Beth Barrie


Spring 1998


Victor Turner


There is a school of thought that suggests that individuals can shape disciplines. An analysis of the ideas and influences of an individual may prove helpful in testing such a hypothesis. This paper examines the life and works of Victor Witter Turner (1920-1983) in an attempt to understand the role he played in shaping the discipline of anthropology. The paper is organized as follows: life history, antecedents, important contributions, influence of ideas, and conclusions.

Life History

Born in Glasgow on May 28, 1920 Victor Turner entered life in a firmly middle-class setting with an electronics engineer for a father and an actress for a mother. The influence of his mother can be inferred from his lifelong interest in performance and drama. At age eighteen he enrolled at the University College, London to study poetry and classics. World War II and conscription as a noncombatant interrupted his studies for five years. During that time he married, had two children and lived in a gypsy caravan near the Army base at Rugby (Manning, 1990). He also developed an interest in anthropology during this time so that when he returned to University College, he studied under some of the leading social anthropologists of the time (see below for more discussion of Turner's mentors).

After receiving a B.A. Honours degree in Anthropology at age 29, Turner left London for graduate study at the University of Manchester in the Department of Anthropology just begun by Max Gluckman. In association with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (which was directed by Gluckman) Turner conducted fieldwork among the Ndembu of Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). He began by examining the demographics and economics of the tribe but then shifted to ritual, a topic he would focus on for the rest of his career.

He completed his Ph.D. in June 1955 and stayed on at Manchester for several years as a Senior Fellow and Senior Lecturer (McLaren, 1985). During this time he published two monographs and his dissertation, Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life (1957). Schism is a detailed analysis of Ndembu social organization. "The pervasive theme of the book is conflict and the resolution of conflict" (Barnard, 1985:212). His work in Ndembu and in Schism established him as a leading figure in the Manchester School of anthropology.

Turner's American career began in 1961 when he traveled to California to accept an appointment as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. While at Stanford he wrote The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu (1968). "Although Turner returned to the University of Manchester a year later, he remained deeply attracted to the free-wheeling, multi-disciplinary atmosphere of American academic life" (Barnard, 1985:208). This attraction led him to accept an appointment at Cornell University in 1964 where he completed three books and conducted fieldwork among the Gisu of Uganda.

Turner moved to the University of Chicago in 1968 to take a position as Professor of Anthropology and Social Thought. He joined the Committee on Social Thought that included novelist Saul Bellow, philosopher Hannah Arendt and art critic Harold Rosenberg (Barnard 1985). While at Chicago Turner's interests shifted from "tribal to world religions, and more generally, from small-scale to mass societies" (Manning, 1990:171). He began a long-term study of contemporary Christian pilgrimage during his ten-year stay at Chicago.

Turner's final academic position was as the William R. Kenan Professor of Anthropology and Religion at the University of Virginia where he also had membership in the Center for Advanced Studies and the South Asia Program. At Virginia he became increasingly interested in performative play and experimental theater as a modern form of liminality.

Having traced Turner's life history it is necessary to go back and determine the mentors that influenced him.


During his undergraduate career Turner worked with the leading structural-functionalists in the British social anthropology tradition: A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Darryl Forde, Meyer Fortes, Raymond Firth and Edmund Leach. The influences of these mentors are apparent in the work he published from his first fieldwork assignment. "Turner's earliest ethnography, Schism and Continuity in an African Society (1957) was functionalist in the reigning mode of British social anthropology" (Ashley, 1990:xv). Although the concept of social drama, which Turner developed in Schism, was obviously functionalist, he broke new ground in his emphasis on social processes or systems in change rather than developing a static model. "The 'processual form' of social dramas through stages of breach/crisis/redress/reintegration or schism emphasized diachrony, not static equilibrium" (Ashley, 1990:xvi).

Turner studied with Max Gluckman during his graduate education. Gluckman introduced him to conflict theory and political anthropology. Gluckman's influence can be directly observed in the textbook Turner helped edit. His contribution to Political Anthropology (1966) was the essay "Ritual Aspects of Conflict Control in African Micropolitics." Turner's political anthropology, and more importantly his defining work in ritual, was heavily influenced by Gluckman's "Manchester School." His emphasis on ritual as a means for social transformation has a clear connection to Gluckman's emphasis on social processes.

