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Decentering Ethnography: Victor Turner's Vision of Anthropology Author(s): Bennetta Jules-Rosette Source: Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 24, Fasc. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 160-181 Published by: BRILL Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/11/2013 12:50 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. . BRILL is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Religion in Africa. This content downloaded from on Wed, 13 Nov 2013 12:50:05 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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Page 1: Decentering Ethnography Victor Turner's Vision of Anthropology.pdf

Decentering Ethnography: Victor Turner's Vision of AnthropologyAuthor(s): Bennetta Jules-RosetteSource: Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 24, Fasc. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 160-181Published by: BRILLStable URL: .

Accessed: 13/11/2013 12:50

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].


BRILL is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Religion in Africa.

This content downloaded from on Wed, 13 Nov 2013 12:50:05 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 2: Decentering Ethnography Victor Turner's Vision of Anthropology.pdf

Jrnl. Rl. Afr. XXIV, 2 (1994), ? EJ. Brill, Leiden



BENNETTA JULES-ROSETTE (University of California, San Diego)


During the past decade, the works of Victor Turner have been reread and reinterpreted in many ways. His contributions to the analysis of social process, ritual symbols, play, and performance stand as landmarks in the fields of anthropology and humanistic studies. The unfolding of Turner's theories involves a complex, nonlinear interweaving of multiple voices and influences from, in Edith Turner's words, the 'Ndembu of Zambia to Broadway'.' This essay examines Turner's contribution to decentering ethnography and repositioning the postcolonial subject. Although Turner would not have used these terms to describe the impact of his ceuvre, a rereading of Turner's early ethnographies and later essays places his work squarely within contemporary debates about postcolonial society and postmodern culture.

Ethnography as a method of documentation in the social sciences was classically based upon the assumption that researchers could provide authentic and reliable accounts of the lives of their subjects. The researcher, thus, operated as an omniscient ego. Anthropological studies of preliterate societies positioned the ethnographer as the scribe and interpreter of arcane oral traditions. Concepts such as structure, function, and conflict, emerging from this type of anthropology, clearly separate the researcher from the other, whose social world is described as an insulated microcosm (Mudimbe, 1988:82). The colonial subject, who became the target of this anthropological discourse, played an intriguing role of passive assent and active collaboration in the production of exotic cultural narratives. With the waning of the colonial period, the authority of the ethnographer's voice was challenged. Marcel Griaule wrote Dieu d'Eau (1948), his account of the world view of

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a Dogon sage, two years before Victor Turner began his field research in Northern Rhodesia. Griaule's transformation of the Ogotemmeli's words into an ethnophilosophy and theology was part of a larger French scientific and political project. He wanted to create a 'more fertile,...less brutal, and more rational' collabora- tion between colonizers and colonized people (Griaule, 1931:4). Griaule never intended to challenge colonial empire as a whole but merely to give a new voice to its subjects.

British social anthropology and French ethnology were influ- enced by similar historical conditions during the 1950s. Ironically, Griaule's scientific and political project at the close of the colonial era was the first step toward decentering ethnography. He began to move the ethnographer as recorder and writer away from an omniscient stance and toward the position of an empathetic inter- preter in a cross-cultural dialogue. Although Turner generally cites Griaule only with reference to Dogon rituals and masking tech- niques, he made similar decentering efforts in his early work on the Ndembu of northern Zambia. Turner, however, was the product of a later historical period, in which he witnessed the collapse of colonial control in southern Africa and the emergence of a new type of ethnographic subject. Although I shall call this new ethnographic subject the 'postcolonial subject,' I do so with certain caveats, which have to do with how the subjects conceived of themselves. While the Ndembu, as described by Turner, do not speak of their colonial status, they live this identity through local political and economic contestations and ritual afflictions, including possession by European spirits and obsessions with guns and other material traces of Western culture.

