Laryngitis=Typed Class Notes Introducing Victor Turner

I feel pretty good, but have no voice whatsoever.  So, since I have four and a half hours of class to teach today, I’ve spent the morning typing out my introduction to Victor Turner for my class on Ritual.  We’ve spent most of the first three weeks discussing Durkheim’s Elementary Forms and van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, but the students have not been given formal introductions to Marx or Weber in this class (though they’ve likely encountered them elsewhere).

The reason I’m really posting this here, though, is that I’d like to submit these notes to the collective wisdom of both of my readers.  Anything in here you’d care to quibble about?  Let me know!

RITUAL – Introducing Victor Turner
Erik W. Davis

In many ways, Turner sets the stage for contemporary interventions in the anthropological theory and study of ritual. He combines in his person and scholarship a lot of the concerns from conflicting and previously unassociated theoretical approaches: Marxism, Durkheim, and Van Gennep.

Durkheim and His Competitor Trains of Thought

Recall that Durkheim is considered one of the three major founders of Social thought (inclusive of both Anthropology and Sociology), along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Each of these founders has a distinctive approach to key problems: the nature of the social division of labor, the relationship of economic and social organization to ideology and religion, ‘modernity,’ and the role of institutions in social life.

Each of them were confronted by an apparently radically novel social situation – capitalism – which seemed to break definitively from all previous forms of traditional society. It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which all three of these thinkers, regardless of their differences, saw the contemporary modern period as a period of profound social flux and change. All of them also tied these changes to capitalism, the new division of labor in society into classes, and the role of religion. Summarizing any of these individual’s thought does violence to their subtlety. However, schematically, we can characterize them in the following ways:

Karl Marx, the first of the theorists, developed a conflict-based theory of society, in which the division of labor in capitalist society relied on conflict between these classes as the motor of future social progress. Just as the bourgeois (property-owning) class fought against the ruling feudal classes in the origin of the capitalist economy, so the new working class (waged workers, the ‘proletariat’) would inaugurate the new world era of communism through a struggle against the bourgeoisie. The role of religion in this world was primarily that of causing the subordinate classes to misperceive their objective class interests (ideology) in order to accept their oppression and support the bourgeois ruling classes. Institutions (factories, unions, the state, and political parties) were crucial because it is they that form the active agents of class conflict. With the exception of a positive emphasis on the state, and the acceptance of a progressive evolutionary model of human history, most of these critiques were shared by communists and anarchists alike (until 1917, there were vastly more anarchists in the world than communists).

Émile Durkheim, the middle of these three, developed a cooperative view of society, emphasizing unity of sub-groups and classes rather than conflict. For Durkheim, the progressive division of labor in society was the process through which social progress in a moral sense was also accomplished. However, this progressive differentiation gave rise to potentially competing sub-groups (moieties, phratries, clans, and classes). For Durkheim and the other members of the Année Sociologique, social progress appears likely, but not inevitable; it must be fought for and most importantly scientifically managed. While historically prior and more ‘primitive’ religions functioned efficiently to confirm and strengthen the naturally occurring mechanical solidarity, more complex and divided societies required an organic solidarity composed of complementary differences. The role of religion is not easy to summarize for Durkheim, since it is impossible to separate Durkheim’s conception of religion from either the notion of society itself (though Durkheim does not propose a mere identity between the two), nor from his notion of the basic organization of the human psyche. Nevertheless, it is not too violent a reading of Durkheim to suggest that he saw the role of religious thought (though not necessarily traditional examples of ‘religions’) as that which confirmed in the individual member of society their unity and coherence with other members, in a single social group. Durkheim’s notion of the institution was generally positive, but was not terribly nuanced by exemplary studies, since he and the Année were primarily interested in stateless peoples, and saw no qualitative break between stateless and state-based societies.

