Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process is divided into two sections. The first half deals with the structure and the role of symbolism in Ndembu rituals, and the second, forming the main theoretical argument of the book, meditates on the relationship between the concepts of liminality and communitas that arise from his analysis of rituals, and their codependence with the concept of structure. Briefly stated, communitas and structure are two opposed yet mutually necessary modes of social life: the concept of structure is defined as “society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of ‘more’ or ‘less.’” (96) Communitas, on the other hand, is defined as “society as an unstructured or rudimentary structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.” (96) For Turner, societies must maintain a balance between communitas and structure in order to survive, generally taking the form of a cycle where structure is temporarily suspended during rituals that reignite a sense of communitas in various ways depending on the type of ritual. I’ll fill in these definitions soon, but this is the general direction his philosophical musings take.
Victor Turner’s understanding of ritual relies heavily on the theoretical framework developed by Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 book The Rites of Passage, so it’s helpful to lay this out up front. Van Gennep articulates a tripartite analytic framework describing the structure and progression of rituals:
1) Separation from everyday activities, social relations, and/or cultural conditions, undertaken as a response to some crisis, either in an individual’s life or in the life of a society, where the individual or group undergoing the ritual suspends their involvement in everyday social life.
2) Liminality, the result of the exit from normal social life and the entrance into a threshold phase where everyday notions of identity, time, and space are suspended. During the liminal phase, ritual participants engage in mimetic activity reenacting the crisis motivating the ritual. In so doing, the structures of everyday social life are both given a mythical explanation and justification and also challenged, or to use van Gennep’s terms, in the liminal phase “structure” and “anti-structure” are simultaneously enacted.
3) Reintegration or reincorporation of the individual or group back into normal social life, but more deeply than before. Having confronted both the justification for and the problems arising from social structures and practices, ritual practitioners reenter society with a clearer understanding of the norms and obligations incumbent upon them, and of their role in society.
Crises are brought about by “every change of place, state, social position and age,” (van Gennep, quoted in Turner, 94) undergone either by an individual (eg. coming-of-age, marriage, assumption of a social or political station, death, etc.), a group within society (eg. a birth or death within the family), or the society as a whole (eg. war, the harvest, changes in leadership, etc.). For van Gennep, all rituals share this general structure, which effectively integrates individual life processes and social events into a unified framework that fosters social stability and cultural vitality.
Chapters 1 and 2: “Planes of Classification in a Ritual of Life and Death,” and “Paradoxes of Twinship in Ndembu Ritual”
These first two chapters are mostly dedicated to in-depth analyses of particular Ndembu rituals, so I decided to ignore the argumentative and descriptive structure of these chapters and focus on his main theoretical points. If you want more detail on Ndembu rituals, ask me:
The Importance of Studying Religious Rituals in Social Science – Turner criticizes just about every social scientist he can think of for either ignoring religious ritual entirely in their analysis or engaging in inadequate analysis of it. Social scientists studying Central Africa have altogether ignored the central importance of rituals in understanding tribal societies, while other anthropologists, even those who dedicated their lives to studying religion (some of the highlights of this list include Lévi-Strauss, Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Freud, and Weber) and recognize its importance in social life, explain (and ultimately explain away) religious rituals by regarding them as “the product of psychological or sociological causes of the most diverse and even conflicting types, denying to them any preterhuman origin.” (4) Turner argues that this mode of explanation is implicitly theological, interpreting “primitive” religions as reflections of socioeconomic or psychological factors. Turner, on the other hand, recognizes that “religious beliefs and practices are something more than ‘grotesque’ reflection 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.” (6) A society’s religion is its repository of values and ways of interpreting not only their individual and social lives, but also their universal relationship with nature.
The Practice of Ethnography – Turner also criticizes ethnographers who engage in field work solely to conduct quantitative studies on social practices. Turner begins studying the Ndembu tribe in this way, but consistently feels that “I was always on the outside looking in, even when I became comfortable in my use of the vernacular. […] Eventually, I was forced to recognize that if I wanted to know what even a segment of Ndembu culture was really about, I would have to overcome my prejudice against ritual and start to investigate it.” (7) In order to understand how Ndembu culture functions and what its meaning is, Turner realizes that he has to discover what a ritual’s “movements and words mean to them,” and so engages in a series of interviews with the local Chief Ikelenge, and both ritual specialists and ordinary practitioners to discover their interpretations of each aspect of a ritual. Turner looks for patterns and consistencies between different accounts, and eventually is able to articulate the “standardized hermeneutics of Ndembu culture,” the ways the Ndembu people understand their ritual and the meaning they attribute to it (9).
