others in the Lunda region had been involved in a series of regional conquests and colonizings, including by the British, he supposed Ndembu patterns of kinship and leadership might be in a period of transition.

But it was their immediate lifeways, and especially their rituals, that captured his attention. To Turner they represented social drama, but not just that. Periods of crisis, he saw, brought social and micropolitical tensions into the open, forcing rifts or reconciliations. Typically, he found, the process had four phases: breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration. His doctoral thesis, published in 1957 as Schism and Continuity in an African Society, built on Gluckmans work on ritual-political process; but to it he added elements of willful decision making and contingency, including what he came to call purposive symbolic action.

Social ills tie into other ills, too, Ndembu people showed the Turners. Divination, healing, and exposure rituals (rituals of affliction) conducted on an ad hoc basis, contrasted with the more predictable, elaborate, and formulaic life-crisis rituals (a kind of rite of passage)for instance, among Ndembu, the nkanga, a girls puberty ritual and celebration of matriliny. Affliction rituals address bodily malfunctions, psychological troubles, and social schisms, or indeed all these at once. Turner argued in The Drums of Affliction (1968) that in a society surrounded by dangers and diseaseand one that is also disrupted by seemingly arbitrary, indirect colonial rulerituals provide security, reconciliation, emotional catharsis, and also some sense of transcendence over uncertainty. Rituals have reason, he argued. They serve current needs, not just dead traditions. No ethnographer had analyzed social structure and process with closer attention to emotion.


Following van Genneps broadly comparative work in a more geographically limited but topically holistic way, Turner perceived in rites of passage three stages or subtypes: separation, margin (or limena threshold like a tunnel of transition), and reaggregation. In his most influential book, The Ritual Process (1969)a collection of essayshe elaborated van Genneps concept of liminality: a condition of limbo, of suspension betwixt and between, sometimes following symbolic death and preceding symbolic rebirth, and sometimes occurring in seclusion or on a journey. He contrasted social structure (a more ordinary condition of hierarchies and dividedness) with what he named antistructure (a more amorphous condition of flux, equality, and potential growth) that he discerned in liminal conditions. Often in the latter he perceived what he called communitas : the temporary condition and feeling of unity, submission, and liberation existing in times and places where usual social barriers were brought down and internal differences of rank and status were erased.

As Turner saw things, symbols work in ways more complex than mere signs. In The Forest of Symbols (1967) and other works, he described ritual and religious symbols as multivocal or polysemousthat is, as being given many meanings and interpretations. Sometimes they are phased with a single ritualbut they can refer to more than one thing simultaneously, evoking what may not be clearly known or consciously perceived. The color triad of white, red, and black, given prominence in sacred or religious rituals around the world, also, in Turners view, carried local, culturally specific meanings, interpretable only in terms of each other and of other local values. For instance, to Ndembu people, the mudyi tree with its white latex, figuring in girls puberty rites (nkanga ), stood for breast, milk, matriliny, feminine distinctiveness and solidarity, continuity of tribal custom, and unified opposition, among other things. But some of its meanings were activated only in relation to other objects, colors, words, or acts. Symbols crystallize polarities and unify disparate significata (by metaphorically linking different domains of experience). Individuals manipulate symbols and their meanings in rituals. Understanding of how this happens can require insiders (both expert and lay) perspectives for exegetic meaning, an outsiders perspective for operational meaning (for instance, in terms of social structure), and a broad outlook for positional meaningfor instance as part of a system of objects, actions, and understandings.

Turners later works led him beyond contemporary Ndembu into world history and into broad public culture. Turner was struck by commonalities between the liminal phases of ritual in small-scale societies and religious pilgrimages, as periods of submission on the way to greater status or power. But he also noted instances of more enduring liminality in monasteries, convents, and communes. In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974), as in The Ritual Process before, he likened crisis episodes in the nascent periods of many world religious movements to the transient conditions giving rise to the rock counterculture and antiwar protests in larger movements during the 1960s and early 1970s. In such diverse movements he noted criticism of broader society and its hierarchies and inequities, as well as a potential for willful social change. But whereas in smaller, tribal societies initiation rites a liminal phase or condition was obligatory, in larger-scale ones, participation in dramas such as concerts and theater playsother sites of potential criticism from which change might originatewas more optional, and hence not strictly liminal yet still limin oid. Although he generalized rather more and made bolder leaps of association in his later works than in his earlier ones, it was the books on Ndembu and Africa that remained the focal points of his renown.


