Victor Turner: The Ritual Process

[General] (02.12.09, 11:17 pm)

Victor Turner is a notable figure in anthropology alongside Clifford Geertz and Erving Goffman. Turner’s focus is on ritual, and the role that ritual plays in life and culture. I also examined Turner in On Narrative, where he compared the ritual process of the Ndembu in Zambia to the Watergate crisis in America. Turner had an interesting role within American academia. He helped connect education to the social and political movements in the 1960s. His exploration of the rituals of other cultures manifested in a subversive way of looking at American culture. This is specifically applicable in this book, where, toward the end, he develops the ideas of structure and anti-structure, comparing the hippy movement to a spontaneous community which is analogous to liminal communities in other cultures.

Turner is very strongly influenced by Arnold von Gennep, who sees ritual as being composed of three parts: “separation from the everyday flow of activities, involving a passage through a threshold state or limen into a ritual world removed from everyday notions of time and space; a mimetic enactment of some dimension of the crisis that brought about the separation, in the course of which enactment the structures of everyday life are both elaborated and challenged (he called the co-occurrence of these motives “structure” and “anti-structure”); and a reentry into the everyday world.” (p. ix)

The idea of ritual as taking place in a special sort of zone, where activity takes on new meanings outside the realm of everyday life, reverberates with the idea of performance as described by Schechner, and with play, as described by Huizinga. All of these approaches are anthropological, and all of them seem to be describing the same sort of material.

Planes of Classification

Some useful background on Turner’s work: Turner visited the Ndembu of Zambia, at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute. At the time, very little academic attention was paid to studying ritual. The approaches that do acknowledge ritual treat it as something that exists in service to an existing social structure. Turner borrows from Godfrey and Monica Wilson, considering that there is a more significant role that ritual plays in life. “In the social sciences generally, it is, I think, becoming widely recognized that religious beliefs and practices are something more than “grotesque” reflections or expressions of economic, political, and social relationships; rather are they coming to be seen as decisive keys to the understanding of how people think and feel about those relationships, and about the natural and social environments in which they operate.” (p. 6) This suggests that the material of ritual actually is the fabric of meaning out of which social life is composed.

In examining the Isoma ritual, Turner elaborates the terms and symbolic dimensions that are used within it. Objects take on special meanings in the context of the ritual, they transcendentally represent other ideas and objects. Often, these terms are borrowed and mixed from other conceptual domains, and their meaning is analogical. For example, the terms to describe some ritual objects are called “blazes” and “beacons”, which are terms co-opted from hunting. In context of the ritual, some taboos may come into place that would not be present ordinarily, and things may take on values and importances that are extremely significant within the context of the ritual, but are less so significant outside. In the space of the ritual, these meanings are very real.

Ritual symbols take on meaning, not just in terms of clear overt classification, but along many planes. Symbolic objects change meaning under shifting contexts. An example of this is that the Isoma ritual makes use of several dyads manifested between a red cock and a white pullet, which represent death and witchcraft versus life and fertility, or masculine versus feminine, or medicine versus a patient being medicated. The same objects are multivocal and have many simultaneous significations. Turner proposes a model of looking at this as a network. Even while they are highly representative, the ritual objects are strongly tied to everyday and embodied life.

Paradoxes of Twinship in Ndembu Ritual

Twins are paradoxical in Ndembu society. While bearing children is generally a good thing, twins are difficult to support, and thus are a mixed blessing. The values and ideals of a society need not be consistent with the life of the society. A ritual is necessary to incorporate the exceptional condition back into regularity.

Liminality and Communitas

The concept of a rite of passage is used as a means for examining the entire ritual process. The periods in which normal rules apply are considered to be “structure”. This is a term also used by Levi-Strauss, but Turner’s use is different, using it to describe the normal cultural status quo. Periods of structure are separated by liminal states, where meaning is ambiguous, and are characterized by overlapping meanings and lack of order. In a rite of passage, children go from one state within culture (children, under control of their mothers), to a new state of adulthood. In between these states, they are neither children nor adults, they are nothing at all, and have no clear role or position within their culture until they emerge out the other side.

Rituals and rites of passage lead to the development and realization of interpersonal bonds. Turner argues that it is this bonding that is the root of society and social values, meanings, and functions. This is a contrasting approach to other scholars who normally view ritual as in service to society. The passage through a liminal state tempers the pride of the individual in the new role, because this interpersonal dependency is realized. Liminality is a structured means for individuals to be without a social order, and thus realize and support their dependence on it when they emerge.

In rites of passage, liminal entities have no sure footing in community, and are socially without power, and are generally subjected to all kinds of taunts and torments. Liminal entities are “betwixt and between” stable cultural states. Others may embrace liminality by rejecting a culture’s values, voluntarily giving up social structure in favor of a raw structure-less communitas. Turner introduces this idea as the state of hippies in Western society, and then compares occurrences of communitas in other tribal communities. Communitas is characterized by spontaneity, rather than goals and decisions.

Communitas exists between periods of structure, and is revealed in liminality. It is beneath structure, and in that sense is marginal and inferior to it. At the same time, because it exists where structure does not, it has a trancendental and “holy” quality. Outside of structural states, communitas produces deep and powerful experiences.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurner, Victor
TitleThe Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure
Tagsspecials, media theory, sociology, anthropology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.