Edith Turner and the Anthropology of Collective Joy

Edith Turner Visiting with my students Shane Metivier, Erica Walters and Sarah Sutton at the AAA Annual Meetings in Washington DC 2014 Photo by Erica Walters

Note: Earlier this month I traveled to London to participate in a three- day workshop, The Ritual Process: An Anthropology of New Beginnings, during which a diverse group of anthropologists, male and female, older and younger reflected on the monumental scholarship of Victor and Edith Turner.  Organized by Marina Gold, Bruce Kapferer and Julia Sauma (University of Bergen), the workshop enabled us to revisit, reflect, and debate such important anthropological concepts as liminality (being betwixt and between) and communitas (the ineffable feeling of collective joy) that the Turners first introduced 50 years ago.  During our discussions, we discovered that despite the passage of time, these fundamental concepts still stimulate lively and inventive intellectual debate about the whys and wherefores of the human condition–the true test of a concept’s worth.

I never met Victor Turner, but like any graduate student in the 1970s I had read his important work on ritual, symbolic expression and performance.  It met Edie Turner when she published Experiencing Ritual as a title in a book series that I co-edited at the University of Pennsylvania Press.  After that we became friends and remained so until her death.  Having learned so much during the workshop, I wanted to pay tribute to the scholarly legacy of the Turners by re-posting a blog I published in The Huffington Post shortly after Edie’s death in 2017.  It has been updated and slightly revised.

In these days of social, political, and ecological gloom, it’s easy to become cynical. Every day we are bombarded with news of racial prejudice, religious intolerance, economic inequality and xenophobia. Donald Trump, a man who is unabashedly racist, homophobic and misogynistic has been President of the United States for two years. In the UK, British voters opted to leave the European Union. Many of them appear to be unaware of the economic and social consequences of their vote and no one appears to know what will transpire in a future shaped by a Hard or Soft Brexit.

As scholars it’s hard to know how to confront these dismal events. How do we discuss ongoing problems that threaten to shred the global social fabric and bring widespread social, political and economic chaos?

Is there a measure of well being to be found in the world? Is there space for wonder?

In cynical moments when I need to ponder the wonders of human existence, I think about the work of Edith Turner, a monumental anthropologist who died on June 18, 2017, one day after her 95th birthday. In all of her work Edie, as her friends, students, and colleagues knew her, succeeded in describing what is special about the human condition.

In 1985 Edie Turner returned to Zambia in South Central Africa to continue the ethnographic research she had shared with her husband, the late Victor Turner, one of the great anthropologists of the 20th century. During a curing ceremony among the Ndembu people, the religious rituals of whom the Turners described in a series of classic books, Edie learned about the importance of understanding Ndembu rituals in Ndembu terms. In her book Experiencing Ritual Edie wrote about opening herself to the sensibilities of the Ndembu world. Witnessing that curing ceremony Edie wrote about being able to see…” a six-inch blob — a kind of plasma or gray spherical ghost — emerging from the patient’s back”. The spiritual extraction of what the Ndembu call Ihamba, a dead hunter’s tooth, healed the Ndembu patient. For us, the passage takes us to the edge of the possible and challenges our sense of reality. It compels us to think deeply about the human condition, about what is important in our lives and in our work.

Following the publication of Experiencing Ritual in 1992, Edie began to study healing rituals among a variety of peoples, publishing important works on the reality of spirits, on the nature of spirituality and on healers among the Iñupiat people in Northern Alaska.

For me her most important ideas are found in her final book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy, which she published in 2011. In the first paragraph of this book, Edie deftly tackled the unenviable task of defining something as elusive as communitas, a silent and sudden sense of social bonding. She wrote:

 “…The characteristics of communitas show it to be almost beyond strict definition, with almost endless variations. Communitas often appears unexpectedly. It has to do with a sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning….Communitas can only be conveyed through stories…”

Here Edie tapped into something extraordinarily significant: the power of narrative to connect writers to readers, the power of narrative, in the words of the psychologist Jerome Bruner, to construct realities — a narrative construction of a reality that is irreducible to formulae to or a set of abstract theoretical principles.

There is something about narrative that can convey to readers the mystery of the ineffable or the wonder of, as Edie would put it, collective joy. Even so, anthropologists, like most scholars, are trained to tell and not to show, to denote rather to evoke. Edie’s work compels us to wonder what is missed through such academic socialization. As teachers and writers many of us are hesitant to take thematic or representational risks. In this domain Edie’s life work is a beacon of inspirational light. Evoking the specter of communitas, Edie wrote:

“… This book… tackles communitas, togetherness itself, taking the reader to the edge of the precipice of knowledge — and beyond, over the barrier of the scientists’ analysis and into experience itself. Light dawns on what the real thing is, and we feel lucky it exists. Then we can make discoveries.”

The stories of communitas that Edie recounted in her writing not only defined a place of togetherness but also the nebulous space between things. As such communitas shows us the way to an arena in which we can sometimes experience a rare feeling: collective joy.

When I discuss Edie’s life work, I don’t think about reviews, or critiques, or citations. Unlike most academic work, Edie Turner’s contributions to anthropology and to humanistic scholarship provide us a framework for thinking about well-being-in-the-world. Her clear prose and conceptual daring have inspired many of us to stretch our imagination and extend our sensibilities to the outer limits of the possible. In so doing, Edie’s work moves us to explore the unknown, the indefinable, the indeterminate, a path that is not always easy to follow. Despite the difficulties we encounter on this path, Edie Turner has shown us a way forward. In her life and work she marshaled the courage to explore the powerful indeterminacy that you find in the silence between two notes of music, or in the creative incomprehension you find between two cultures, or in the conceptual turbulence you find between spirit and reality. Indeed, Edie Turner’s celebration of social life guides us to a place that has deepened our professional and personal well-being-in-the world.

In the end, Edie’s notion of collective joy is a tonic for contemporary social life. It is a model for reaching our students and extending to the public our important insights about social life. Her joy of living the anthropological life is a model for being well in the world — a model that can bring us a measure of comfort as we confront the imponderables of our turbulent times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s