Victor Turner Research Paper

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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 (19381941). 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 1963—five to reach adulthood. Drawn to anthropology from about the time of the war’s 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 year’s 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 Ikelenge—some of whose lives and interactions he wove into his writing.

Research In Africa

Turner’s 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 population—all 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 matrilin-eal 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, redres-sive action, and reintegration. His doctoral thesis, published in 1957 as Schism and Continuity in an African Society, built on Gluckman’s 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 nkang’a, 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 disease—and one that is also disrupted by seemingly arbitrary, indirect colonial rule—rituals 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.

Ritual Process and Symbolic Action

Following van Gennep’s 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 limen—a threshold “like a tunnel” of transition), and reaggregation. In his most influential book, The Ritual Process (1969)—a collection of essays—he elaborated van Gennep’s concept of liminal-ity: 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 anti-structure (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 polysemous—that is, as being given many meanings and interpretations. Sometimes they are phased with a single ritual—but 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 Turner’s 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 (nkang’a), 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 outsider’s perspective for “operational” meaning (for instance, in terms of social structure), and a broad outlook for “positional” meaning—for instance as part of a system of objects, actions, and understandings.

Turner’s 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 plays—other sites of potential criticism from which change might originate—was more optional, and hence not strictly liminal yet still liminoid. 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.

Scope Of Influence

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 fleldwork-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. Turner’s 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 anthropology’s 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 brain’s hemispheres might relate somehow to the symbolic polarization he had long observed in ritual and aesthetic life remained hypothetical, untested, and unsung. Arguably his neuropsycho-logical 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.

Turner’s 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.


  1. 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.
  2. Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.
  3. 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.
  4. Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine.
  5. Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.
  6. Turner, Victor. 1986. On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, ed. Edith L. B. Turner. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  7. Turner, Victor, and Edith L. B. Turner. 1978. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
  8. Turner, Victor, and Edith L. B. Turner. 1992. Blazing the Trail: Way Marks in the Exploration of Symbols. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  9. Deflem, Mathieu. 1991. Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30 (1): 1–25.
  10. Engelke, Matthew. 2004. The Endless Conversation: Fieldwork, Writing, and the Marriage of Victor and Edith Turner. In Significant Others: Interpersonal and Professional Commitments
  11. in Anthropology, ed. Richard Handler, 6–50. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  12. Gluckman, Max. 1955. Custom and Conflict in Africa. Oxford: Blackwell.
  13. Pritchett, James A. 2001. The Lunda-Ndembu: Style, Change, and Social Transformation in South Central Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  14. Turner, Edith. 2006. Heart of Lightness: The Life Story of an Anthropologist. New York: Berghahn.
  15. Van Gennep, Arnold. 1908. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
  16. Werbner, Richard. 1984. The Manchester School in South-Central Africa. Annual Review of Anthropology 13: 157–185.

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