Victor Witter Turner (May 28, 1920 – December 18, 1983) was a British anthropologist who studied rituals and social change and was famous for developing the concept of "liminality," first introduced by Arnold van Gennep, and for coining the term "communitas." Turner's work revealed much about the processes of social change, both from the point of view of the individual experience and the development of common beliefs that characterize the social group. He researched the meaning of rituals and their symbolism in this context. Through developing the concepts of liminality and communitas as examples of unstructured community experience in which all members have the same social status, Turner suggested that human beings require time and separation from their social obligations to process and adjust to change. When people spend this time together, divested of the trappings and responsibilities of their previous social positions, equal participants in the transition to the new phase, deep bonds are formed which may be foundational to the new phase of life they are about to enter.
Turner viewed all rituals as containing religious or spiritual components in the referents of the symbolism involved. He also viewed ritual as the essential mechanism for transmission of cultural identity. Valuing ritual and its symbolism, together with the experience of communitas for those making the transition from one phase to another, are Turner's contribution to our understanding of how we can better human society.
Victor Witter Turner was born in Glasgow, Scotland, into a middle-class family. His father was an electrical engineer and his mother an actress. It is probable that it was his mother’s influence that started Turner’s life-long interest in performance and drama. At the age of 18 he entered the University College in London to study poetry and classics. The advent of World War II, however, interrupted his plans, and Turner was out of college for five years. As a pacifist, Turner was a conscientious objector during the war, and served as a noncombatant performing the dangerous work of bomb disposal. During that time he married Edith Lucy Brocklesby Davis and had two children. They later had four more children one of whom, daughter Lucy, died in infancy in 1959.
After the war, Turner’s interest in anthropology was sparked and he decided to return to university. He received his B.A. in anthropology in 1949, and went on for graduate study at the University of Manchester in the newly formed department of anthropology. His professor there was Max Gluckman, who arranged for Turner to participate in fieldwork among the Ndembu people of Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). It was there that Turner discovered his interest in rituals. It was there also that Turner became a co-worker of several important figures in British social anthropology such as Radcliffe-Brown, Meyer Fortes, and Raymond Firth.
Turner received his Ph.D. in 1955, writing his dissertation on Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life (published in 1957). He continued to work at the University of Manchester as a Senior Fellow and Senior Lecturer. He soon became one of the leading figures at the Manchester School of Anthropology.
In 1961, Turner started work at Stanford University as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Behavioral Sciences. He liked the American academic life, and decided to stay in the United States. In 1964, he transferred to Cornell University. While employed there, he traveled to Uganda to conduct his fieldwork among the Gisu people.
In 1968, Turner accepted an invitation from the University of Chicago to become a professor of anthropology and social thought. There, he joined the team of renowned scholars who gathered in the Committee on Social Thought, which included art critic Harold Rosenberg, novelist Saul Bellow, and philosopher Hannah Arendt. It was in Chicago that Turner started to investigate world religions, and in particular the study of Christian pilgrimage.
In 1978, Turner moved to the University of Virginia, where he served as the William R. Kenan Professor of Anthropology and Religion. He also became a member of the Center for Advanced Studies and the South Asia Program. There, his interest shifted toward performative drama and experimental theater as modern forms of liminality.
Victor Turner died on December 18, 1983.
Turner was rather pragmatic in his approach to anthropology. Similarly to Emile Durkheim, Turner believed that social order depended on rituals and ceremonial performances. He saw culture as being in a constant state of change as members of the culture negotiated common beliefs.
During his early career, Turner studied the Ndembu tribe in central Africa. While observing the Ndembu, Turner became intrigued by the nature and function of rituals and rites of passage. Like many of the Manchester anthropologists of his time, he also became concerned with conflict, and created the new concept of "social drama" in order to account for the symbolism of conflict and crisis resolution among Ndembu villagers. In his Schism and Continuity in African Society (1957), he explains the concept of social dramas, arguing that dramas exist as a result of the conflict that is inherent in societies.
Turner gained notoriety by exploring Arnold van Gennep’s threefold structure of rites of passage and expanding his theory of the liminal phase. Van Gennep's structure consisted of a pre-liminal phase (separation), a liminal phase (transition), and a post-liminal phase (re-incorporation).