James Clifford (1988:14) provides an apt description of the postcolonial subject when he states: 'Twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Every- where, individuals improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols and languages.' Dean MacCannell (1992:302) refers to the postcolonial subject as anthropology's 'ex-primitive' who reconstructs versions of waning cultures for anthropologists, tourists, and local consumers. The postcolonial subject, however, is not to be confused with the postmodern subject, caught in an endless web of commodification, prefabricated identities, mediated culture, and vacuous meta- narratives (cf. Appiah, 1992:155-157). The postcolonial subject is


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a transitional individual in the process of fighting for a new set of

social, political, and personal identities in a changing society. Ethnographers, in this case, are trapped by the same cultural proc- esses that affect the postcolonial actors they describe. Ethnography becomes decentered, not only by the researcher's conscious act of

altering reportage and writing, but also as a historical necessity. Frantz Fanon (1967:21) stated: 'There is a psychological

phenomenon that consists in the belief that the world will open to the extent to which frontiers are broken down.' This belief is the dream of the postcolonial subject-that access to a new and richer world is an automatic byproduct of political and economic change. Ethnographers who 'write the postcolonial' uphold this myth as a belief in commutative interpersonal understanding, reflexivity, and universal culture. Victor Turner's ethnographic research on the Ndembu marks a transition from writing the colonial to writing the

postcolonial. His later work on theater, travel, and celebration forecasts the advent of a postmodern culture, the dissolution of old cultural narratives, and their reconfiguration into heteroglossic per- formances (cf. Turner, 1985:177-178). In this regard, Turner is a

genuinely transitional figure, and his work serves as a bridge between the past and the future in anthropological theorizing.

Fate and the Subject of Passion

Turner began studying the Ndembu-Lunda of northern Zambia at the close of the colonial period. His major field research was con- ducted in the Mwinilunga District of Zambia (then Northern

Rhodesia) between 1950 and 1952. The period of Turner's initial field research was fraught with political change in the southern African region. As early as 1929, the white settlers of Northern and Southern Rhodesia made efforts to move away from colonial status toward self-government. In 1936, the Bledisloe Commission pro- jected the possibility of autonomy for Northern Rhodesia, Southern

Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. Plans were made for a hydroelectric development along the Zambezi, now known as Kariba dam

(Taylor and Lehman, 1961:124). Mining interests in the Copper- belt of Northern Rhodesia were rapidly expanding. By 1950, when Turner entered the field not far from the Copperbelt, African miners had already formed their own welfare associations and unions to protest for better working conditions. African nationalist


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leaders, including president-to-be Kenneth Kaunda, began to emerge from the ranks of the residents of Copperbelt towns.

In 1951, while Turner was still in the field, several summit con- ferences were held in Britain and Northern Rhodesia with the aim of forming a three-territory federal government with token local African representation. On September 3, 1953, a federal govern- ment was established with 44 representatives drawn from the settler and planter populations of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rho- desia, and Nyasaland, and 12 'special African' envoys (Wiedner, 1962:487; Oliver and Fage, 1988:206-207). Although the old colo- nial situation persisted in Northern Rhodesia, the winds of change were strong. The Ndembu studied by Turner were relatively in- sulated from many of these changes, but the effects, not only of the growing cash economy and mining interests but also of shifts in central government structure, reverberated down to the level of Ndembu village headmanship. The transitional and tragic Ndembu personalities caught in socio-cultural change were part of a newly emerging postcolonial state that would ultimately trans- form the very fabric of Ndembu daily life, education, rituals, and social values.

A product of the structural-functionalism of the Manchester School and the guidance of Max Gluckman, Turner's research eventually assumed an interesting and highly original cast that challenged his mentors and colleagues (cf. Werbner, 1984: 176- 178). In his foreword to Turner's Schism and Continuity in an African Society, Gluckman (1957:xii) expressed his initial concern.

I have sketched something of Turner's method: he can speak better for himself. But I make a few points to support him. First, I hope no one will turn away from his analysis in dislike of the phrase 'social drama.' Several of us have tried, with Turner, to find another phrase which is less likely to meet objections: we have failed to, and he would be grateful for suggestions.

Gluckman continues to explain that the 'story' of Ndembu village life is complex, but that it can be disentangled as part of a fascinating narrative when one obtains a clear grasp of the main characters. Turner's innovative style of combining personal nar- ratives, which Gluckman calls individual case studies, and struc- tural analysis challenged British social anthropology of the early 1950s. Even more destabilizing was his insistence on processu- al analysis, originally termed the study of 'processional forms' (Turner, 1968a:xxv).