In Gluckmanís (1965) description of the methods of the members of the Manchester School, premonitions of Turner's emphasis on ritual as a cultural agent are apparent:

[Anthropologists in the Manchester school] are analyzing the development of social relations themselves, under the conflicting pressures of discrepant principles and values, as the generations change and new persons come to maturity. If we view these relations through a longish period of time, we see how various parties and supporters operate and manipulate mystical beliefs of various kinds to serve their interests. The beliefs are seen in dynamic process with day-to-day social life, and the creation and burgeoning of new groups and relationships (1965:235).

Under Gluckman's tutelage Turner moved further away from the static notion of structural-functionalism and focused more and more on ritual as a social process.

Turner was not only influenced by his university mentors. He shared the view that social order depends on rituals and ceremonial performances with Emile Durkheim. And he followed Edward Sapir's lead in asserting that culture is 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" (Ray, 1987:95).

Turner agreed with Freud that studying disturbances in patterns offers better insight than does observing normal conditions. He found Kurt Lewin's notion of "social fields" useful in his processual models as was Alfred Schutz' phenomenological sociology which suggested that culture was a constantly negotiated set of meanings.

Wilhelm Dilthey's emphasis on experience over thoughts had a strong influence on the development of Turner's anthropology of experience. Turner (1985) acknowledged this debt as he developed his processual anthropology:

Enough Dilthey has leaked into English, and he has been well enough interpreted, to enable me to make a plausible case with its aid for an "anthropology of experience" in the Diltheyan sense, modified somewhat by recent anthropological research in cultural performance and symbolic action (p. 211).

A final influence on Turner was van Gennep's work, Rites of Passage (1960, original 1909). Van Gennep, a folklorist, theorized that rites of passage have three principle stages: rites of separation, margin or limen (i.e., threshold), and reaggregation. Turner expresses best the influence van Gennep's ideas had on him:

The present author [i.e., Turner], stimulated during his fieldwork by Henri Junod's use of van Gennep's interpretive apparatus for understanding Thonga ritual (Junod 1962 [1912-13]), came to see that the liminal stage was of crucial importance with regard to this process of regenerative renewal (Turner, 1985:159).

Influential individuals and ideas shaped Victor Turner's contributions to the discipline of anthropology. To understand the role Turner played in shaping the field of anthropology, a review of his most important contributions is required.

Important Contributions

In his dissertation, published as Schism and Continuity in African Society (1957), he introduced the concept of social dramas, which he elaborated on in later works. Social dramas exist as a result of the conflict that is inherent in societies. Social dramas are the "public episodes of tensional irruption" (1974:33). He also refers to them as "units of aharmonic or disharmonic process, arising in conflict situations" (1974:37).

Based on his fieldwork among the Ndembu, Turner (1974) asserted that social dramas have "four main phases of public action, accessible to observation" (p. 38). The phases are breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration. The first phase is "signalized by the public, overt breach or deliberate nonfulfillment of some crucial norm regulating the intercourse of the parties" (ibid.). Once a breach occurs "a phase of mounting crisis supervenes" in which the breach widens and extends the separation between the parties. The crisis stage has "liminal characteristics, since it is a threshold between more or less stable phases of the social process" (Turner, 1974:39).

The third phase of redressive action occurs to limit the spread of the crisis with "certain adjustive and redressive mechanisms . . . [which] are swiftly brought into operation by leading or structurally representative members of the disturbed social system" (ibid.). Turner further identifies the mechanisms of this phase:

They may range from personal advice and informal mediation or arbitration to formal juridical and legal machinery, and, to resolve certain kinds of crisis or legitimate other modes of resolution, to the performance of public ritual. (Ibid.)

Some mechanisms may not work; in which case regression to the crisis phase occurs. The redressive phase is the most liminal because it is in the middle of the crisis and the resolution. It is in this phase that the liminal ritual may be enacted to resolve the crisis and provide an opportunity for the final phase of reintegration to occur.

