Symbolic Anthropology


Symbolic Anthropology

As Victor Turner said, culture is a forest of symbols...

Members: 166
Latest Activity: Mar 3, 2017

Discussion Forum

The Legacy of Victor Turner 3 Replies

Started by John McCreery. Last reply by Justin Shaffner Aug 22, 2010.


Started by Nold Egenter. Last reply by Susan Burns Aug 11, 2010.

Embryonic Stem Cells and Turner's Rites of Passage 3 Replies

Started by Joseph Falcon-Freeman. Last reply by John McCreery Oct 7, 2009.

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Comment by Logan Sparks on January 8, 2014 at 2:46pm

for those who are interested, I have opened a FB group focused on Ritual Studies and I will be cross-posting between my OAC page and FB. it would be great to have more anthropologists in this group:

Comment by Adrian Andreescu on February 4, 2012 at 11:09am

You might find of some interest the recent article - "Rethinking Prayer and
Health Research: An Exploratory Inquiry on Prayer’s Psychological

International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2, pp. 23-47,

Comment by Libertad Mora on June 23, 2011 at 7:32pm

Hola! excelente grupo, trabajo en comunidades indígenas de México, me encantaría compartir experiencias y conocimientos, abrazos

Comment by Alice C. Linsley on August 22, 2010 at 3:59pm
John, early Christian baptism would be another example, I suppose. A long period of catechesis, the all night Easter vigil, the baptism and then the putting on of white robes.
Comment by Alice C. Linsley on May 24, 2010 at 8:33pm
Hello, John. I was interested to read what you wrote about Turner's work among the Ndembu. The idea that matrilineage and virilocal marriage poses contradiction seems to me to be a non-African viewpoint. I certainly see social tension but nothing irreconcilable. Africa is full of similarly complex kinship patterns which are often misrepresented by non-native analysts. I'm not saying that Turner has done this, since I haven't read his research fully. However, it does seem skewed to me, probably because of the tendency to read the data through Marx. I'm not sure that reading the data through the lens of Marx permits us to understand the kinship of African peoples.
Comment by John McCreery on June 30, 2009 at 10:57am
P.S. to last comment. I have the impression, could be wrong, that a good deal of confusion is caused by conflating liminality, the betwixt-and-between stage in the three step process from one status to another, with the static form of betwixt-and-betweenness to which Mary Douglas directs our attention in Purity and Danger. Douglas' argument assumes a set of categories and things that fall between the cracks because they do not fit cleanly into any one category. In cultures that care strongly about such misfits (and not all do; see Douglas' later book Natural Symbols) the out of place may be treated as either sacred or taboo (or, I hasten to add, both sacred and taboo).

It is not surprising those in the liminal stage of rites of passage are often seen in this light. The rituals themselves are evidence of strong interest in keeping statuses separate and regulating the move from one to another. Turner's move, however, is to go beyond this static categories approach to focus attention on the ritual process, the changes over time that occur as the ritual drama unfolds.
Comment by John McCreery on June 30, 2009 at 3:40am
In response to Nikos' question: My take on liminality is that, like most interesting concepts, it behaves like what Turner described as a dominant symbol; it condenses a variety of meanings. To attempt to answer what it means exactly is to develop a claim that if one of those meanings is isolated it fits certain data with a high degree of precision. In my last reply in "The Legacy of Victor Turner" thread, I suggested one possible answer. "Liminality" applies exactly (or, more precisely, with a fair degree of precision) to cases which exemplify the features that Turner discovered in Ndembu rituals.

1. The events in question are rites of passage, which involve transitions from one clearly marked status to another.

2. During the liminal period, when those undergoing the transition are betwixt-and-between, neither one thing nor the other, they undergo shared hardships that may lead to the solidarity that Turner labels communitas.

3. During this same period, the primary flow of information is from those who embody tradition to those on whom it is being imprinted.

Basic training for military service is one very clear example. The training and ordination of priests is another. The question is how to handle cases that resemble these sorts of transitions where, however, the model does not seem to fit as well. These are the cases for which Turner coined the term "liminoid." For Turner himself, the paradigm cases of the liminoid were pilgrimages and carnivals. Some pilgrimages, e.g., the Haj, seem very liminal. They are life-changing events. In the case of the Haj, the pilgrims leave their homes to travel to Mecca. En route (especially toward the end of the Haj) they change to distinctive costumes that mark their altered state. They undergo suffering and participate in emotionally charged events that celebrate Islamic tradition. Returning from the pilgrimage their status has changed. A Muslim who has made the Haj occupies a new status vis-a-vis those who have not yet made the pilgrimage.

Consider, by way of contrast, the pilgrims that Chaucer describes in The Canterbury Tales, they remain distinct characters and do not lose their everyday status as they travel together; their purposes are diverse. The mode is comic. There is, in a sense, a celebration of tradition, but the life-changing drama of tragedy and genuine rites of passage is missing. When the pilgrims return home, their beliefs may have been recharged. As personalities, they may have changed a bit, become more open or narrow-minded for example. They return, however, occupying the same statuses and playing the same roles as they did when they started out. So, not really liminal. At most liminoid.
Comment by NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS on June 29, 2009 at 6:59pm
Could John explain as simply as possible as a disciple of Victor Turner, what LIMINALITY exactly might mean under present conditions ?
Comment by John McCreery on June 22, 2009 at 8:43am
The tricky bit is, of course, how to take these ideas developed to explain how ritual supports a status quo and use them to explain how symbols are used in collective action aimed at change. The basic idea, conflicts overcome by polyvalent symbols that allow people with different interests to see themselves as part of the same cause, may still apply. But how does the process differ?
Comment by Denice Szafran on June 22, 2009 at 6:35am
It does, thank you very much!

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