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Social drama begins as a model for conflict resolution and social integration, and revolves into the cornerstone for Turner's work on social change and cultural modeling (cf. Turner 1968b, 1974, 1980, 1982, and 1985). In his preface to the 1968 edition of Schism and Continuity, Turner (1968a:xxv) retains his commitment to the four phases of social drama, including breach, crisis, redressive action, and repair or rupture. The concept undergoes several transforma- tions as he refines and rewrites its implications by shifting the model from the level of goal-directed social interaction on the ground to an analysis of symbolic and cognitive structures. Social drama evolves from a tase study technique in Turner's early works into a 'universal processual form' in his later writings (Turner, 1982:71). I do not pretend to offer a motivational analysis for Turner's intentions in refusing to abandon the label of social drama, even though he expanded, modified, and incessantly defended the term. Instead, I propose to situate the concepts of social drama, narrative, and reflexivity in Turner's new ethnography with respect to the waning colonial and the emergent postcolonial subject in anthropological discourse.

Turner conceived of history as a diachronic time flow that could be arrested at any point in order to paint a synchronic still-life por- trait. This still-life, or ethnographic profile, is a metaphor for cultural typification (cf. Turner, 1977c:63). In Schism and Con- tinuity, Turner presents profiles of traditional, transitional, and modern Ndembu villagers. He even refers to his entire ethnographic effort in the book as 'transitional' (Turner. 1968a:xxiv). The transition alluded to by Turner, but never made explicit, is that of the Ndembu from passive colonial subjects to active agents in social change. To the extent that one accepts Turner's later versions of dialogical anthropology, in which his informants describe their own rituals and inner experiences, one must also concede that the anthropologist's role is in transition from a dominating to a co-equal status.

In both Schism and Continuity and The Drums of Affliction (1968b), Turner places the passive subject in an epistemological and theological context. Turner (1957:94) asserts:

The situation in an Ndembu village closely parallels that found in Greek drama where one witnesses the helplessness of the human individual before the Fates: but in this case the Fates are the necessities of social process.

These exigencies of social process refer both to the relentless round


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of internal conflict, struggle, and resolution in Ndembu villages and to the external social and political context of Ndembu life in the 1950s. The passive subject is the victim of these imposed social con- ditions, which are played out in kinship rivalries, ritualized contests for power and scarce resources, and identity conflicts that trap tran- sitional personalities, like the tragic character of Sandombu, between traditional and modern worlds.

The introduction of The Drums of Affliction begins with a discus- sion of the universality of systems of religious interpretation, including symbols, ritual, liturgy, mythology, and cosmology. Once again, Ndembu fatalism is situated as a key component of ethnotheological interpretation. After informing the reader that Ndembu ritual is rich in multivocal signs and is a potential source of harmony and equilibrium, Turner (1968b:21-22) defines the existential rationale behind rituals of affliction. States Turner (1968b:22):

It is as though the Ndembu said: 'It is only when a person is reduced to misery by misfortune, and repents of the acts that caused him to be afflicted, that ritual expressing an underlying unity in diverse things may be fittingly enacted for him.' For the patient in rituals of affliction must sit, clad only in a waistcloth, in an attitude of penitent shame, and must not speak or do anything positive. He does not perform actions, but passiones in the ancient sense of the term. He is passive to the action of the ritual and receives the stamp of its meaning.

Is Turner's reading an irrevocably Judaeo-Christian rendering of Ndembu ritual? Although the answer to this question lies partly in the comparative ethnography of the region, the above text sug- gests a fatalistic positioning of the helpless and ritually afflicted Ndembu subject.2 Turner creates a hypothetical anthropological subject on behalf of whom he speaks 'as though' the ethnographer were undergoing the experience himself. The sign of nakedness is imbued with a meaning of penitent shame. This discussion con- tinues with a moral discourse about the lessons that can be learned from Ndembu rites of affliction and their symbolism. Turner argues that ritual symbols recede and lose their meaning with the advent of Western individualism, and that they may soon even vanish. The money economy of the colonial era creates competition and 'prestige symbols' to the detriment of the harmony of kinship ties, village sociability, and reciprocity (Turner, 1968b:23). The passive Ndembu subject is afflicted, not only by ancestral shades and intravillage conflicts, but also by aggressive individualism that


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is the byproduct of European colonial contact. For Turner, the colonial subject's true victimization results from abandoning tradi- tion. Ritual, which requires its own brand of spiritual passivity, is, paradoxically, the only effective armor against the threats of modernity's inevitable onslaught. At the same time, ritual is an important source of cultural innovation (cf. Turner, 1975b:31).