The reintegration phase involves the resolution of the conflict by reintegrating the disturbed group into society or by the "social recognition and legitimization of irreparable schism between the contesting parties" (ibid.). It should be noted that this four-phase model fits into van Gennep's phases of rites of passage. Breach and crisis correspond to van Gennep's separation phase, redress aligns with the transition phase of rites of passage and reintegration represents van Gennep's incorporation phase. Turner extended van Gennep's phases to include the public conflict of social dramas. This processual view of social constancy and change was very different from the prevailing structural-functionalist anthropological view of the day.

Turner contributed methodologically to the study of ritual symbols. He introduced the term multivocality to indicate that one symbol may stand for many things. As a result of the polysemous symbols, he suggested a triarchic approach to the study of meaning in ritual symbols. The meaning of symbols must incorporate the exegetical (i.e., indigenous) meaning, the operational meaning and the positional meaning.

The exegetical meaning is obtained by "questioning indigenous informants about observed ritual behavior" (Turner, 1967:50). The operational meaning comes from observing what is done with the symbol, the structure and composition of the group that handles the symbol and the affective qualities of the handling of the symbol. The operational meaning also takes into account those groups that are excluded from interacting with the symbol. "The positional meaning of a symbol derives from its relationship to other symbols in a totality, a Gestalt, whose elements acquire their significance from the system as a whole" (Turner, 1967:51). Turner considered himself a comparative symbologist, which suggests he valued his contributions to the study of ritual symbols. It is in the closely related study of ritual processes that he had the most impact.

The most important contribution Turner made to the field of anthropology is his work on liminality and communitas. Believing the liminal stage to be of "crucial importance" in the ritual process, Turner explored the idea of liminality more seriously than other anthropologists of his day.

As noted earlier Turner elaborated on van Gennep's concept of liminality in rites of passage. Liminality is a state of being in between phases. In a rite of passage the individual in the liminal phase is neither a member of the group she previously belonged to nor is she a member of the group she will belong to upon the completion of the rite. The most obvious example is the teenager who is neither an adult nor a child. "Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (Turner, 1969:95). Turner extended the liminal concept to modern societies in his study of liminoid phenomena in western society. He pointed out the similarities between the "leisure genres of art and entertainment in complex industrial societies and the rituals and myths of archaic, tribal and early agrarian cultures" (1977:43).

Closely associated to liminality is communitas which describes a society during a liminal period that is "unstructured or rudimentarily structured [with] a relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders" (Turner, 1969:96).

The notion of communitas is enhanced by Turner's concept of anti-structure. In the following passage Turner clarifies the ideas of liminal, communitas and anti-structure:

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 (1982:44).

It is the potential of an anti-structured liminal person or liminal society (i.e., communitas) that makes Turner's ideas so engaging. People or societies in a liminal phase are a "kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change" (Turner, 1982:45).

Turner's ideas on liminality and communitas have provided scholars with language to describe the state in which societal change takes place. A review of the influence of his works will indicate the extent to which scholars have used these concepts.

Influence of Ideas

One method for determining the influence of an anthropologist is to examine anthropology textbooks to see which, if any, of his ideas are presented. In a convenience sample of textbooks Turner was mentioned only marginally. For example, in Haviland's (1991) introductory textbook Turner's books Schism (1957) and The Ritual Process (1969) were included in the bibliography but were not referenced in the chapter on ritual.

Lewis (1986) includes extensive coverage of Turner's work on Ndembu ritual symbols in a textbook focusing on social anthropology. Turner's concepts of ritual symbols, particularly the multivocal concept is also included in Lett's (1987) critical introduction to anthropology text. These brief references suggest that many of Turner's ideas are not receiving much attention in introductory textbooks.

Another approach to determining the influence of a scholar is to investigate the extent to which their works are cited in journal articles. A review of the social science citation index for 1997 revealed that Turner's works are cited in a wide variety of journals. Journals representing fields such as anthropology, sociology, political science, religion, curriculum development, geography, communications, womenís studies, nursing, history, and psychology included articles citing Turner's works. Although the majority of the articles citing Turner were in anthropology journals, the range of topics was impressive.

To determine which of Turner's works were most influential a list of the top five works cited in the social science and arts and humanities citation indices was compiled (Figure 1). From this list it is clear that Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas as presented in The Ritual Process (1969) are useful for scholars. His concepts of multivocal symbols and social dramas as presented in Forest of Symbols (1967) and Dramas, Fields and Metaphors (1974) have also been cited.


