In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Victor Turner

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographical Sources
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthropology of Performance and Experience
  • Between Anthropology and Neuroscience
  • Literary Anthropology
  • Legacy, Criticisms, and Debates
  • Contemporary Cultural Performance

Anthropology Victor Turner
Graham St. John
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0074


Victor W. Turner (b. 1920–d. 1983) was a symbolic anthropologist whose comparative investigations of ritual and cultural performance left a unique impression in the social and human sciences, and across the arts. Born in Glasgow, the son of Captain Norman Turner, an electronics engineer, and Violet Witter, founding member and actress of the Scottish National Theater, Turner became a prolific contributor to the comparative anthropology of ritual, symbol, and performance and had a prodigious impact across a spectrum of disciplines, from anthropology, religious and theological studies, to cultural, literary, and performance studies, to folklore, literary criticism, and neurosociology. Awarded a Robert Thompson scholarship, Turner early studied a BA in English Literature at University College, London (1938–1941) and returned following WWII to undertake a BA in Social Anthropology (completed in 1949). As found in key monographs and numerous essays, his influential formulations on the ontological value of ritual symbolism, “liminality,” and culture were shaped by a lifelong passion for poetry, the classics, and stage drama. Influential was the dialectical processualism of Max Gluckman, who headed Social Anthropology at Manchester University, and advised Turner’s PhD dissertation on the social organization of the Ndembu tribe of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) (completed in 1955). While Turner made a path beyond the Manchester School and Neo-Marxist analysis, he modified a structural-functionalist perspective in an abiding interest in universals in human performance and the fate of religion in postindustrial culture. A departure from social structure toward meaning coincided with a move to the United States, where Turner accepted an appointment as Professor of Anthropology and Chairman of the Committee on African Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1964–1968), holding professorships in anthropology in the United States thereafter. It was during his life in the United States that Turner cut his teeth as an iconoclastic essayist and skillful orator ranging widely across disciplines. While Turner’s ethnographic career began in Africa formulating his “social drama” model, subsequent investigations included Christian pilgrimage in Mexico and Ireland (as a practicing Catholic), Japanese literary and performative genres, New York’s experimental Off-Off Broadway theater workshops, and the Carnaval in Rio. These and many other postindustrial performance genres or “cultural dramas” were understood via his “processual analysis,” which became integral to the formation of Performance Studies. His most intimate colleague and research partner was wife Edith Turner, who he married in 1943, with whom he had five children, and who eventually became a respected anthropologist in her own right. While attracting controversy for express universalisms and his theological position, Turner’s ideas have retained appeal in the study of contemporary cultural performance.

General Overviews

There are no book-length biographies on Turner, presumably, in part, because his endeavor was uniquely interdisciplinary, anti-systematic, and perplexing—even mystical. While a fatal heart attack on 18 December 1983 cut short a very productive scholarly life, Turner’s lifelong approach was recognized by colleague Richard Schechner and others to possess a characteristic “incompleteness”—which has been both frustrating and compelling for critics, colleagues, and students. As Babcock and MacAloon 1987 states, the refusal to create a “Turnerian system or semiotics of culture” was “a matter of intellectual and, indeed, moral principle, for his was a laughing, struggling spirit that protested the indignity of any closed system” (p. 19). He would no doubt rumble with laughter at the sheer folly of this article. Illustrative of his rare breadth of talent, as a teenage student, Turner oscillated between the arts and sciences, winning prizes for poetry and acclaim for his prowess as a soccer player. At the University of Chicago (where he held a professorship from 1967–1977) Turner taught Kierkegaard’s philosophy of paradox alongside Durkheim and Freud, and Rilke, Rimbaud, Blake, Dante, and Dostoyevsky were often used to illuminate anthropological theory. Listed are the prologues to two important anthologies of essays and lectures (re)published posthumously and compiled by Turner’s significant other, with Turner 1985 being among the most sensitive introductions to the man’s life, and Turner 1992 serving as an excellent prologue to his iconoclastic style, while a work by one of his foremost students, Babcock 2001, offers a compelling analysis of the role of Woman and women in Turner’s theory and life. Various sources are recommended as overviews, each with unique approaches. Babcock and MacAloon 1987 superbly condenses Turner’s ideas while also providing a bibliography of his works; Deflem 1991 includes a useful comparison with the French structuralist approach to symbolism; Ortner 1984 distinguishes the Turnerian from the Geertzian school of symbolic anthropology; Erickson and Donat Murphy 2010 clarifies Turner’s position within the history of anthropology; while the single most comprehensive source introducing Turner’s work and impact is St John 2008.

  • Babcock, Barbara. 2001. Woman/women in ‘The Discourse of Man’: Edie Turner and Victor Turner’s language of the feminine. Anthropology and Humanism 26.2: 115–123.

    DOI: 10.1525/ahu.2001.26.2.115

    NNNOne of Turner’s foremost students explores the “gynesis”—the “putting of Woman into discourse”—in his work (p. 119). Woman is figuratively significant in Turner’s anthropology of the generative, but as Babcock suggests, the voices and ideas of actual women, including his mother, Babcock herself, and Edith Turner, were critical in his intellectual development. Also in St John 2008 (pp. 297–308).

  • Babcock, Barbara, and John J. MacAloon. 1987. Victor W. Turner (1920–1983): Commemorative essay. Semiotica 65.1–2: 1–27.

    NNNSuperb condensed overview coauthored by two of Turner’s foremost students. While Turner’s enterprise is considered encyclopedic, it was “in the style of Rabelais rather than Descartes” (p. 1). Recognizes that symbolic and political anthropology were inseparable for Turner, forming something of an ethos. Includes a bibliography of Turner’s works.

  • Deflem, Mathieu. 1991. Ritual, anti-structure, and religion: A discussion of Victor Turner’s processual symbolic analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30.1: 1–25.

    DOI: 10.2307/1387146

    NNNAmong the most comprehensive condensed overviews of Turner’s contribution to studies of ritual and religion. Covers strengths and weaknesses, and includes a comparison with the French structuralist approach to symbolism.

  • Erickson, Paul A., and Liam Donat Murphy, eds. 2010. Readings for a history of anthropological theory. 3d ed. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    NNNIncludes Turner’s essay “Symbols in Ndembu Ritual” and incisively positions Turner within the history of anthropology.

  • Ortner, Sherry B. 1984. Theory in anthropology since the Sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26.1: 41–75.

    NNNDistinguishes two variants of symbolic anthropology, the Geertzian and the Turnerian, emerging in the early 1960s. Ortner traces the roots of their differences, recognizing the sense of pragmatics within the Turnerian camp.

  • St John, Graham. 2008. Victor Turner and contemporary cultural performance: An introduction. In Victor Turner and contemporary cultural performance. Edited by Graham St John, 1–37. New York: Berghahn.

    NNNA comprehensive introduction to Turner. Introduces seventeen chapters collected in a volume addressing the significance of Turner’s work for studies in contemporary cultural performance.

  • Turner, Edith. 1985. Prologue: From the Ndembu to Broadway. In On the edge of the bush: Anthropology as experience. Edited by Edith Turner, 1–15. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    NNNThe introduction to the first of two anthologies of essays collected and published posthumously. Explains how, alongside classic monographs in anthropology, Prospero, the poetry of Rilke, the work of Melville, Kierkegaard, and numerous poets and classic authors shaped Turner’s universalist heuristic.

  • Turner, Edith. 1992. Prologue: Exploring the trail. In Blazing the trail: Way marks in the exploration of symbols. Edited by Edith Turner, ix–xxi. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    NNNA sensitive introduction to Turner’s iconoclastic symbolic comparativism.

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