Displacing the Colonial Subject

In the midst of these conflicts, who speaks for the colonial sub- ject? In answer to this question, Turner introduces one of his most radical methodological innovations, the ethnographic dialogue or trilogue. This strategy is cleverly introduced in two of Turner's classic essays appearing in The Forest of Symbols (1967): 'Muchona the Hornet, Interpreter of Religion,' and 'A Ndembu Doctor in Practice.' But before examining these cases, it is fruitful to return to their roots in Schism and Continuity.

Sandombu is one of the most dramatic figures presented in Turner's Schism and Continuity. Caught in a web of kinship obliga- tions and conflict in the Ndembu village of Mukanza, Sandombu is portrayed as 'an atypical, marginal man' (Turner 1957:108). Although he is the passive subject of fate and his social condition, Sandombu challenges Ndembu norms while trying to manipulate them in his favor using a mixture of modern and conventional means. Accused of having murdered his uterine uncle Kahali Chandenda by sorcery (wuloj), Sandombu, who has been absent from the village working as a road foreman on a nearby farm, returns and attempts to cement new kinship relationships through marriage. In spite of his public denial of the sorcery-murder, San- dombu is stigmatized by the commonly held belief among villagers that he is guilty. His hypergamic marriage, as a bid for political ascendancy, also fails due to Sandombu's sterility. Unable to employ cash earned outside of the village as a source of political leverage or to manipulate kinship ties so crucial within the village, Sandombu's bid for leadership initially fails.

More pertinent to this discussion than the intricate social and ritual ramifications of Sandombu's kinship ties is his positioning as a colonial subject who occupies the four logical subject positions implicit in Turner's semiotic schema: passive subject, active sub- ject, transitional subject, and tragic subject. If we accept Turner's


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analysis, all Ndembu begin as passive subjects, defenseless before the Fates (Turner, 1957:94). Sandombu, however, refused to accept this role. He was ambitious, 'industrious' (in Turner's words), and anxious to bend the rules of the conventional social order (Turner, 1957:108). His openness to the modern world and cash economy posed a threat to other villagers when coupled with his lingering desire for traditional forms of recognition in Mukanza. Sandombu's attempt to use wuloji combined with cash made him an active subject with a transitional character. Never- theless, in the end his efforts failed to move the Fates, and he achieved neither permanent headmanship nor social recognition, casting him as a tragic subject. Turner (1957:109) sums up the case when he states: 'Yet this odd man out was audacious enough to aspire to be the man at the helm.' Falling far short of this aspira- tion, Sandombu became the village scapegoat, a sad and marginal figure. In certain respects, Sandombu's marginal position parallels that of the ethnographer, who is also the conduit of a threatening, alien culture. Yet, the dialogue between Sandombu and the ethnographer remains distant. Turner never even remotely sug- gests a comparison between this marginal man and the

anthropologist. In his foreword, Gluckman (1957:xii-xiii) states that, as a reader, he became ' the tragic story of San- dombu,' who came to symbolize the outsider within the group. This interplay between 'insider' and 'outsider' subject positions is crucial to Turner's work and becomes the key to understanding how he ultimately decentered the ethnographic discourse of the 1950s.