Victor Turner defies easy classification. Never was he just an empiricist or a theorist, but always something of both. As an anthropologist he drew upon a closely focused and fieldwork-intensive British functionalist approach that remained important from about the early 1920s until the 1960s, as well as upon a broadly comparative French structuralist approach influential in the 1960s and 1970s. But he devoted more attention to diachronic process, individual choice, and emotion than either functionalists or structuralists typically did. His work tied French, English, and American schools of thought to African realities, integrating more than compromising. All this moved him from the liminal status of fieldworker to the prominent posts he held in major centers of the anthropological profession. Even when involved in party politics in youth, and in church religion in adulthood, Turner sometimes tested authority and contravened orthodoxy, as if both needing hierarchic structure and wanting a way of release from it. In any case Turner remained a political idealist throughout his career, and something of a spiritualist. He hoped for a more unified and just society, arguing for recognition of the sense and dignity of tropical African lifeways, including their symbolic and religious elements, and tracking the hopeful elements of popular political and religious movements. Turners colleagues (who usually called him Vic) and his students generally deemed him nurturing, peaceable, and conciliatory. In these ways he represented to them something like what one of his favorite symbols, the milk of the mudyi tree, represented to Ndembu.

Even social and cultural anthropologys great breadth of topics could scarcely contain the range of his eclectic interests, from ancient history to experimental drama to brain science (these last two traceable to his parents seemingly disparate interests). His musings, late in life, that the complementary functions of the brains hemispheres might relate somehow to the symbolic polarization he had long observed in ritual and aesthetic life remained hypothetical, untested, and unsung. Arguably his neuropsychological interest was ahead of his time, but he was hardly alone in his quest to conjoin, or at least reconcile, the arts and the sciences.

Turners legacy can be taken as a whole or in parts, and construed as the product of a lifetime, a marriage, or a transcontinental collaboration. While strong waves of critical political-economic scholarship on race, class, gender, and international linkages nearly submerged his early work on micropolitics from the early 1970s on, other aspects of his work proved more buoyant in the shifting currents. He re-explained them while widening his comparisons in his later works, and in those his widow Edith continued editing and publishing after his death in 1983. In his work on ritual process, liminality, communitas, and symbols with multiple meanings, his influence extends far beyond African and Euro-American studies, and beyond anthropology into psychology, sociology, comparative religion, public health, and other fields.

SEE ALSO African Studies; Anthropology; Anthropology, British; Communism; Community Power Studies; Ethnography; Neuroscience; Observation, Participant; Religion; Rituals; Symbols



Turner, Victor. 1957. Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, for the Institute for African Studies, University of Zambia. 1972.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. 1968. The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Ritual Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and AntiStructure. Chicago: Aldine.

Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. 1986. On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, ed. Edith L. B. Turner. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Turner, Victor, and Edith L. B. Turner. 1978. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Turner, Victor, and Edith L. B. Turner. 1992. Blazing the Trail: Way Marks in the Exploration of Symbols. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


Deflem, Mathieu. 1991. Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turners Processual Symbolic Analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30 (1): 125.

Engelke, Matthew. 2004. The Endless Conversation: Fieldwork, Writing, and the Marriage of Victor and Edith Turner. In Significant Others: Interpersonal and Professional Commitments in Anthropology, ed. Richard Handler, 650. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Gluckman, Max. 1955. Custom and Conflict in Africa. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pritchett, James A. 2001. The Lunda-Ndembu: Style, Change, and Social Transformation in South Central Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Turner, Edith. 2006. Heart of Lightness: The Life Story of an Anthropologist. New York: Berghahn.

Van Gennep, Arnold. 1908. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Werbner, Richard. 1984. The Manchester School in South-Central Africa. Annual Review of Anthropology 13: 157185.

Parker Shipton

views updated


TURNER, VICTOR (19201983). Scottish-born American anthropologist and comparative religionist. On the basis of fieldwork in central Africa, Victor Witter Turner produced the richest ethnographic achievement of the period after World War II, and he explained the nature of religious ritual and symbolism in an African society in more detail than anyone had before.

