This site runs best with JavaScript enabled.

The Ritual Process

Structure and Anti-Structure

by Victor Turner

Last tended to June 12, 2020

Victor Turner opens his classic analysis of ritual structures with a quote from fellow anthropologist Monica Wilson:


"Rituals reveal values at their deepest level. Men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventionalised and obligatory. It is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the key to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies"

Victor Turner studied among the Ndembu of northern Zambia. Many tribes within the region have complex initiation rites with long periods of seclusion.

Turner found the Ndembu rituals were inextricably linked to every other facet of their cultural structures economic relations, hunting, power structures, and kinship were only understandable within the context of rituals.

Their values were embodied and expressed through symbolic rituals.

The Ndembu word for "ritual" aligns with "obligation" or "special engagement". Rituals are performed if people or groups have failed to meet their obligations to the community or ancestors

Turner builds off the work of Arnold van Gennep who also studied ritual. His accounts of Ndembu women's rituals follow the classic three part structure of separation, transition, and reintegration:

"Women's cults have the tripartite diachronic structure made familiar to us by the work of Arnold van Gennep. The first phase, called Ilembi, separates the candidate from the profane world; the second, called Kunkunka (literally, "in the grass hut"), partially secludes her from secular life; while the third, called Kutumbuka, is a festive dance, celebrating the removal of the shade's interdiction and the candidate's return to normal life."


The Phases of Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage accompany every change of place, social position, and age. There are three phases an initiate moves through:

  • Separation where the person is removed from their former status. Sometimes this is abrupt when the person is separated from the community for a period of time. Or it may take the form of many events over time; such as an engagement party, then a hen night, then planning the logistics of the wedding, picking flowers and cake, the rehearsal dinner, and finally the wedding ceremony. These all signal the old role is falling away, preparing the person and their community to make space for a new one.
  • Transition brings about the change in status. In a wedding this would be the relatively short moment of the actual ceremony. Whereas in other Rites of Passage this can unfold over months or years.
  • Reintegration is when the person begins to re-enter the community, such as a wedding reception.

"During the intervening "liminal" period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (the "passenger") are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state" (94)

Want to share?

Join the newsletter

For weekly notes on visual thinking, ethical technology, and cultural anthropology.

Maggie Appleton © 2020