June 06, 2004

The Ritual Process

Snapshots In My Time, Of My Time.....Hauntings.

The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure by Victor Turner was one of the most influencial books of my college career. It was our anthropological bible. I recall referring to this book all 4 years of college. The common themes that ran thru many cultures we studied and that we could relate to the book was the rite of passage and the liminal phase of the rites of passage. During the liminal phase the people in that state are ambiguous and are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial. Once the rite of passage was complete, they would achieve a new status in their society.

I loved the book and it was one I could never get rid of. I can relate many things in our culture today to things in the book. It is a good book for anyone to read to gain a little knowledge into relationships and culture. Below is a little bit about the Victor Turner.

Victor Turner: The Man

Victor Turner was born in Glasgow on May 28, 1920. His mother was an actress and his father was an electronical engineer. Influenced by his mother, at eighteen he studied poetry and classics at the University College, London. His studies, however, were disturbed by World War II. During that five year peiod he lived near the army base in a gypsy caravan with his wife and two children. It was at this time that Victor became interested in anthropology. He then returned to college to study under some of the greatest anthropologists at that time.

At age 29, Turner earned a Bachelors Degree with Honours in Anthropology and left London. He then decided to study anthropology under Max Gluckman at the University of Manchester. Also at this time (1950-1954), Turner worked among the Nbemu, a central African tribe, studying their society and religious practices. Later, he refocused his interest to ritual; he spends the rest of his career on this. In June 1955 he completed his Ph.D. and lectured at Manchester for several years. He wrote and published two monographs at this time along with his dissertation, Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A study of Ndembu Village Life (1957). These works presented him as a dominate figure in the Manchester School of Anthropology.

In 1961, Turner began a career in California as he became Fellow of the Center for Advanced Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. There, he wrote The Drums of Affliction: A study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu (1968). He completed three books in 1964 while at Cornell University and conducted studies among the Gisu of Uganda. Turner became a professor of Anthropology and Social Thought at the University of Chicago in 1968.

At this time, his interests shifted to world religions and mass societies. He also began a study of modern Christian pilgrimage while at Chicago. Finally, at the University of Virginia he was a member in the Center for Advanced Studies and the South Asia Program. While at Virginia, his interest in performative play and theatre grew. Turner became interested in experimental theatre as a modern form of liminality where everyday reality is transformed into a symbolic experience. Turner adapted Max Gluckman's ideas on processional change to the study of ritual and centered his career around the ideas he developed from his studies. Victor Turner died in 1983.


  1. The 'rituals' are societal scripts for handling an exceptional condition. When a dreadful new exceptional condition arises, a new ritual script must be devised to address it. The process by which a tribe arrives at a new social ritual is what Turner called Liminal Social Drama.

    The modern term would be 'protocol' or 'procedure' (rather than 'ritual'), but the function is the same. It's an 'exception handler' in the jargon of computer operating systems.

    The first step in crafting an exception handler is to define the dreadful exception so that it can be recognized whenever it occurs, arises, or rears its beastly head.

    In human culture, artists, bards, and comedians are among the first to develop a portrayal of an exception. Often the exception is captured in the character of a monster. Classic monsters like Leviathan, Chimeras, Apocalyptic Horsemen, Fire-Breathing Dragons, Grendel, King Kong, Opera Phantom, Godzilla, the Red Queen, Captain Hook, the Joker, the Borg, the Grinch, the Nothing, Edward Scissorhands, and Voldemort are Jungian representations of our worst fears. To tell a story, it helps to embody our fears in a monstrous evil character.

    Victor Turner undertook his pioneering research half a century ago.

    For most of the 20th Century, only a few exalted bards mustered the skill to write stories and screenplays that captured the Liminal Social Dramas of our times.

    In the 21st Century you will see a resurgence in the art of storycraft, wherein everyday people will reclaim for themselves that godlike role in our ever-evolving culture.