Turner was born in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1943, in the midst of his five years of military service, he married Edith Davis, who was to collaborate with him in field research and writing throughout his career. He received his B.A. degree with honors in anthropology in 1949 from the University of London, where he studied with some of the leading figures of structural-functionalism: A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Meyer Fortes, Raymond Firth, and Edmund Leach. He went on to graduate study at the University of Manchester under Max Gluckman and was introduced to conflict theory and political anthropology. During 19501954 he was a research officer at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Lusaka, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), where he undertook, with his wife, a two-and-a-half-year study of the Ndembu people. In 1954 he returned to the University of Manchester and was appointed to the positions of lecturer and senior lecturer in social anthropology. From 1963 to 1968 he was professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and from 1968 to 1977 he was professor of anthropology and social thought at the University of Chicago. From 1977 until his death he was the William R. Kenan Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. He held numerous fellowships, visiting appointments, and distinguished lectureships at universities in the United States and around the world. He organized major international conferences and was editor of the important series "Symbol, Myth and Ritual" published by Cornell University Press.

Like other leading anthropologists, Turner's ideas were shaped by his field experience. In the course of fieldwork he decided to abandon the social structural emphasis of his teachers and their bias against religion and to pursue a microsociological investigation of the actual processes of Ndembu village life that, he found, were articulated and resolved in ritual performances. Since Ndembu society is prone to conflict because of its inherent inconsistencies, he also rejected the static and mechanistic models of functionalism together with its goal of constructing universal social laws. Instead, he treated Ndembu society as a dynamic social process whose events were analyzable as "social dramas," consisting of phases of breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration (or schism), in which ritual played a central role. He also set aside the analytical perspective and alien categories of the outside observer and oriented his studies around the experiential context and cultural criteria of the Ndembu world, an approach that he later called the "anthropology of experience."

Although his initial study, Schism and Continuity in an African Society (1957), was labeled "difficult" and "experimental," Turner continued to refine his ideas about social drama and ritual process. He wrote one of the most detailed and perceptive studies of African divination, Ndembu Divination: Its Symbolism and Techniques (1961), viewing the subject in the context of social process and analyzing its use of social and ethical symbolism. He also wrote a short but brilliant clarification of methodological issues in African witchcraft studies, "Witchcraft and Sorcery: Taxonomy versus Dynamics" (1964), in which he treats a subject that had become bogged down in functionalist theorizing and confused definitions. He argues that witchcraft has to be viewed as a complex matter involving social process, cosmology, ecology, and biological factors. In addition he wrote a pioneering study of an Ndembu cult of affliction, Chihamba, the White Spirit (1962). In this work he attempted to go beyond the examination of social process and symbolic action and to formulate the implicit content of Ndembu thought by means of Thomistic concepts, long before the subjects of ethnophilosophy and ethnotheology had gained currency in anthropology. It was a venturesome effort and did not receive an entirely positive response. In subsequent and more detailed studies he examined Ndembu ethnomedical and ethnobiological concepts in the context of cults of affliction. One of these studies, The Drums of Affliction (1968), became the locus classicus of later scholarship in the field of African medical anthropology.

In the course of these ritual studies, Turner began to develop a theory of religious symbols. He noted in the field that certain symbols were dominant in ritual contexts and that they exhibited properties of condensation, unification of disparate significata, and polarization of meaning. Because of such semantic complexity, contextual variation, and attachment to ritual sequence, Turner rejected as overly simplistic the structuralist method of interpreting symbols in terms of synchronic, binary relationships. Instead, he proposed a threefold hermeneutic, based upon "exegetical," "operational," and "positional" levels of meaning. Moreover, he suggeted that in the context of intense ritual experience, the ideological, or "normative," and the sensory, or "orectic," poles of meaning came together and reinforced one another in such a way as to produce powerful emotional effects and real transformations of character and social relationships. Herein, Turner felt, lay the power and efficacy of ritual.

Although he wrote two detailed accounts of Ndembu boys' and girls' initiation rites (the first appearing in The Forest of Symbols, 1967, the second in The Drums of Affliction, 1968), it was in the context of a brief comparative study of rites of passage, "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage " (1964), that he began to focus upon the work of the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. He found van Gennep's analysis of rites of passage into the phases of separation, threshold or limen, and reaggregation to be not only a useful cross-cultural model but also the source of a fundamental insight: the regenerative and transformational possibilities of ritual liminality. Whereas van Gennep emphasizes only the outward change of social status accomplished by these rites, Turner emphasizes the inward, moral, and cognitive changes that occurred, and where van Gennep examines only the social aspects of the liminal state, Turner examines its deconstructive and reconstructive processes. Thus Turner concentrated upon the heretofore neglected, strange, and amorphous properties of symbols and actions of the liminal phase. He regarded such symbols and actions both as channels for communicating basic social and cultural values and as channels for discovering new moral and metaphysical insights that tend to subvert as well as support established religious and social orders.