Rituals as Responses to Social Crises – A ritual is required either when a social norm is violated or when different social norms come into conflict with each other. For instance, female infertility is explained in Ndembu culture by the contradiction between two obligations incumbent upon married women: to stay with and please her husband, and to honor her maternal village, as the Ndembu practice matrilineal descent. Infertility is understood as the wife’s obeying her husband to too great an extent and moving away from her maternal village, thereby angering the spirits of her maternal forebears who consider their daughter to have abandoned them, and who thus curse her with the physical malady of infertility. The Isoma ritual resolves this crisis between social obligations placed upon the wife by enacting a healing ceremony where the woman (a) proceeds away from an ikela (hole in the ground) representing death and witchcraft and towards an ikela representing health, restoring her fertility. The woman in this procession (b) walks from one ikela to the other through a ditch in the ground, representing the power of death and her ancestors’ shades, and ends with her rising out of the burrow, representing her liberation from the power of her forebears. Around the burrow on the left are female adepts (past Isoma veterans) and on the right male adepts (men whose wives are Isoma veterans), and the woman in her procession (c) walks between these groups, representing her balancing of the contradictory obligations placed upon her by her male husband and her female ancestors.
Symbols – The hermeneutics of rituals are expressed in symbols. Turner defines symbols expansively as the “basic building-blocks, the ‘molecules,’ of ritual,” (14) since in Ndembu ritual “almost every article used, every gesture employed, every song or prayer, every unit of space and time, by convention stands for something other than itself,” and the Ndembu practitioners are well aware of this (15) A symbol for Turner has three separate but closely related properties:
1) Condensation – one concept represents many things at the same time. For instance, in the Ndembu Isoma ritual, the binary of red rooster/white hen represents oppositions such as death/life, blood/water, hot/cold, while a white rooster/red hen represents female/male, novices/adepts, ghosts/living, among others. These associations need not be logically related, and can even be contradictory.
2) Unification of disparate referents – built on the property of condensation, symbols are able to represent concepts drawn from different “domains of social experience and ethical classification.” (52) So again, the opposition white rooster/red hen can simultaneously represent concepts drawn from sexual, political, familial, and individual growth experiences.
3) Polarization of meaning – A symbol’s different referents unite concepts drawn from (a) physiological and (b) social and moral experience. For instance, the mudyi tree represents breast milk and matriliny, while the mukula tree represents blood from circumcision and masculine maturity. Symbols thus “unite the organic with the sociomoral order, proclaiming their ultimate religious unity, over and above conflicts between and within these orders.” (52)
If the organization of symbols in terms of binary oppositions sounds a bit Lévi-Straussian, it should. A single symbol (ie. red hen) represents a host of concepts from different spheres of experience and forms of classification, organizing the totality of social experience into a unified (if sometimes paradoxical) schema, lending it coherence and intelligibility. Symbols are organized in terms of binary pairs that also organize thought.
There are, though, a few key differences between Turner and Lévi-Strauss. First, Turner argues that symbols and binary oppositions only appear “as the confrontation of sensorily perceptible objects,” rather than that of axioms or concepts that underlie the meaning of objects (42). In other words, while for Lévi-Strauss binary oppositions are oppositions between concepts that transcend any given application in a ritual or myth but act as their organizing principles almost as a set of unwritten rules unconsciously circumscribing a culture’s thought-patterns, for Turner oppositions between concepts are revealed within ritual contexts by the ways different objects are interpreted and understood when placed in relation to each other. Symbols are physical objects or actions that represent different aspects of daily life and give them coherence as elements of a unified framework within the context of a myth. Second, Lévi-Strauss argues that symbols are solely cognitive classifications for experiences, whereas Turner believes that symbols have an emotional or evocative aspect as well. The emotions encountered in people’s life-experiences are evoked by and channeled into ritual symbols, such that not only can people experience joy in a ritual, but also so that negative emotions such as hate, fear, and grief, can be given a safe outlet that doesn’t threaten actual social unrest. Therefore, “the whole person, not just the Ndembu ‘mind,’ is existentially involved in the life or death issues” symbols represent (43).
