Prophets and artists tend to be liminal and marginal people.
– Victor Turner
As I have explained in other posts on this blog, since the early 1990’s, I have been on a search to uncover and articulate what began as an intuitive sense of the important link between spirituality and leadership. During my graduate studies between 1994 and 2002, I attended Chicago Theological Seminary. There, I had the good fortune to study under a number of professors who helped me in my pursuit, and allowed me to concentrate my coursework around it.
Toward the end of my work on a doctor of ministry degree, one of my professors introduced me to the work of Victor Turner. His insights provide a significant contribution to understanding the actual processes that lead to human and societal transformation. They are very helpful in diving more deeply into the steps of conscious evolution. In this post, I offer a brief summary of Turner’s theory. I believe these insights help us to dive more deeply into Wilber’s Integral Theory, while also offering us keys to its practical application.
Born in Glasgow in 1920, Victor Turner earned his Ph.D. in June 1955, completing his studies under some of the leading social anthropologists of the time. For his field work, he lived among the Ndembu of Zambia (then northern Rhodesia). Initially, he planned to study the demographics and economics of the tribe, but he quickly became more fascinated with the ritual processes he observed in the tribe. This may have been because Turner’s mother was an actress, and through her acquired a sensitivity to the elements of theatre and ritual which surfaced as he began his anthropological explorations. Max Gluckman, with whom Turner did graduate work, also influenced him. Gluckman introduced Turner to conflict theory and political anthropology.
During his time with the Ndembu, Turner began to view ritual as a means not only of individual but also of social transformation. From this point on, he began to develop his theories regarding the processual nature of human individual and cultural conscious development and action (Beth Barrie, Victor Turner. Found at http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/turner.htm. 1998).
Turner (1974) probed into and attempted to describe the way the process of transformation happens on both individual and societal levels. He argued that social actions of various kinds acquire their observable form (the behaviors) through the direct influence of the metaphors and paradigms in their actor’s head (consciousness). These metaphors and paradigms are sourced, according to Turner, in the explicit and implicit teachings and generalizations present in the collective consciousness (culture). Turner also observed, however, that under certain “intensive circumstances,” new, even “unprecedented forms” can be generated. This emergent process can “bequeath history new metaphors and paradigms” (p. 13). In other words, each level of social order is never, Turner would argue, pre-ordained, but achieved (p. 14, emphasis mine.)
The key to the processual nature of human society, found Turner (1974), lies in the “capacity of individuals to at times stand aside from the models, patterns, and paradigms for behavior and thinking…and in rare cases, to innovate new patterns themselves or to assent to innovation (pp. 14-15).
Here we have another explanation of Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces. This is the first point to be taken from Turner: his description of the dynamic, processual nature of existence in both the interior and exterior dimensions. In other words, Turner has provided us with at least some details for the human equivalent of the evolutionary process. Scientists are now aware of the incredible adaptability present in the transformative process that has led to the existence, over some 14 billion years, of our Universe as we observe it today. Somehow, at crisis moments, the natural process is able to transcend its present state – this is how our Universe works. Crisis is the stimulant for the evolutionary process:
Even in ancient times, when bacteria faced food shortages, global atmospheric pollution, and destructive ultraviolet radiation, such challenges led to the invention of new DNA genes and new lifestyles. Today, bacteria respond similarly to each new generation of antibiotics, quickly making themselves resistant. Animals and plants later faced crises such as extinctions, the survivors of each such crisis retooling, evolving into new forms and functions. It is beginning to look as though crises afford life unusual evolutionary opportunities to create novel solutions (Liebes, Sahtouris & Swimme. 1998. p. 27).
Turner (1974) explored the process through which “root” paradigms existing within individual consciousness and human society change in crisis moments. Root paradigms, for Turner, are like the DNA and RNA of human culture. They are the cultural genetic code that helps individuals and the species as a whole survive by programming behavior (p. 67).
In crisis moments, however, paradigmatic programming falters, or is no longer relevant to the current situation. New conditions demand adaptability. Evolutionary scientists suggest adaptability appears through extraordinary moments of transcendence – of moving beyond what was to something completely unanticipated and unforeseen. Turner saw how conflict arising within an individual spills over into a society with the potential to transform it. He explored and named the dynamics of the process through which this occurs.