Another narrative of marginality surfaces in Turner's powerful account of the Ndembu doctor, Muchona. Turner spent eight months of long, lively discussion with the Ndembu doctor-diviner. After meeting Muchona by chance on a dusty road, Turner was reintroduced to him by Windson Kashinakaji, a teacher at the local Mission Out-School. Windson served as Turner's research assis- tant, translator, and colleague. James Clifford (1988:48-49) emphasizes that what often passes as a dialogue between Turner and Muchona was actually a trilogue, in which Windson provided much of the nuanced theological and exegetical interpretation.3 Turner credits Windson with slowing down Muchona's staccato and 'salty' speech and clarifying many of the complex questions of ritual and symbol that arose in the conversations with Muchona. In


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his work on the Luunda of Zaire, Filip De Boeck (forthcoming:9) has referred to this 'salty argot' as knots of esoteric knowledge con-

veyed through parables, riddles, and enigmas. Here, I am less con- cerned than is Clifford with whether polyphonic voices appear as

part of the effort to disentable this supposedly dialogical ethnographic text, for many voices ultimately constitute the psy- chological make-up of any individual. A more intriguing semiotic

question surrounds how conversational dialogue is transformed into the basis of ethnography, and how that multifaceted dialogue affects the subjective positions of the participants.

Elsewhere, I have described the process of moving from

ethnographic dialogue to inscription and factual assertions as discursive sabotage (Jules-Rosette, 1988/89:37-38). During this

process, the ethnographer fills in information withheld or distorted

by informants and reformulates this information into a coherent text. For example, Muchona tells Turner that a diviner possesses secret knowledge. Turner (1967:145) quotes from Muchona:

'Everyone has such knowledge. But the diviner goes between the

paths to a secret place.' During his discussions with Turner, this

knowledge is filled in, transcribed, and converted into factual infor- mation about Ndembu ritual. These ethnographic facts are inter-

spersed with Muchona's tales about his own afflictions, his eight treatments for ihamba possession, and his efforts to create a balance between personal affliction and the diviner's calling.

Also known by the name of Kapaku, Muchona is portrayed as a complex and moody character. Born of a slave mother, he cannot

escape the stigma of his subordinate lineage. Throughout his life, Muchona battles against the avenging shades of his matrilineage, which threaten to enslave him both spiritually and socially. As a diviner who moves adroitly across social and gender barriers, Muchona is able to carve out a recognized social position for himself and a healing practice that focuses on women's reproduc- tive disorders. His deep insights into Ndembu ritual result from

marginality, and it is through this lens that Turner comes to under- stand Ndembu ritual. Turner (1967:145-146) explains:

I have tried to sketch some of the factors that may have been responsible for making Muchona a 'marginal man' in Ndembu society. His slave origin, his unimpressive appearance, his frail health, the fact that as a child he trailed after his mother through several villages, even his mental brilliance, com- bined to make him in some measure abnormal. His special abilities would not overcome the handicaps of his marginality and physical maladjustment.


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Muchona achieved a degree of social integration through his initiation as a healer and diviner. The tales of healing that Muchona shares with Turner uncover the rich fabric of Ndembu society, particularly as it is experienced through the social and physiological misfortunes of women and of Muchona himself. Not only is Muchona marginalized by the conditions that Turner describes, he is doubly stigmatized by his association with the anthropologist. When Muchona purchases 'a suit of white ducks' from his informant's fees, he becomes the object of the jealousy of other villagers (Turner, 1967:147). In spite of his claims that his son Fanuel bought him the suit, villagers soon discover that Turner's money was given to the tailor. Driven by social pressure and villagers' accusations that he has been feeding a pack of lies to Turner, Muchona abandons the suit for what Turner (1967:148) describes as tattered 'khaki rags.' As with Sandombu, Muchona's brief flirtation with flashy Western consumer goods comes to an abrupt and unpleasant end, soon to be followed by the termination of the theological dialogues.

Although Turner explores the depth of his learning from Muchona and Windson, he never questions why the diviner pur- chased the suit, writing the incident off as an example of Muchona's need to demonstrate his son Fanuel's loyalty and wealth to the village. Another interpretation of this incident sug- gests that it marks a turning point in the narrative of the colonial subject. Sandombu vainly wishes to become a headman in his local context. In contrast, Muchona, according to Turner (1967:150), becomes a 'philosophy don', whose exegesis on Ndembu ritual practice is valued for itself rather than merely as a part of routine medical practice. As both Muchona and Turner, not to mention Windson, evolve during the dialogue, something strange and com- plex has happened to ethnography. The passive Ndembu subject is transformed into the active documenter of Ndembu society, while the anthropologist becomes a vicarious participant in its most intimate rituals. Muchona literally sheds his old clothes, as well as his former identity, as he reaches out to Turner, whose subject posi- tion as the anthropologist has subtly shifted. Was Muchona telling Turner lies in order to bewitch him, or was he revealing secrets that should not have passed beyond the confines of secluded ritual enclosures? Neither of these alternatives, circulated in gossip among Ndembu villagers, is plausible or complete. Rather,