Max Weber was the last of these three giants, who developed a rather pessimistic view of social progress (change happens, according to laws, but the results are not necessarily better), by concentrating primarily on the role of religion and institutions in their role in shaping persons. Opposed to Marx’s emphasis on the constraining and mystifying aspects of religion (ideology), Weber emphasized the role of religious belief in shaping personal attitudes toward work, social organization, and social life. His most famous example is found in the short book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he argues that a necessary component of capitalism is the ethic of saving – that is to say, personal asceticism in which one does not merely attend to all one’s needs and wants with the resources currently at hand, but rather saves and denies oneself attainable goods and comfort. This ethic, according to Weber, is not a given in human nature or simply a result of the progressive division of labor in society, but instead a result of the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace (rather than works, as in the Catholic tradition) and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. The doctrine that only some (the ‘elect’) will be saved, and that these are saved on the basis not of works, by largely on the basis of random chance (‘grace’), combined to induce within bourgeois Calvinists (who represented a significant portion of the rising capitalist classes, according to Weber) an anxiety about their salvation, which they assuaged by acting in ways that attempted to demonstrate to themselves and their society that they were among the elect – by carefully measuring their own moral actions, recording their good and bad deeds in ‘sin ledgers,’ etc., which led to the invention of double-column book-keeping. Unlike both Marx and Durkheim, Weber saw not mere belief as the most important aspect of religion, but the institutions that composed and enacted belief, thereby cultivating social persons. His pessimistic view of the process of modernization led him to the conclusion that modern people were locked in an ‘iron cage’ of ascetic rationality and bureaucracy. While Marx and Durkheim are both clear influences on Turner, Weber appears not to be an influence.

More Proximate Influences

In addition to these three great thinkers, Victor Turner was the first recuperator of the thought of Arnold van Gennep and his teacher at the Manchester School of Anthropology, Max Gluckman.

Arnold van Gennep‘s emphasis on ritual mirrors the importance accorded the subject by Émile Durkheim. However, van Gennep was a vocal critic of Durkheim’s sociology, and their approaches share little in common beyond according ritual central importance and noting that ritual assists in the management of the foundational distinctions between the sacred and the profane. Van Gennep introduced the notion of a tripartite structure to all rituals: the pre-liminal phase (rites of separation), the liminal phase (rites of transition), and the post-liminal phase (rites of incorporation). All rituals, according to van Gennep, have varying ‘levels’ of these phases within them, though he sees separation rituals as relatively unemphasized, transitional phases as expansive and more emphasized, and post-liminal phases as often combined with the liminal. Van Gennep’s emphasis on observing and accounting for the entire context of the ritual (including the mundane preparations and cleanup) presage the important innovations made slightly later by Bronislaw Malinowski. Van Gennep also introduces the notion of ‘relative’ sacrality though his notion of the ‘pivoting sacred.’ Van Gennep’s work was largely ignored, especially among Anglophone scholars, until brought to the fore by Turner.

Max Gluckman was a anthropologist, founder of the Manchester School of Anthropology (people from Manchester are called “Mancunians”), and a major influence on Turner. A secular Jew born in modern-day South Africa, he quickly rose to prominence as a keen observer of modernity, colonialism, and brought anthropological studies out of the ahistorical mode in which they had previously existed (studying all ‘primitive peoples’ as if they remained in a ‘pristine, uncontacted’ state). Instead, he often, primarily, focused on interactions between stateless African societies and their colonial European rulers. A committed Marxist, anti-colonialist, and anti-capitalist, his ethnographic case studies brought a keen observational focus and a emphasis on economic and class conflict to anthropology.

Victor Turner Biography

Turner was born to Scottish Catholic parents in Glasgow in 1920; his father was an electrical engineer and his mother was an actress; there is little indication that religion played a significant role in his early upbringing. At any rate, by his young adulthood he was clearly a secular atheist, a pacifist, and an anarchist. In 1941, during the great British rally against the Fascist threat, Turner – believing as did many in his position that wars between states, no matter how lofty the supposed justification, were merely cover for the continued and intensified oppression of the poor and the subjugated – registered as a pacifist and a conscientious objector. This must have been a profoundly unpopular and difficult decision given the climate.

