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Testing Victor Turner’s Ritual Process in Contemporary Ritual Behaviors R.

Christopher Feldman

If a theory is to be of use beyond the limits of the data upon which it is based, it needs to be usable as a template for testing other data. Victor Turner’s seminal work The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Turner 1969) has garnered much attention, including both acclaim and criticism, since its publication. In examining his theory, I wanted to employ a ‘proof of concept’ approach in order to: (a) test whether his theory was useful as a template for describing ritual, (b) test whether the criticisms leveled against it were supported in my test data, and (c) determine whether there were any ritual characteristics that my data indicated might be missing from Turner’s description. To perform my testing, I first needed to extract a set of verifiable empirical criteria from Turner’s work which could then be tested for accuracy in each of my test cases. The test subjects consisted of six different types of rituals drawn from disparate areas of contemporary society. For reasons of brevity—this is an extremely unscientific study, after all—I chose not to work with historical or ethnographic data. Instead, I drew upon rituals for which descriptions were either already known to me personally, or readily accessible. Turner’s book covers quite a bit of ground in its ethnographic support for his hypotheses, and my reductionist synopsis of his theory on ritual will necessarily leave out areas which may be of greater importance in the field of comparative religions at large. Nevertheless, I summarized his view of ritual as follows: In ritual, individuals are taken outside normal space and time to a liminal state. There they undergo an embodied experience built up of multivalent symbol sets, in order that the ritual leaders may impart a particular worldview (or, more likely, a portion of such a worldview) and life lessons: how to behave, what principles to hold in life, etc. The ritual serves to either (a) elevate the candidates’ status, or (b) celebrate temporal cycles. The result, and the reason, of the ritual is to build

communitas i.e., to make the candidates members of a particular cohesive social group which continues to hold meaning for them after their return to everyday space and time. The ritual may be for the cohesion of society at large (“structure”), or for a sub- or counter-culture within the society

and noting the criticisms leveled against it.. and/or magical explanations for the rituals.g.. supernatural. Prueitt 2000) A fourth is more general and alleges that the entire concept of “ritual” as a collective noun needs to be re-examined in light of post-modern and post-colonial theories. Public Religious Ritual: The Gnostic Mass of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica.g. and is “fundamentally a form of sublimation. The embodied experience within the ritual involves a variety of components. an occult co-fraternity founded in the nineteenth century from which descendant groups still exist. which may be summarized as follows: 1. A hierarchical structure peculiar to the particular communitas. supernatural. The first is taxonomic. Frankenberry 2000. (See Zalewski & Zalewski 1992) 2. Bell 1992. and needs to be reconceptualized along feminist guidelines.. or magical abilities or status. Public Civic Ritual: A university graduation ceremony. the hierarchy of the communitas is normally retained. (e. Concepts of equality between candidates. Anderson 1970.1 Religious. and Imbuing the candidates with religious. which may or may not include: • • • • • • Inversion of normal social structure.g. Note that Alexander’s purpose in describing this criticism is in order to refute it. Criticisms of Turner’s work seem to fall broadly within a few areas. or conversely that he ought not to have included the latter at all. I then turned to creating my data set. Shared breaking of taboo.g. (See T Apiryon 1995) 3. or that he should have differentiated between rituals and celebrations. Smith 1992) Having generated a working description of ritual from Turner’s theories. .(“anti-structure”). Alexander 1991: 262) Third is a feminist critique that alleges Turner’s approach to ritual is flawed by his own patriarchal thinking. 1 2 Though not necessarily to the directors of the ritual. for instance that he erred in dividing between rituals involving elevation of status and those celebrating temporal cycles. (e.” (e.. DeFlem 1991) The second is a complaint that Turner wrongly asserts that ritual acts in a socially conservative manner. (e. Individual Magical Ritual: The Neophyte initiation ritual of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