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Muchona presided over Turner's initiation into the web of conflict and social pressure of Ndembu life. And Turner brought Muchona-already a troubled, fractal, and marginal subject- closer to digesting the West.4 Windson, the literate, Christian intermediary, was the transitional subject, building a bridge between two disparate world views.

'A Ndembu Doctor in Practice,' the concluding chapter of The Forest of Symbols (1967:359-393), resituates Turner's exegetical knowledge of Ndembu curing practices in terms of the full perfor- mance of a ritual. Harking back to Turner's earliest work on social drama, this essay shows the ways in which a rite of affliction, namely the ihamba ceremony, is able to bring about conflict resolu- tion and village harmony. Although Turner (1967:364) refers to Muchona in this essay as 'my best informant on ritual matters,' the description concerns the healing practices of Ihembi, a reputed doc- tor in affliction matters and another one of Turner's long-term acquaintances. Although the author's tone in this essay is imper- sonal as he draws together the threads of sociological and ritual

analysis, Turner's deep involvement in the setting is apparent. The

villagers ask Turner to drive Ihembi, along with a previous con- tender for headmanship, Samuwinu, to their location for the ritual

performance. Turner's close association with the patient, the

village, and the key ritual practitioners is evident throughout the discussion. Even though Turner does not invoke the term, the

analysis follows the classic four-phase social drama model. The

deep ritual knowledge of the ihamba rite that Turner has acquired from Muchona is now placed in the context of performance with a detailed sociological description of the intragroup conflicts leading to affliction. The patient, Kamahasanyi, demonstrates a full range of commonly found Ndembu medical problems, including poor hunting, impotence, back pains, heart palpitations, and attacks by troublesome spirits of living Europeans. In a cautious diagnosis, Turner (1967:385) ventures: 'I cannot say with clinical certainty whether Kamahasanyi's symptoms were real or imaginary. My own feeling is that they were mainly neurotic.' At the close of the

ceremony, Kamahasanyi is cured and returns to life as usual-

hunting, cultivating gardens, participating in palavers, and gossip- ing with friends.

The ethnographic voice that Turner adopts in this essay is an intriguing melange of distant structural-functional explanation, lay


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clinical analysis, and personal involvement. In spite of an introduc- tory description of therapeutic procedures learned through associa- tion with Ndembu doctors, the sociological weight of this essay is carried by a description of social drama as performance. The vic- timized patient is the central character who makes the performance and its resolution through social drama possible.

Narrative and Social Drama

The narrative program developed by semiotician A.J. Greimas has interesting affinities with Turner's model of social drama. Employing Greimas's model in conjunction with Turner's permits us to consider the entire ethnographic dialogue as a narrative in which relationships of meaning and power are shaped (cf. Bruner, 1986:144). Greimas (1970:172-176) sees narrative as unfolding in four stages of intersubjective relations: (1) the confrontation of two subjects, (2) the domination of a subject over an object or another subject, (3) final attribution, and (4) contract. While Turner's model of social drama deals with the individual's position in a col- lectivity, Greimas's approach to narrative situates the changing cognitive and emotional relationships of subjects to objects in discourse. The narrative program is not strictly teleological because it unravels at the point of attribution. At the confrontation stage, two subjects meet in a pristine encounter. The subjects remain dis- tant and on par with one another. Turner's initial encounter with Muchona contains a confrontation-stage narrative. Describing the game of identifying Ndembu medicinal plants in which Muchona joined him when they first met, Turner demonstrates the interplay between seemingly equal subjects, which is characteristic of con- frontation.

