Being Victor Turner

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Victor about Victor
Age 1 through 18
The Road to Anthropology
Academic stations 1957-1983
The Ritual Process and Biography
A Catholic Anthropologist?
Changing Interests
The Literary Factor

3. (Auto)Biography and Theory

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In 1999, a very postmodern movie entered the programs of movie theatres: Being John Malkovich. In this extraordinary piece of film, unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz makes a bizarre discovery. Being hired as a file sorter, Schwartz discovers a little door in the 7 1/2 story of his new workplace, which leads right into the brain of actor John Malkovich. He can see, hear, smell and feel what Malkovich does.

What a desirable notion for an anthropologist. No more speculation about the motives, norms, relations or beliefs that makes humans think and do certain things. Beyond ethnography, it could be even more fascinating to find out what the fathers of our own professional lineage caused them to perceive the anthropological subject in specific ways.

The following account is foremost an experiment in the creative possibilities of rethinking anthropological theory. I want to gain an insight into the life and work of Victor Turner by partly playing his role in this paper. How do I legitimize this unconventional analysis?

I see it as a logical consequence of postmodern thinking and practice. If the “Self” and the “Other” are categories of thought rather than discrete entities, I see no reason why I should not speak with the voice of the Other. Also, as we are diagnosed to be subjective, why not include subjective fictional elements in our writing? My paper does not follow the exact rules of general scientific writing as to coherence, style and precision of facts. But in a Batesonesque experiment I apply his method of loose and strict thinking (Bateson 1973: 47-49) to approach the life and work of Victor Turner. By participating in the identity and biography of Victor Turner I observe his specific way of thinking.

The major part of the paper deals with Victor Turner´s personal and academic life which are closely linked to his notions of culture, ritual and the anthropological subject. The final section will briefly discuss the connections of (auto)biography and anthropology from a theoretical viewpoint.

2. Victor about Victor

The following account is enriched with fictional elements largely based on the biographical information drawn from the texts by Peter J. Bräunlein (Bräunlein 1997) and Frank E.Manning (Manning 1990).

Age 1 through 18

I was born on May 28 1920 in Glasgow, Scotland. My mother was an actress and a later founding member of the Scottish National Theatre. My father worked as an electric engineer and his fascination for theatre was very limited. Maybe the occupations of my parents should have foreshadowed a lot of my later thinking, caught between science and the performing arts. And maybe this hybrid background even caused me to blur the notions of science and theatre in my anthropological work. When my parents divorced I was sent to Bournemouth to live with my grandmother. That´s where I also went to school until I was 18 years old.

As a schoolboy I started to become what you call a bookworm. I literally devoured all kinds of poetry and classical English literature. I would not say that I was a shy boy living in my world of books. Moreover, I observed my environment curiously always asking questions. One could say I was caught between art and science, sports and literature. As a child of divorced parents the situation was a little bit difficult. Back then in the 1930s it was still very uncommon to get divorced which sometimes lead to a certain excludedness, especially in school. I got used to the idea very early that social relations are not always as stable as they seem to be which would later be a central theme in my anthropological work. After I finished school I enrolled at the University College in London to study English.

The Road to Anthropology

My shift to anthropology has its roots in my personal biography. Soon after I started at the University College, World War II broke out. When Britain joined the war with full forces in 1941 I was drawn for military service in the army. I refused combatant service and they sent me to Rugby where I served in a bomb clearing unit. The search for bombs in the desolate ruins of Rugby and the daily contact to normal working people beyond the intellectual milieu of a university invoked an intense fascination for society in me. Also I got to know my wife Edith and in the middle of the war we married. Our life started at the margins, living in a gypsy caravan near the army base in Rugby.

It was there where our first two children Fred and Bob were born. At the local library I discovered Margaret Meads Coming of Age in Samoa and Radclife-Browns Andaman Islanders which finally lead me to the decision to study Social Anthropology after the military service. Back in London, I enrolled at the Department of Anthropology to study under leading figures like Firth, Forde, Fortes and for a time Leach and Radcliffe-Brown.