Ritual Space – Once practitioners enter the liminal phase of ritual, ordinary conceptions of space are abandoned. Ritual space is organized by binary oppositions articulated along three axes: longitudinal (backwards/forwards), latitudinal (right/left), and altitudinal (up/down). As seen above in the Isoma ritual, each spatial axis represents a different element of the actions required to resolve the wife’s crisis, and symbols have different meanings when placed along each different axis. For instance, the white hen/red rooster in the latitudinal axis represents women/men, in the altitudinal axis it represents ancestral spirits/living people. Symbols gain their multivocality through representing aspects of each spatial axis, and space is organized in rituals in terms of the symbols lying along each axis.
Chapter 3: “Liminality and Communitas”
As individuals enter into rituals, they become “liminal entities,” and thus gain special attributes while losing their normal identities. First, liminal entities lose their identity as defined by social structure: they have “no status, property, insignia, secular clothing indicating rank or role, position in a kinship system – in short, nothing that may distinguish them from their fellow neophytes or initiands.” (95) Liminal entities have no social identity, but are rather united as equals within the ritual context as uniquely lowly beings who are utterly obedient to their ritual instructors or masters. This is especially noticeable in situations where liminal entities are undergoing a transition towards a higher social status. In Ndembu chieftain rituals, for instance, the future chieftain is, the night before his accession to his new office, portrayed as a slave and is submitted to the abuse and arbitrary power of the entire community, forced to undergo violent and humiliating abuse. This treatment, far from being a gratuitous display of hatred by the weak, in fact has a formative function. The future chieftain in his liminal state learns the true meaning of arbitrary authority and abuse of power, and in suffering this violence displays the self-mastery and control over vicious characteristics such as greed, pride, and anger, required to perform his duties as a good ruler. Thus, following van Gennep’s formula, the liminal entity is reintegrated into social life with a deeper understanding of his obligations as chieftain.
Second, united as abased equals, liminal beings also gain a peculiar status recognized as both sacred and dangerous. As they leave social structure, liminal beings encounter each other for the first time as social equals, stripped of the social identities which previously divided them, “giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society.” (97) This bond between equals without status, what Turner terms communitas, is often associated with a sacred status attained by individuals who “(1) fall in the interstices of social structure, (2) are on its margins, or (3) occupy its lower rungs.” (125) Communitas is constructed by individuals who are marginal or weak figures in society, and whose special social bond hence falls outside of normal social relations. This gives rise to a society’s recognition of communitas and the liminal beings out of whom communitas is constructed as simultaneously sacred and dangerous. Liminal beings possess what Turner calls “the mystical powers of the weak,” or magical powers and sacred potency attributed to those who lack social influence and political power (109). Turner notes a number of instances across cultures where marginal or weak figures such as strangers, foolish people, women, millenarians, and even hippies, while socially separated and even at times ostracized, possess peculiar spiritual capacities and powers. At the same time, however, as these groups fall outside of social characterizations and structures, the rest of society looks upon them with suspicion and fear, such that liminal states are surrounded with “prescriptions, prohibitions, and conditions.” (109) Referencing Mary Douglas, Turner argues that liminal entities and the communitas that arises around them challenge social boundaries and classifications, thus being labeled “polluting” or “dangerous” and become surrounded by restrictions and taboos strictly regulating where and when communitas can occur.
Chapter 4: “Communitas: Model and Process”
Here Turner describes in full the opposition between structure and communitas. Structure and communitas are two models of social organization, normatively describing opposed forms of social identity and practice of social interaction. Structure as a model describes society as a “system of social positions,” based on socioeconomic or political status (131). Individual identity within structure is based on an individual’s status, role, or occupation within society, along with their standing relative to other individuals within society. In essence, structure describes society as it normally exists in light of socioeconomic and political realities, with divided segments or hierarchies that separate individuals from one another and give them regulated and mutually recognized identities. Structure’s model of regulated identity is complemented by regulated forms of relationships that exist between individuals. Certain acceptable forms of interaction are prescribed for relationships between peers and between superiors and inferiors that delimit and regulate social interaction and exchange.