albeit not between candidates of the same level (honors vs non-honors students. it seems tautological to call this a liminal state. 7 The concept of religious vs social explanation of behavior is a matter of some difficulty in describing Japanese society. (See Rich 1999) 5. Individual Civil Cyclical Ritual: A children’s birthday party. 6 Some stratification exists. given the evidence for it elsewhere. it must still be noted as an exception. (See Reader 1991) TEST RESULTS Golden Dawn Initiation Liminal State3 Embodied Experience Encoded Symbolism Impart Worldview/Life Lessons Elevate Status Celebrate Temporal Cycles Build Communitas for Society at 5 EGC Gnostic Mass Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y College Grad. is generally not conceptualized as occurring in a liminal space or time. The birthday party. Although it is within the hierarchical structure of the communitas. Tanabe 1999. See footnote 4./ Counter-Culture Social Inversion Particular Hierarchy Shared Breaking of Taboo Equality between Candidates Supernatural Explanation Supernatural Abilities Taxonomic Problem? Ritual is Not Socially Conservative? Gender Problem? Conceptual Problem? Something Missing? 3 4 Y Y Y Y 7 Y Y Y 8 Y Y Y Y Y For simplicity. Individual Religious Cyclical Ritual: The Niddah. e. Although the celebration ritual involves marking a temporal transition (and sometimes elevation of status. 6. etc. Public Cyclical Ritual: The New Years’ celebration observed by many Japanese citizens.4. . Reader & Tanabe 1998. I am conflating both the “liminal” and “liminoid” used by Turner. See. 18th or 21st birthdays). for example.). rituals surrounding menstruation observed by certain orthodox Jewish sect members. but those actions are viewed by the actors themselves as entirely secular in nature. Many observed actions involve religious institutions or behaviors. Reader 1991. etc. 8 Possibly.g. and the discussion below this table. 5 The absence of corroboration for this function is quite likely a sampling artifact. Traphagan 2004. Y Y Y Y Y Jewish Menstrual Ritual Y Y Y Y Child’s Birthday 4 Japanese New Years Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Large5 Y Y 5 Y Y Y Y Y Y Y 6 Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y for Sub.. while clearly ritualized.

Additionally. so important to both Turner (and Van Gennep. namely the imparting to the candidates of particular signs of recognition by which other initiates might be subsequently recognized. This does not mean. and the social leveling of candidates (with one exception). I have attempted to show that my limited sampling revealed a much greater degree of confirmation than divergence with Turner’s theories. as noted above. Second. In particular. All of the test cases had considerable correlation with Turner’s theory as a whole. Within the confines of this brief overview. titles. or special items of clothing which only initiates are to wear. upon whom Turner drew). Finally. Other parts of his theory fit quite well.The results are interesting in several ways. Notably. social inversion). seems problematic in describing one of the rituals examined – the child’s birthday party. in five of the six rituals examined. it is not a perfect fit. I have read this as a sampling artifact. the presence of polysemous symbolism in constructing the rituals. These might consist of particular words or phrases. only that no fatal shortcomings were noted in applying his theory as given. given the numerous examples elsewhere. regardless of any gaps. the concept of liminality. Third.10 one potentially important concept was not present in Turner’s theory. The one exception was the Niddah.9 The exception to this is the questionable application of the concept of liminality to at least one type of ritual of temporal cycles. no fatal limitations or theoretical failures were noted which could be attributed to any of the four areas of critique of Turner’s thesis. particularly the use of physical gestures and body positions. the building of communitas.. this is a celebration of a temporal cycle.g. Obviously this subject might be explored at much greater length and in finer granularity of detail. however. Note that some ritual elements were nearly or altogether missing from the test data (e. while Turner’s theory generally describes these rituals. the testing exposed a ritual element that might be argued for inclusion in this schema. 9 10 Whether some other theory might better fit the data is beyond the scope of this study. the testing did not reveal a level of corroboration for Turner’s critics that would invalidate to an appreciable degree his work as a template for understanding ritual. that the criticisms are invalid. First. . physical gestures such as handgrips. of course.

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