Based on his own graduate studies and observations, Turner (1974) described humanity as “an innovative, liminal creature” (p. 18). He took his understanding of the term “liminal” from the work of van Gennep, a Belgian ethnographer whose work on rites de passage first appeared in 1909. Van Gennep demonstrated that many types of rituals found in various human cultures, particularly rites of initiation, have three distinguishable stages. These stages are of relative duration within and among cultures, but their presence is inescapable. Van Gennep described these stages as 1) separation; 2) margin or limen, and 3) reaggregation. The word limen is Latin, and means a threshold.
Sometimes van Gennep referred to these stages simply as “preliminal,” “liminal,” and “postliminal.” Turner (1974) suggests that a better term might be cunicular, or “being in a tunnel,” because it is a better description of the quality of this experience, with “its hidden nature, its sometimes mysterious darkness” (p. 232).
According to van Gennep, for the individual the rites de passage, or the transition rites, accompany every change in state or social position, including certain life passages such as the transition from adolescence to adulthood (p. 231-232). Prior to the start of the rite, the individual occupies a certain place of status, or state, within his or her cultural group. The first, or preliminal stage of the rite occurs when symbolic or literal behaviors or events cause the detachment of the individual from this prior status or state. This detachment initiates the “betwixt and between” of the liminal state.
In this second phase of the rite, the individual is sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally, stripped of all former internal and external reference points. Turner (1995) offers a listing of the characteristics of this stripping, which include anonymity, absence of status and property, sexual continence, and either nakedness or uniform clothing (p.106). The individual in this state is “neither here nor there” in relation to his or her former reference points.
If the individual negotiates his or her passage through this liminal stage successfully, he or she moves back into the larger group and social structure, often occupying a new, higher status or state.
Turner (1974) applied this process of transformation to the societal level. For him, this three-phase process moves the society from what Turner called “structure” into an experience of “anti-structure.” By “structure,” Turner says he means the more or less distinctive arrangement of mutually dependent institutions and the institutional organization of social positions and/or actors which they imply” (p. 272). For Turner, the term “anti-structure” refers to the “generative” experience of liminality. The “anti”prefix in this term is not meant to convey negativity, but only contrast. The liminal phase is “betwixt and between” for the society in the same way it is for the individual. It is outside of the former ordinary structure of existing social life (pp. 272-273).
This, then, is the second point we can draw from Turner: that societies as well as individuals undergo rites de passage through the movement from structure to anti-structure and to a renewed structure.
Turner (1974), however, does not stop here. He goes deeper into the nature of this tri-partite process with his concept of the “social drama.” For Turner, a social drama is a “unit of social process” composed of all the elements contained within a group’s experience of conflict (p. 36). Typically, according to Turner, these elements coalesce around four main phases of public action accessible to observation: 1) Breach, 2) Crisis, 3) Redressive Action, and 4) Reintegration or Schism (pp. 38-41, 78-79)
The first phase, the Breach, is similar to the preliminal stage previously described. It is the result of uncontrolled events or an individual’s actions that upset or go against, intentionally or unconsciously, the group’s status quo. All of a sudden, the group experiences the non-fulfillment of expectations. The experience of breach moves the group into liminal space and time, where the next two phases come into play.
In the Crisis phase, the breach may widen and escalate. Within this phase, it is as if the breach were a mirror, reflecting back to the group its true nature. It is in this phase, said Turner (1974, that it is “least easy to don masks or pretend that there is nothing rotten in the village.”
As the crisis escalates, “it dares the representatives of order to grapple with it. It cannot be ignored or wished away”(p. 39).
If they are capable of doing so, the representatives of order must help the group enter into the third, or redressive phase, by calling into play the mechanisms for dealing with the crisis in a way that resolves it. If this occurs, it will move the group, although somewhat changed perhaps, into the fourth phase of reintegration. If not, this phase will move the group into schism.
Turner does not speak directly to the role of the leader, or ritual elder, in this very important redressive phase of the social drama. For a closer look at this aspect of social transformation, we must turn to another of my graduate professors, Robert Moore.
Liebes, S., Sahtouris, E. and Swimme, B. (Eds). (1998). A walk through time: From stardust to us, the evolution of life on Earth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Turner, Victor. (1969, 1995). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Chicago, IL:Aldine.
Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, fields and metaphors: symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.