Communitas, on the other hand, describes relationships “between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals.” (131) In communitas, individuals lack social identities and therefore confront each other as concrete, unique, and equal individuals. Without a regulated form of social identity, communitas also lacks a regulated form of human interaction. Turner makes use of the spontaneous form of interaction and community Martin Buber describes in his book I and Thou. Whereas structure is governed by norms and institutions, in communitas individuals are engaged in a “direct, immediate, and total confrontation of human identities.” (132) However, communitas is also fragile. As a spontaneous and immediate form of social organization, communitas eventually succumbs to the pragmatic requirements of social life, thereby becoming structure once again. Turner therefore differentiates three types of communitas:
1) Existential or Spontaneous Communitas – this is the communitas that arises among concrete individuals when social structure is abandoned, generally within liminal situations such as rituals.
2) Normative Communitas – communitas that has evolved into a type of social system due to “the influence of time, the need to mobilize and organize resources, and the necessity for social control among the members of the group in pursuance of these goals,” (132) but still retains the influence and purpose of achieving existential communitas. This often occurs when sectarian schisms separate originally unified movements, prompting individuals to exert top-down control over the different sub-movements, creating social structures. Two examples Turner gives of this history are the Franciscan Order and Caitanya’s Vaisnava bhakti movement.
3) Ideological Communitas – utopian models for societies that permit permanent communitas. Utopias are visions of social structures that embody the “optimal social conditions under which such experiences [of communitas] might be expected to flourish and multiply.” (132) These utopian communities are very rarely implemented (one example he gives is that of groups organized around an apocalyptic revelation), and when they are they invariably fail due to the base necessities of replicating biological and social life within a community (as a professor once said to me, “all utopias fail when deciding who has to take out the trash and who has to clean the bathroom”).
The ideal type of communitas is existential communitas, the state where liminal beings confront each other without such dividing factors as social position, private property, rank, age, often times sex or race, instead embodying universal principles of justice, solidarity, and equality before a deity. Individuals therefore exist in a state of perfect equality, giving rise to community based on Buber’s “essential We,” or “a community of several independent persons, who have a self and self-responsibility.” (Buber, quoted in Turner, 137) There is an existential aspect to Buber’s We: as social structures are abandoned, the interests and divided consciousness of individuals under structure also departs, allowing for individuals to experience the independent being of each other. Individuals no longer recognize each other in terms of themselves and their own identities (eg. I am your boss; you are thus my underling, etc.), but rather allow others’ uniqueness to present itself independently. For Turner, this We relationship between equal individuals who appreciate and respect each other’s uniqueness is the quintessential social experience arising out of liminal states.
The necessities of practical existence, however, inevitably assert themselves, forcing even individuals within conditions of communitas to recreate a form of structure. From the perspective of existential communitas, this necessity appears as a degeneration, a sliding of ideal spontaneous community back into regulated and structured social life, but Turner suggests that communitas also exercises a restorative or regenerative function upon the individuals within these shifting forms of community. In communitas individuals experience ecstasy, standing “outside of the totality of structural positions one normally occupies in a social system.” (138) Turner argues that communitas and structure are best conceived as opposed but alternating phases in a functioning society’s life. During periods where communitas predominates, individuals liberate themselves from the difficulties of living within social structures, thus experiencing power and joy with a magical quality, giving rise to symbolic thought, art, and religion. In other words, the generalized social bond existing between individuals during periods of communitas provides vitality to a culture and restores the sense of unity that makes possible social life. Both structure and communitas require each other to exist: without communitas, structure’s regulated patterns of social interaction and inequality eventually deteriorate and give rise to tensions between groups, and without structure communitas cannot reproduce life. Turner therefore concludes that “spontaneous communitas is nature in dialogue with structure,” or that the two models of social existence are required in order to maintain social life (140).