This review of Turner's work has shown that the ideas of one anthropologist can be far-reaching. The insight that Turner added to van Gennep's concept of the liminal phase in rites of passage has been cited by scholars in a wide variety of fields. Although he is not being widely presented in introductory textbooks there is evidence to suggest that scholars find his ideas useful.

Examining the influences that Turner was exposed to further illustrates the extent to which individuals can shape a discipline. Although Turner disagreed with the structural-functionalists he worked with as an undergraduate, their ideas provided him with a platform to oppose. His views of ritual as a change agent in society were made clear by juxtaposing the static interpretation of the structural-functionalists with his more dynamic process. In his graduate career the processual ideas of Max Gluckman proved very influential. Turner adapted Gluckman's ideas of processional change to the study of ritual and developed his entire career around the concepts he formulated from that synthesis.

While it will always be impossible to trace the exact impact of an individual on a field the evidence of Victor Turner's influences suggests that the individual plays a role in the development of a discipline. Turner's influence also suggests that some individuals can influence development across disciplines as well as within disciplines.


Figure 1. Victor Turnerís Top 5 Works Cited through the Years

(Citation information obtained from computer versions of the Social Science Citation Index and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. Multiple editions of works have been condensed into one reference to emphasize the influence of his ideas. The citations for 1986-1990 and 1981-1985 are taken only from the Social Science Citation Index because of a discrepancy in the way in which the Arts and Humanities Citation Index catalogs information. This is the reason for the decrease in citations. It does not indicate a decrease in the number of times Turner is referenced.)


1997 (229 total citations) Citations

Ritual Process (1969)


Forests of Symbols (1967)


Drama, Fields, Metaphors (1974)


Ritual to Theater (1982)


Schism (1957)



1996 (211 total citations)

Ritual Process (1969)


Forest of Symbols (1967)


Dramas, Fields, Metaphors (1974)


Ritual Theater (1982)


Anthropology of Experience (1986)



1991-1995 (740 total citations)

Ritual Process (1969)


Forest of Symbols (1967)


Dramas, Fields, Metaphors (1974)


Anthropology of Experience (1986)


Ritual Theater (1982)



1986-1990 (544 total citations)

Ritual Process (1969)


Dramas, Fields, Metaphors (1974)


Forest of Symbols (1967)


Anthropology of Experience (1986)


Image, Pilgrimage, Christianity (1978)



1981-1985 (432 total citations)

Forest of Symbols (1967)


Ritual Process (1969)


Dramas, Fields, Metaphors (1974)


Image, Pilgrimage, Christianity (1978)


Schism (1957)






Barnard, H.G. (1985). Victor Witter Turner: A bibliography (1952-1975). Anthropologica, 27 (1-2), 207-233.

Gluckman, M. (1965). Politics, law and ritual in tribal society. Chicago: Aldine.

Haviland, W.A. (1991). Anthropology (6th ed). Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Lett, J. (1987). The human enterprise: A critical introduction to anthropological theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Lewis, L.M. (1986). Social anthropology in perspective: The relevance of social anthropology (2nd ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Manning, F.E. (1990). Victor Turner's career and publications. In K.M. Ashley (ed.)(1990). Victor Turner and the construction of cultural criticism: Between literature and anthropology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

McLaren, P.L. (1985). A tribute to Victor Turner. Anthropologica, 27 (1-2), 17-22.

Ray, B.C. (1987). Victor Turner. In Encyclopedia of Religion. M. Eliade (ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Swartz, M.J., Turner, V.W., & Tuden, A. (eds.)(1966). Political anthropology. Chicago: Aldine.

Turner, V. (1957). Schism and continuity in an African society: A study of Ndembu village life. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Turner, V. (1967). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1968). The drums of affliction: a study of religious processes among the Ndembu of Zambia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, fields and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1975). Revelation and divination in Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1977). Variations of the theme of liminality. In Secular ritual. Ed. S. Moore & B. Myerhoff. Assen: Van Gorcum, 36-52.

Turner, V. (1978). Image and pilgrimage in Christian culture: Anthropological perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Turner, V. (1982). From ritual to theater: The human seriousness of play. New York: PAJ Publications.

Turner, V. (1985). On the edge of the bush: Anthropology as experience. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. London: Routledge.