Domination marks the moment at which asymmetry appears between subjects in their quest for a valued object. Colonial and tragic subjects always occupy an asymmetrical position with respect to anthropologists, for they are trapped in a social and cultural web in which anthropologists are implicated but from which they may escape. Sandombu and Kamahasanyi are portrayed as tragic, passive, and neurotic, inhibited by their thwarted desires and recalcitrant social circumstances. Muchona defies this classification because he constantly shifts subject positions. Muchona is both teacher and pupil; doctor and patient; partner and informant.


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When he appears in the white duck suit, Muchona challenges Turner to swap positions with him. It is in this sense that Muchona becomes Turner's mirror image-his best, if not his most reliable, research informant.

Reflexivity and Decentering Ethnography

As Turner's work on processual models evolved during the 1970s, he began to exploit a more self-consciously phenom- enological approach. Drawing on ordinary language philosophy, ethnomethodologists had expanded the notion of reflexive verbal inflections into an analysis of how people develop rational and

apparently consistent accounts for their everyday actions. Harold Garfinkel (1969:8) argued that '[m]embers know, require, count on, and make use of this reflexivity' in order to generate acceptable accounts of their daily procedures. Turner puts Garfinkel's insights to interesting use in developing his processual analysis. Turner

(1977c:63) states:

Garfinkel argues that even the practical, mundane activities of members of sociocultural groups are 'reflexive' at the common sense level, because the social existence of a member's experiences can be established only through their typification, through the effort of relating their uniqueness to the world of meaning generated and transmitted by the group.

Here Turner has subtly modified the approach that he sum- marizes by transforming reflexivity into cultural category.5 He

qualifies that anthropologists 'must find "interesting" not only what Garfinkel terms the "uninteresting commonplace" events and activities in social life...but also what is genuinely interesting, extraordinary, rare...' (Turner, 1977c:65). Under the rubric of

extraordinary and rare, Turner includes ritual symbols, myth, and the seemingly exotic and bizarre. Reflexivity shifts from a form of

personal accountability to a type of collective reflection and cultural

coding. Turner (1982:75-76) introduces the terms plural reflexivity and collective reflexivity to describe this cultural coding and its social

consequences. Plural reflexivity is part of social drama and the pro- cessual model, which are no longer defined solely with regard to Ndembu social life but, instead, become part of the universal

unfolding of human dramas of social conflict and cultural change. Turner reformulates social drama in the context of reflexivity.6

I tend to regard social drama in its full formal development, its full phase structure as a process of converting particular values and ends, distributed


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over a range of actors, into a system (which is always temporary and provi- sional) of shared consensual meaning (Turner, 1982:75).

The concept of plural reflexivity may be compared with what

Anthony Giddens (1984:5-6) terms 'reflexive monitoring of action.' Giddens contends that individuals constantly monitor their actions with respect to the social expectations of others. This 'prac- tical consciousness' of actions is conjoined with 'discursive consciousness,' or reporting on courses of action in the form of

accounts, explanations, and excuses (Giddens, 1984:6-7). To these two types of reflexive action, Giddens (1984:5) appends the

unacknowledged motivations for action, or the 'dark currents outside of the actor's awareness.' Of particular interest to this discussion is the fact that plural reflexivity and reflexive social

monitoring include both the ethnographer and the subject in the

process of mutually constructing discursive accounts of their actions.

According to Turner's model, reflexivity interrupts the flow of social drama, particularly at the redressive stage just prior to its resolution. At this point, participants stop to review the conse- quences of past actions. These moments of reflection range from Ndembu diviners' diagnoses to televised social dramas such as

Watergate and the plight of American hostages in Iran. Televised

hearings and news broadcasts shape and resolve postmodern con- flicts. The mass media operate as a reflexive device by interpreting the intricacies of these dramas and projecting their outcomes.

Adding the ingredient of reflexivity to the recipe of social drama allows Turner to broaden the historical and cultural frame of reference for his model. Interesting parallels may also be drawn between Turner's use of reflexivity and Jean Baudrillard's concept of simulation, the endless juxtaposition of signs against other signs in postmodern culture (Baudrillard, 1981:36-45). While Baudril- lard argues that televised representations of Watergate and the Gulf War replace actual events as media collages of signifiers without referents, Turner insists on the persistent reality of the actual event.7 Media representations mark a reflexive moment in the flow of an event and serve as the basis for its cultural interpretation and resolution. Thus, for Turner reflexivity becomes part of social and

interpretive processes but does not substitute for the harsh reality of the social order.