I received my B.A. degree in 1949 and I was not really sure if I wanted to continue my academical career in London. Back then, the writings of Max Gluckman caused me to think about Karl Marx, whose historical-dialectical perspective was not really in harmony with the static view of society proclaimed by the London anthropologists. Gluckman started to see society as a system constantly faced with conflict and explored the ritual mechanisms resolving conflict. Society appeared to be a processual system open to change. The “London School” of Structural-Functionalism assumed that society was like an organism whose different structural parts were responsible to keep society in a state of equilibrium. This assumption did not exactly mirror my personal experiences with life at the base level of society and also it did not seem to correspond to the ethnographic reality of the literature I had so far explored.

My view of anthropology started to become too non-conforming for the London branch. Luckily, Max Gluckman was- like a soccer coach- on the search for a young talented team to study at his new department in Manchester. After the war the Marxist notion of society offered more than an analytical tool to describe society. It was also a strong source of orientation and visionary ethics in a time when the world was in a phase of reconstruction. Gluckman convinced me to come to Manchester to prepare for a Ph.D. research. I also joined the Communist Party being fascinated by a humanitarian Marxism.


Max Gluckman was among the founders of the Rhodes-Livinstone Institute in Lusaka, Zambia. (The Institute was funded by the British colonial government to use anthropological knowledge to learn about the peoples there. Of course with the aim to make them “governable” easier, which was not exactly the most glorious chapter of our subject.) First, I planned to do an acculturation study of the Mambwe but then a telegram reached me. Gluckman proposed me to “travel North to study the Ndembu, lots of malaria, yellow fever and a lot of rituals”.

So my wife and I spent almost two and a half years in the village of Mukanza living among the Ndembu. I concentrated first on demography and economics but then I realized the richness of ritual action and symbols was worth taking a closer look. More and more I began to abandon the idea that material interests lay at the core of human relationships. It seemed to be more the ritual expression of shared symbols and values which provided the basis for human relationships and also the basis for resolving potential conflict.

The latter point was fully in accordance with Gluckman´s idea of conflict, process and ritual. However, I could not fully abandon my structural-functionalist heritage. My Ph.D. thesis Schism and Continuity in an African Community (Turner 1996) bears witness to this fact. Although I worked with the rather processional concept of the social drama, my general assumptions about the society was still very structural-functionalist. Ndembu society is ordered along the principles of matrilinear descent and virilocal marriage. These principles can be disruptive for a village when a man destined to become a headman due to his matrilineal descent group has to move into the household of his wife in another village. Back then I still assumed that society was indeed working like a mechanism according to underlying structures epitomized in shared norms and principles. But then I discovered the rich ritual life of the Ndembu. I saw how rituals were capable of absorbing conflicts. In a dialectical series of events, conflicts in certain relationships were absorbed by integration within another relation, e.g. ritual. Ndembu have all kinds of rituals for life-crises, fertility, hunting, misfortune, etc.

My category of the social drama states that the breach of a social norm leads to a crisis between the parties followed by ritual measures to either reestablish coherence or causing irreparable breach. I traced events like this by following the efforts of a young man called Sandombu to become headman of Mukanza village which was also not very common anthropological practice in the 1950s. Anthropologists were not very concerned with individual life history. The redressive moment in the social drama was usually a ritual, which brings in the capability of ritual to transform society or parts of it in a processual series of events. However, I still needed the functionalist perspective that matriliny and virilocal marriage are the two guiding principles of Ndembu society in order to understand ritual. From there, my interest and fascination for rituals and symbols steadily grew. Writing up Schism and Continuity I already knew that this was going to be my field of interest for the future.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Being Victor Turner
University of Heidelberg  (Institut für Ethnologie)
Anthropology and Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
542 KB
Die Arbeit ist ein Experiment in kretaivem ethnographischem Schreiben. Indem sich der Autor in den Ethnologen Victor Turner versetzt, schreibt er aus Sicht des Letzteren die Biographie einer der wichtigsten Ethnologen des 20.Jahrhunderts. Gleichzeitig wird die neuere ethnologische Diskussion kritisch reflektiert hinsichtlich der Tragbarkeit ihrer Methodik und Theorie.
Being, Victor, Turner, Anthropology, Literature
Quote paper
Rene Kaufmann (Author), 2004, Being Victor Turner, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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