Turner noted that in "liminality," the transitional state between two phases, individuals were "betwixt and between"—they did not belong to the society that they previously were a part of, and they were not yet re-incorporated into that society. Liminality is a "limbo," an ambiguous period characterized by humility, seclusion, tests, sexual ambiguity, and "communitas" (unstructured community where all members are equal):
I have used the term "anti-structure,"...to describe both liminality and what I have called "communitas." I meant by it not a structural reversal...but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc., from the normative constraints incumbent upon occupying a sequence of social statuses (From Ritual to Theater, 44).
Thus, Turner conceived of communitas as an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. It is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together. The term is used to distinguish the modality of social relationship from an area of common living. There is more than one distinction between structure and communitas, the most familiar being the difference between secular and sacred. Every social position has something sacred about it. This sacred component is acquired during rites of passage, through the changing of positions. Part of this sacredness is achieved through the transient humility learned in these phases, allowing people to reach a higher position.
Communitas is an acute point of community. It takes community to the next level and allows the whole of the community to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. This brings everyone onto an equal level—even if people are higher in positions, they were lower at one point and know what that means.
Turner spent his career exploring rituals. He began with the orthodox structural-functional position of British anthropologists, such as Radcliffe-Brown, but focused on how to understand the transmission of cultural symbols from generation to generation, and the changes in rituals that reflected social change. Turner found that rituals usually occur in an organized, cyclical fashion, within which there is found a set of dominant ritual symbols. He invoked the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly his Interpretation of Dreams, in recognizing that these symbols can stand for more than one referent and have several levels of meaning.
He argued that rituals, thus, are constructed of symbols, and as such they have three meanings: exegetical, operational, and positional. The exegetical meaning is subjective, as explained by the person performing the ritual. The operational meaning is objective, observed by the researcher, and deals with the purpose of ritual in a society. Finally, the positional meaning takes all symbols into account and concerns the relationship between them. Turner also saw different levels of meaning available to different people: The "manifest" meaning is apparent to the observer and related to the goal of the ritual; the "latent" meaning is one that the observer has partial awareness of and may fully understand only later; while the "hidden" meaning belongs to the subconscious or unconscious level of the members of the culture and is generally not known by the outside observer.
Turner's definition of ritual included the manipulation of symbols, and the reference that is made in ritual to a belief in supernatural beings or powers. According to Turner, there is in ritual an essential element of religious belief. He later applied his study of rituals and rites of passage to world religions and the lives of religious heroes.
Turner was also a superb ethnographer who constantly mused about his craft in his books and articles. Eclectic in his use of ideas borrowed from other theorists, he was rigorous in demanding that the ideas he developed illuminate ethnographic data. He was never a theorist for theory's sake. A powerful example of his attitude can be found in the opening paragraph of the essay “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors” in Turner’s Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1975):
In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.
In his later years, Turner's interest shifted toward performative drama and experimental theater as modern forms of liminality. In his theory of social dramas, Turner argued that there were four main phases of public action that lead to change:
Turner's work on ritual stood as one of the most influential theories in anthropology during the twentieth century. However, this "Turnerian Paradigm" has not gone unchallenged. His concept of "communitas" has been criticized as oversimplified and idealized (Eade & Sallnow, 1991).
Later researchers studying pilgrimage have suggested that Turner’s work rendered pilgrimage neglected as an area of anthropological study. He asserted that pilgrimage was, by its liminal nature, extraordinary, and not part of daily life (and therefore not a part of the make up of everyday society). The revival of interest in this topic suggests that pilgrimage may have a role more connected to general societal activity than Turner had suggested (Eade & Coleman, 2004).
Turner's work resurfaced at the end of the twentieth century, among a variety of disciplines, proving to be an important part of the social sciences. His concepts of symbols and social dramas have become useful in anthropological textbooks.
His work on "liminality" and "communitas" was pioneering, contributing greatly to our understanding of how social change takes place. The insights that Turner added to van Gennep's concept of the liminal phase in rites of passage have been taken up by scholars in a wide variety of fields.
All links retrieved January 20, 2016.
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