Turner developed his theory of liminality further in the seminal work The Ritual Process (1969). Here he defines the social form of liminality as communitas, the direct, egalitarian encounter and fellowship between people as people, which characterized both temporary ritual states and certain more enduring social groups. In this context he defined three forms of communitas, the "spontaneous," the "ideological," and the "normative," and he elaborated a host of contrasting liminal and status system forms. In addition to illuminating past religious and political movements as well as popular currents in American society of the 1960s, Turner brought his theory of liminality to bear upon the phenomenon of religious pilgrimage, a generally ignored subject in the history of religions. His contribution, presented in another important essay, "The Center Out There: Pilgrims' Goal" (1973), was to see pilgrimage as a rite of passage whose goals include both the experience of communitas and the liminal encounter with the sacred at the pilgrimage center. There followed a series of lectures and articles on this theme, and they inspired other scholars to take up the subject. Together with Edith Turner, he explored the subject further in relation to Mexican, Spanish, and Irish pilgrimage sites in a fieldwork study, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978). His subsequent search for liminality in the modern secular world led to his use of the word liminoid to represent the nonreligious genres of art, sport, and performance.

Although Turner often emphasized his departure from social functionalism, his vision of religion and society remained partly indebted to it. Like Émile Durkheim, he saw social order to be dependent upon ritual and ceremonial performances, and like Max Gluckman, he emphasized the cathartic effects of ritual reversal that helped to restore and legitimate established social structures. But he went beyond both Durkheim and Gluckman by examining the processes of social change and the ways in which ritual helped to create new social realities. His work, along with that of anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, and Mary Douglas, also helped to revive comparative studies in religious anthropology, which had been abandoned by British and American functionalists. But, although he agreed with Douglas and Geertz on the cognitive importance of ritual symbols, he refused to tie them closely to social structure as in Douglas's theory or to construe them as "texts" according to Geertz's formulation.

Following the American anthropologist Edward Sapir, Turner held that culture is not a completely or consistently articulated system, a set of dogmas or logically arrayed or Lévi-Straussian symbolic codes, but rather a changing entity, influenced by "root paradigms," that is, by axiomatic frames, or deep myths, that propel and transform people and groups at critical moments. In this respect Turner came to see that the Ndembu are not exceptional but typical, and thus that social order is fundamentally "processual" in form and "dramatic" in character.

Turner called his analytical method "dramatistic," because, like Freud, he believed that examination of disturbances of the normal and the regular often gives greater insight into the normal than does direct study. Because of the episodic character of social systems, Turner preferred the sociologist Kurt Lewin's image of society as "social fields." He also saw affinities with the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schutz and his followers, who regarded culture as a constantly negotiated set of meanings, and he found useful Wilhelm Dilthey's theory that the meanings and values of life are to be found in the "structures of experience" and not in the formal categories of thought. This approach led him to welcome a shift in anthropology away from such concepts as structure, equilibrium, function, and system to such concepts as process, indeterminacy, and reflexivity, and he envisioned a new anthropology based upon a synthesis of disciplines instead of the usual disciplinary specialization. Turner himself was not, however, given to sustained theoretical exposition, and he often let unclarities remain in his writings, for which he was sometimes taken to task by his colleagues. He preferred to forge his concepts as he went along. His approach was regarded as highly original, and he put forward his ideas with a strong personal conviction that gave his analyses great force.

His final studies led him into the field of performance theory. In theater, especially experimental theater in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Turner saw the same kind of liminal reflexivity, the public cognizance of social situations, that he encountered in rituals associated with the redressive phase of Ndembu social dramas. Together with the drama theorist and director Richard Schechner, Turner understood theater to be an important means of communicating a society's self-reflections and a means of cross-cultural understanding. Thus he encouraged anthropologists to study theatrical performances as well as ordinary social life. In the course of his teaching he also guided students in the performance of ethnographic rituals as a means of learning about ritual and about the societies from which the students came.

