Anthropology Edith L. B. Turner
Stephen D. Glazier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0228


Anthropologist Edith L. B. Turner (b. 1921–d. 2016) is known for her ethnographic fieldwork among the Ndembu of (then) Northern Rhodesia, the Inupiat of Alaska, and pilgrims in Ireland, and for her important theoretical contributions to the study of pilgrimage, shamanism, communitas, and the anthropologies of experience and performance. For the first sixty-two years of her life, she was best known as the wife and collaborator of anthropologist Victor W. Turner (b. 1920–d. 1983). Victor Turner acknowledged Edith as a collaborator in all his publications, but Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978) is the only book in which Edith was formally named as a coauthor. For the last thirty-three years of her life, she established herself as an independent researcher and scholar. I thank Frank Salamone, Rory Turner, and Marjorie Snipes for sharing their ideas on Edie’s life and scholarly contributions. Emily Pitek read and commented on earlier drafts of this article.

Works and Life

Edie, as she preferred to be called, was born in Ely, England, the daughter of the Reverend Dr. George Brocklesby Davis (a Cambridge‐educated medical doctor and an Anglican clergyman) and Lucy Gertrude Howard Davis (an Anglican missionary and teacher). She was the seventh of eight children. Edie attended boarding schools and earned a diploma at Alde House Domestic Science College in 1938. Edie met Victor W. Turner in 1957. After a six‐month courtship, they were married. Edith followed Victor’s career in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Turner family conducted fieldwork among the Ndembu from December 1950 to February 1952. Victor Turner taught at the University of Manchester until 1963, when he accepted a professorship at Cornell University in the United States. After four years of teaching at Cornell, Victor accepted an appointment to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago from 1968 to 1976. In 1977, Victor was appointed William R. Kenan Chair of Anthropology and Religion at the University of Virginia. While the Turners were at the University of Virginia, Edith Turner earned an MA in English (1980). In 1984, Edith was appointed Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Virginia. She retired from the University of Virginia at the age of ninety-four. Over her lifetime, Edie conducted fieldwork among the Ndembu of Zambia (1951–1954), the Inupiat of Alaska, the Bagisu of Uganda (1966), and pilgrims in Mexico and Ireland (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972), and on shrines in India and Sri Lanka (1979), Brazilian carnival (1979), Israeli rituals (1980), Japanese theater (1981), Yaqui rituals (1981, 1986), African American healing (1985), Civil War reenactments (1986–1987), Korean shamanism (1987), rituals of the Saami of Kola Peninsula (1993), the potato famine in Ireland (1995), and Christian groups in the United States (1996). She was awarded research grants from the Wenner‐Gren Foundation and the Carter Woodson Institute for Afro‐American and African Studies and a travel grant from the National Science Foundation. Thus far, no one has published a book-length biography on Edie. She gave multiple interviews (Engelke 2000, Mentore 2009) and published two autobiographies: The Spirit and the Drum (Turner 1987) and Heart of Lightness: The Life Story of an Anthropologist (see Frankenberg 2012). In her final publication, Kavasias, et al. 2018 relates Edie’s personal account of the aging process. Edie also gives biographical information about herself (and Victor) in her introductions to Blazing the Trail (Turner and Turner 1992) and On the Edge of the Bush (see Bruner 1991). Biographical insights are contained in Turner and Wellman 2017, Glazier 2018, and Frankenberg 2012. Edie’s life spanned the twentieth and twenty‐first centuries—a period marked by dramatic changes in women’s roles. She addressed these changes on her own terms with dignity and aplomb (see Babcock 2001).

  • 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

    Babcock contends that women need to be included in all scholarly discourse. She suggests that the ideas of actual women; especially the ideas of Vic’s wife (Edie) and Victor’s mother—played a major part in Victor Turner’s intellectual development.

  • Bruner, Edward M. 1991. Man alive, woman alive. Reviews in Anthropology 16.1–4: 195–201.

    DOI: 10.1080/00988157

    Bruner’s essay addresses On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, edited by Edith Turner. He gives special attention to Edith’s prologue. For Bruner, Edie’s prologue raises issues about husband-and-wife teams in anthropology where a couple does fieldwork together and yet publish under the husband’s name only.

  • Engelke, Matthew. 2000. An interview with Edith Turner. Current Anthropology 41.5: 843–852.

    DOI: 10.2307/3596746

    This interview was part of a longer life history conducted in 1997. The project was sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. The project’s goal was to document the life and writings of Edith Turner, her marriage to Victor Turner, and how gender and marriage affected their anthropological research.

  • Frankenberg, Ronald. 2012. Foreword. In Heart of lightness: The life story of an anthropologist. By Edith Turner, xi–xxvi. New York: Berghahn.

    Edith Turner was among the first anthropologists to aim successfully at “knowing” rather than merely “knowing about” the people she studied. Frankenberg highlights Edie’s visit to Israel in 1980, when she was reunited with her foster brother—a Jewish refugee.

  • Glazier, Stephen D. 2018. Edith Lucy Brockelsby Turner (1921–2016). American Anthropologist 120.1: 186–189.

    DOI: 10.1111/aman.13012

    During World War II, Vic and Edie Turner were pacifists, religious skeptics, and communists. Edith distributed the Daily Worker and led discussion groups on Josef Stalin’s History of the Communist Party. Edie promoted the anthropology of emotion and proposed her own variant of humanistic anthropology.

  • Kavasias, Dionisios, Charlotte Dawson, and Edith L. B. Turner. 2018. The elderly process: Edith Turner’s last fieldsite. In The intellectual legacy of Victor and Edith Turner. Edited by Frank A. Salamone and Marjorie M. Snipes, 89–106. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    Assisted by two students who recorded her words and actions, Edith tells of her own last years with clarity and bravery. This chapter combines the ethnographic observations of her students and Edie’s subjective experience of the aging process.

  • Mentore, George. 2009. Entrevista a Edith Turner. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4.3: 337–356.

    DOI: 10.11156/aibr.040303

    This interview was conducted when Edith Turner was eighty-seven. During her years of research, she conducted research in places as diverse as Zambia, Alaska, and Ireland. She modestly recounts her life among the Ndembu: “I took a lot of notes; kept a filing system going; and taught the kids in the morning” (p. vi). Edith credits Michael G. Smith with sparking Victor’s interest in performance studies.

  • Turner, Edith L. B. 1987. The spirit and the drum: A memoir of Africa. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    Edith Turner draws primarily on her own (and Victor W. Turner’s) fieldwork experiences during their second research period among the Ndembu from 1953 to 1954. She ties past and present together by briefly relating a then-recent visit to the village where the events of the book occurred. The book provides a diary on the establishment of the Turner household in the village and a description of rituals the Turners observed. Edie gives personal accounts of circumcisions, initiation ceremonies, and curing rites.

  • Turner, Rory B. P., and Rose Wellman. 2017. Edith Turner. Anthropology News 58.2: 333–335.

    DOI: 10.1111/AN.394

    As her children point out, Edith Turner was loyal to her family, the people she studied, her church, and her friends. Friends and family reciprocated. She went out of her way to help students and colleagues. Edie parented six children between 1944 and 1963—five of whom reached adulthood. She is survived by her sons, her daughter, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. They, too, are part of her enduring legacy.

  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner, eds. 1992. Blazing the trail: Way marks in the exploration of symbols. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    Edith charts Victor’s (and her) continuous quest for the heart of human experience. The restlessness of Victor’s later years moved the Turners from case studies of the Ndembu to widespread comparative studies in Europe, Iceland, Mexico, Japan, and Israel.

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