Chapter 5: “Humility and Hierarchy: The Liminality of Status Elevation and Reversal”
To return to some of the themes elucidated in Chapters 1 and 2, Turner argues that the communitas created within rituals is a way of revitalizing social structures in light of a crisis they experience. For instance, in the Ndembu Isoma ritual, communitas is created in the process of healing the wife’s infertility, allowing her to reestablish normal social relations with both her husband and her matrilineal village and ancestors. Contradictions within structure are thereby resolved through the ritual enactment of the tension. Ritual, however, can also serve as a platform to critique social structure, as well as providing an outlet for the resentments that build up as a result of inequalities. In no case is social structure actually threatened, but liminality can suspend social structure in certain ways that ameliorate the negative aspects of structure. Turner therefore differentiates two types of liminality and the rituals in which they are found:
1) Liminality that characterizes rituals of status elevation – a ritual subject becomes a liminal entity when irreversibly raising their position within social structure.
2) Liminality that characterizes rituals of status reversal – collective calendrical rituals that generally correspond to some point in the seasonal cycle are characterized by a reversal of social relations, where those who normally hold low status within social structure become for a time authorities over those who are normally superior, who in turn have to accept ritual degradation.
An instance of a ritual of status elevation we have already seen is the Ndembu chieftain ritual, where the man who is about to become chieftain must submit to communal abuse. Individuals who are undergoing critical points of transition in their biographies, including birth, puberty, marriage, death, entry into certain organizations, and political status elevation, are subjected to ritual abasement. For individuals to raise their status, Turner argues that in ritual they must become “some kind of human prima materia, divested of specific form and reduced to a condition that, although it is still social, is without or beneath all accepted forms of status. The implication is that for an individual to go higher on the status ladder, he must go lower than the status ladder.” (170) As we saw earlier, the point is that individuals, when raising social position, gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of that position by confronting the possible abuses of that condition (eg. the Chieftain experiencing the abuse of power), thereby gaining a deeper understanding of that transition’s ethical significance.
Calendrical rites are often associated with points on the harvest cycle, when the society undergoes a crisis regarding whether it will be able to reproduce biological life and thus social structure as well. At the time when social structure is reproduced, the inequalities and tensions latent within that structure are most keenly felt, so a kind of ritual release is used to allow for social life to continue. Turner uses an argument of Anna Freud’s to demonstrate how rituals of status reversal have this releasing function. The weak mimic those who cause them fear as a defense mechanism against the object of their fear, such that they are “unconsciously identifying themselves with the very powers that deeply threaten them, and, by a species of jujitsu, enhancing their own powers by the very power that threatens to enfeeble them.” (174) Children, for instance, mimic their parents, particularly the punitive aspects of their personality, as a way of domesticating the fear their authoritarian parents inspire.
In rituals of status reversal, then, social underlings mimic their superiors as a way of domesticating the resentment they feel over their conditions of inequality, using a panoply of symbolic devices such as masks and animal representations of their superiors to mock them and/or deny their humanity, thereby debasing them. At the same time, the inferiors also engage in illicit behavior, temporarily mimicking their superiors in an exaggerated fashion to symbolically balance the normal hierarchies that divide societies. In so doing, inferiors gain the “mystical powers of the weak” described above to temporarily balance social hierarchies, while releasing their resentments. The essential aspects of social inequalities, however, are not challenged. Social rank is reversed, not eliminated, such that the idea of hierarchy is retained even within ritual, while the caricatured representation of the strong and the ritual enactment of illicit behavior reaffirms “the reasonableness of everyday culturally predictable behavior between the various estates in society,” thereby recreating the roles and social relations involved in structure (176).
In rituals of status reversal, a type of communitas is created not only between different groups of inferiors, but throughout the society. By mocking the superiors, the inferiors bring the strong down to their level at the bottom of the social ladder, causing the superiors to “merge with the masses, or even to be symbolically at least regarded as the servants of the masses. […] For here too there is not only reversal but leveling, since the incumbent of each status with an excess of rights is bullied by one with a deficiency of rights. What is left is a kind of social average, or something like the neutral position in a gear box, from which it is possible to proceed in different direction and at different speeds in a new bout of movement.” (202) Rituals of status reversal essentially wipe the social slate clean, allowing for normal social hierarchies to continue without the tensions that build up as a result of them.
(Note: A lot of the last two chapters are filled with different examples Turner gives of rituals embodying the types of liminality and communitas he has been describing. For space purposes, I haven’t included these, but if you want some, ask me.)