Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1920-1983) Scots-born social anthropologist who studied at University College, London, and took his Ph.D. under Max Gluckman at the University of Manchester. From 1950 to 1954, Turner was a research officer at the Rhodes-Livingston Institute in Zambia, where he began what was to be a lifelong study of Ndembu village life, ritual, and symbolism. He taught at the University of Manchester from 1955 to 1963, when he moved to the United States. Turner served as Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, 1964-1968. From 1968 to 1977, he was Professor of Anthropology and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and then until the time of his death he was William R. Kenan Professor of Anthropology and Religion at the University of Virginia.

Turner ultimately broke with Gluckman's functional analysis in favor of a more processual model of cultural systems. Turner's first major book, Schism and Continuity in an African Society (Manchester University Press 1957), documented ways in which ritual performances play an important role in resolving village conflict. He was a leading proponent of the "case study" approach in ethnographic research and is noted for his scrupulous attention to ethnographic detail.

Although Turner considered his approach to be a radical departure from his functionalist contemporaries (like Gluckman), he shared much with functional theorists of his day, including a focus on ritual and ceremonial performance in the perpetuation of society. Perhaps Turner's greatest contributions lie in his keen recognition that rituals serve not only to maintain the social order but have the potential to create new social possibilities as well. Building on the work of Arnold van Gennep (1909), Turner was especially fascinated by the "liminal" stage in rites of passage. He suggested that rituals offer "decisive keys to the understanding of how people think and feel about relationships and about the natural and social environments in which they operate" (1969:6).

The bulk of Turner's work has been an attempt to understand the general characteristics of ritual, in particular its fusion of ideological content, emotional power, and efficacy. But his influence extends beyond his own writings. Turner also served as general editor of the acclaimed "Symbol, Myth, and Ritual" series for Cornell University Press, which provided for the dissemination of the ideas of Frank Manning, Barbara Babcock, Ronald Grimes, Raymond Firth, Barbara Meyerhoff, and others. With his wife, Edith L. B. Turner, he also conducted extensive ethnographic research on pilgrimages and pilgrimage sites in Europe and the Americas. Their findings were published in a seminal work, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (Columbia University Press 1995 [1978]).

See also Rites of Passage

Stephen D. Glazier


A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge, 1960 [1909])

V. W. Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967)

V. W. Turner, The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine, 1969)

V. W. Turner, On the Edge of the Bush (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985).

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