Along with other conscientious objectors, Turner was assigned to some of the most dangerous and despised work within Britain’s wartime effort – bomb sapping. A bomb sapper is a person whose job is to locate unexploded ordnance (UXO) and defuse them. Death and dismemberment was more likely for these workers than for the average soldier in combat, though their numbers were far fewer. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that it was during this period of Turner’s life that he began to develop his positive notion of communitas and its link to liminality – it is not unreasonable to suppose that he and his fellow sappers gained a sense of close-knit community and solidarity after four years of defusing explosives together during the different Blitz bombing campaigns. Their shared status as largely despised outsiders likely fed into this as well, as did the fact that Turner was married with two children at this point, as was living with his family in a ‘gypsy caravan camp.’

It was during this period that he became interested in anthropology, and after receiving a B.A. in the discipline, became a graduate student of Max Gluckman’s in Manchester. Turner took a position at a research institute founded by Gluckman in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among the Ndembu people. His doctoral dissertation, and the early publications based on this fieldwork (including especially Schism and continuity among the Ndembu) remain some of the most sensitively observed and considered ethnographies in the English language, despite the theoretical changes which do not always continue to support aspects of his approach.

Turner’s fascination with ritual (Durkheim and van Gennep), his anti-capitalist political stance (Marx via Gluckman and others), and his clear emphasis on the sense of unity and solidarity created in social groups through ritual (Durkheim and van Gennep) fused in Turner’s work along with an interest in the psychology of anthropology, which he treated by invoking Edward Sapir’s notion of root metaphors. Attributing causality to the metaphors, which structure the social psyche, Turner’s work in many ways represents the beginning of the anthropological subfield of symbolic anthropology.

Turner incorporates other elements of van Gennep’s thought in his notion of the partial and ‘structural’ nature of emic knowledge. Whereas Durkheim did not afford a notion of different social interpretations of a single ritual on the basis of social position or location, van Gennep’s concept of the pivoting of the sacred and its positionality (I may be profane to myself, but sacred to you, and vice-versa, e.g.) finds its way into Turner’s knowledge and his distinction between emic and etic knowledge (which is also a justification of the latter). Individual participants have only partial knowledge of a ritual, determined by their social position and location. By combining multiple positional exegetical interpretations of ritual (insider accounts), Turner argues that the external analysis (etic perspective) can supplement and even surpass the internal knowledge.

Turner’s marxist genealogy is found largely in his very un-Durkheimian focus on conflict. As early as his work Schism and continuity in Ndembu society, Turner was introducing a radical focus on conflict and the role of ritual in managing conflict to preserve unity. The focus on conflict is largely Marxian, while the focus on ritual’s role in managing it descends both from Marx, in that ritual which constrains just conflict on the part of the oppressed can be seen as a ideological tool of the ruling class, and Durkheim, in that the redressive effect of ritual preserves social unity. In Turner’s work, this achieves its clearest theoretical exemplification in his theory of ritual as social drama, responding to a conflict or crisis which it then resolves.

In later years, after teaching the United States at Stanford, Cornell, and ending at the University of Chicago, Turner converted to Catholicism, a personal decision accompanied by vituperative criticism from many of his long-time colleagues and comrades, who felt – occasionally with some justification, sometimes without – that his personal conversion meant he had lost his credentials as an analyst and critic of religion, rather than as merely a ‘purveyor’ and ‘describer’ of it.

Today (2010), Turner’s work is treated in an oscillation between moments of severe criticism and recuperation. Turner’s work remains of interest outside of anthropology primarily because of his ideas of liminality, which have been adopted by performance studies, gender studies, and continues to play a role in ritual studies, though heavily critiqued and qualified.


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