At this juncture, he became interested in the subject of the neurobiology of ritual. It appeared that the contrasting functions of the cerebral hemispheres, the right and left brain, might correspond to the two aspects of society Turner had been looking at, structure and liminality. In a major essay, "Body, Brain and Culture" (1983), Turner speculated that the right hemisphere might also be the source of universal symbolic patterns, such as C. G. Jung's archetypes or his own root paradigms and deep myths, which seemed to exist at the subliminal level until activated and brought into the articulate realm of the left brain. The existence of different brain levels, especially the neocortex and the midbrain, also seemed to resemble the ideological and orectic poles of dominant symbols. Perhaps at the height of ritual, Turner speculated, it was the interaction between these two levels with the right and left hemispheres of the brain that produced the transformational effect that was essential to successful ritual performance. Although these were but speculations about the possible biological mechanisms of the ritual process, they were consistent with Turner's fundamental conviction that it was in the dynamics and dramatics of social, ritual, and theatrical events that one came to understand the lives of others and oneself.


From 1980 until his death in 1983, Turner was an editor of this encyclopedia, to which he contributed two articles: "Bodily Marks" and "Rites of Passage: A Few Definitions." His previously published works include the following.

Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life. Manchester, 1957.

Ndembu Divination: Its Symbolism and Techniques. Manchester, 1961. Reprinted in Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual.

Chihamba, the White Spirit: A Ritual Drama of the Ndembu. Manchester, 1962. Reprinted in Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual.

"Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage." In Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by June Helm, pp. 420. Seattle, 1964. Reprinted in The Forest of Symbols.

"Witchcraft and Sorcery: Taxonomy versus Dynamics." Africa 34 (1964): 314325. Reprinted in The Forest of Symbols.

The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N. Y., 1967.

The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia. Oxford, 1968.

The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago, 1969.

Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974.

Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975.

Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives. Written with Edith Turner. New York, 1978.

From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, 1982.

"Body, Brain, and Culture." Zygon 18 (September 1983): 221245.

On the Edge of the Bush. Edited by Edith Turner. Tucson, 1985.

New Sources

Ashley, Kathleen M., ed. Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology. Bloomington, Ind., 1990.

Barnard, H. G. "Victor Witter Turner: A Bibliography (19521975)." Anthropologica 27 (1987): 207233.

Haviland, William A. Anthropology. 6th edition. Fort Worth, 1991.

Lett, James. The Human Enterprise: A Critical Introduction to Anthropological Theory. Boulder, Colo., 1987.

McLaren, P. L. "A Tribute to Victor Turner." Anthropologica 27 (1987): 1722.

Benjamin C. Ray (1987)

Revised Bibliography

views updated


Professor of anthropology and religious studies; b. Glasgow, Scotland, May 28, 1920; d. Charlottesville, Va., Dec. 18, 1983. He received his doctoral degree in 1955 from Manchester University for research in the social organization and ritual of the Ndembu people of Zambia. In 1959 he became a member of the Catholic Church, and remained so until his death. He taught at the University of Manchester, Cornell University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia. Turner was one of the foremost theorists of ritual and symbolism in the mid-20th century. He also influenced many other disciplines, notably social thought, history, medical anthropology, performance studies, and literature.

Symbol and Ritual. A major part of Turner's work developed from Van Gennep's discovery of rites of passage in world cultures (1910). A variety of rites which denoted and created cultural change contained a distinct phase in which the subject was withdrawn from an old status structure but not yet introduced into a new one. Turner pointed out that this intermediate liminal phase was characterized by "antistructure and sentiments of communitas "the undifferentiated free spirit of fellowship between comrades, brought about by the communication of sacra, ritual reversal, and the deconstruction and recombination of familiar cultural configurations. He set up analytical frameworks for the study of ritual symbols, which he used to explain their properties. The cross, for example, he held to be fired by its sensory character and corporeality, an element which in every symbol is indissolubly combined with its ideological meaning. Such an antithesis he called "the polarization of a symbol."

Social Theory. In his social theory Turner was process oriented. He argued, like sartre, that social structures are created by unstructured activity. Turner thus drew attention to the idea that religions, as well as systems of law and all objectified culture, derived from the living moments of human experience and activitythe study of which he later termed the anthropology of experience. Initially a Marxist convinced of the dynamic processual nature of human social existence, he became dissatisfied with the structuralist-functionalist approach and its argument that all social organization results from functional necessity and absolutely determines the character of culture. This did not seem to explain the curious symbolic and ritual phenomena he encountered in Africa. In 1962, exploring this theme further, he wrote Chihamba, the White Spirit: A Ritual Drama of the Ndembu [republished in Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y. 1975)] in which he borrowed Étienne gilson's idea of "the ungraspable act-of-being" to describe the Ndembu's ungraspable spirit figure of Kavula, the thunder god. These were the terms of mysticism, not those of a reductionist anthropology.

In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago 1969) Turner introduced and expanded the themes of liminality and communitas. The fate of spontaneous communitas when it enters social history was exemplified by early Franciscanism. St. francis lived a spiritual life, in poverty. His thinking was concrete, personal, and imagist, characteristic of those in love with existential communitas. After his death problems emerged concerning the continuity of the order, and the Conventual system was developed. This insured the incorporation of permanent structural features into the ordera prime example of the movement from communitas to structure. In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Ithaca, N.Y. 1974, pp. 275294) Turner described how communitas may emerge within such an organization, and even exhibit itself as an oscillation with structure through time. He defended the archaic patterns of Church ritual and symbol that arose from the free space within liminality, and held that such patterns can become protective of future free spaces. He warned liturgiologists that structural-functionalism had little understanding of ritual liminality and should not be the basis for abolishing ancient liturgical traditions ["Passages, Margins and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas," Worship 46 (1972) and "Ritual, Tribal and Catholic," Worship 50 (1976)].

Turner regarded religious action as deeply connected to and rooted in social life, though not determined by it. He saw ritual in the early days of humankind arising in situations of sickness, life crisis, or the conflict of social dramathe latter consisting of four stages: breach of a norm; crisis; redress; followed either by reintegration or the recognition of irreparable schism. In the stage of redress, Turner held that ritual can effect a more comprehensive solution than law, because it can encompass the paradox of two irreconcilable goods.

Later Work. Turner applied his processualism and symbolic theory to the lives of St. Thomas Becket, Miguel Hidalgo, and many other historic figures, and he made use of literary examples such as the events and symbols in the Icelandic sagas and Dante's Purgatorio. In his monograph, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (with E. Turner, New York 1978), he treated pilgrimage as a rite of passage, studying it as an important liminal phenomenon within the structured lives of the common people.

Shortly before he died, Turner began to use the findings of neuroscience to throw light on ritual. He became interested in the nonverbal right cerebral hemisphere, with its powers of holistic thinking. He realized that many of the problems of spiritual existence and human conflict found in his anthropological material were not resolved at the cognitive left-hemispheric level, but in the nonverbal noetic mode known as "ritual knowledge"when the brain's instrument for religion, in both its hemispheres, was most fully engaged.

See Also: structuralism.

Bibliography: h. b. porter, "Liminal Mysteries: Some Writings by Victor Turner," Anglican Theological Review, 57: 215219. u. t. holmes, "Liminality and Liturgy," Worship 47: 386397; "Ritual and Social Drama," Worship 51: 197213. j. r. nichols, "Worship as Anti-Structure: The Contribution of Victor Turner," Theology Today 41: 401409. r. l. moore and f. e. reynolds, eds., Anthropology and the Study of Religion, pt. 2, "The Work of Victor Turner" (Chicago 1984) 77143.

[e. turner]

views updated

Turner, Victor (1920–83). British social and cultural anthropologist latterly working in the USA, best known for his investigations of the meaning, nature, grounds, and functions of Ndembu (Zambia) rituals and symbols. His interest in Ndembu rites of passage, where liminal periods are important, encouraged Turner to advance the theory of communitas: as well as structured interaction, all societies require contexts of anti-structure; contexts in which bare, and so equal, individuals can recognize their ‘humankindness’. At the end of his life, he came to realize that the emphasis in his work (and his teaching of other anthropologists) had been wrong, and that he should have recognized that biogenetic structuralism was correct in returning a genetic contribution to human (and thus religious) behaviours: see his ‘Body, Brain and Culture’, Zygon (1983), 221 ff.

views updated

Turner, Victor (1920–83) A British social anthropologist who elaborated the study of rituals and symbolism. His main fieldwork was among the Ndembu in Africa, where he made detailed interpretations of colour symbols, rites of passage, and healing ceremonies, as well as a micro-study of village politics (see Schism and Continuity in an African Society, 1957, and The Forest of Symbols, 1967
). Developing Arnold van Gennep's idea of limen or threshold, he explored the concept of liminality in pilgrimage and Western society, in The Ritual Process (1969).

More From

You Might Also Like