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Turner's introduction of the concept of reflexivity to modulate the analysis of social drama is typical of the absorptive, almost syn- cretic, theorizing of his later works. Old concepts are combined with new ones, refurbished, and modified to span across pre- modem, moder, and postmodern social forms. The seeds of Turner's 'postmodern' theory are already evident in his work on the Ndembu. In The Drums of Affliction, he argues that key ritual

symbols 'represent...the actualization of the work put into them' and that they operate as commodities tied to and revealing the

underlying social system (Turner, 1968b:3). Symbols are, thus, part of a code of exchange that binds together the social, political, and psychological realms of human action.

In the light of his keen interest in reflexivity, it is unusual that Turner often stopped short of examining his own anthropological stance with regard to his Ndembu informants. The intense political period during which Turner initiated his African research marked him as a transitional subject and as the unwitting, and perhaps unwilling, representative of a waning colonial order. Like his Ndembu informants, he was the victim of fate, caught in a moment of crisis and change. Yet, only traces of this political history emerge in his work, and they are often abandoned as untouched fragments. When the Ndembu became possessed by spirits of Europeans, driven toward the cash economy and toward mimetic encounters with the outside world, Turner remarked upon these episodes as routine occurrences in a social drama. His social encounters with the Ndembu were played out against the backdrop of an eternal

ethnographic present in which time flow was reckoned by the clock of ritual process. Turner appears partially blind to the social and

political impact of his presence among the Ndembu at such a highly charged period. The lessons of Ndembu social conflict and drama are immersed in a timeless and universal interpretation of the human condition. This interpretation belies Turner's implicit theology. In an essay on ritual and drama, Turner (1977b:3) aptly summarizes his position.

Man's 'original sin,' perhaps, is the plurality of equally valid rules he imposes on himself, so that whatever virtue he may display in obeying one is negated by the fact that he is in all honesty transgressing another. Original sin is perhaps not merely a mistake in logical sorting, but man's status as an evolving life form.


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Travel, Play, and Flow

As part of his ceaseless efforts to create a balance between struc- ture and process in society, Turner devoted a considerable portion of his later work to travel, play, and the ludic elements of cultural expression. The theories of the ludic that he develops are, in certain respects, directly connected to the earlier research on Ndembu rituals of initiation. Turner compares play with the liminal period in initiation, in which individuals are stripped of their old identities and social personae while they await new statuses (Turner, 1969:94-110). Travel, whether it takes the form of ancient pilgrimages or modern tourism, uproots the traveler from old iden- tities and creates the possibility for what Dean MacCannell (1992:302-303) calls 'empty meeting grounds,' where cultures col- lide but do not mesh. The tangible symbols transferred in the empty meeting grounds are often an odd mixture of old and new cultures and superficial traces of contact and new identities.8

Moments of intense play, drama, and ritual performance arrest the flow of time (Turner, 1982:48-49). In this state of suspended animation, new identities are formed and alternative types of spon- taneous community emerge. The social bonding of young Ndembu initiates, the miraculous discoveries of medieval pilgrims, and the exhilarating moments of drama, play, and sport take place in this timeless flow (Turner and Turner, 1978:36-37). From flow derives the sense of 'we-ness' that is so important to communitas and collec- tive identity.

With regard to positioning the postcolonial subject, Turner's theories of travel, play, and flow serve multiple purposes and may be read on several levels. The subject who suspends the flow of time exists outside of history. Normative constraints of social hierarchy and political hegemony are relaxed because timelessness implies 'antistructure' (Turner, 1969:131-133; Turner, 1982:26-27). While flow involves a passive, unreflective being-for-itself, when flow is arrested, a new, plural reflexivity emerges. At this moment, the ethnographer is able to share in the subjects' world without bar- riers of culture, class, ethnicity, knowledge, or power. This idyllic state of reciprocity is, for Turner, the key to decentering ethnography.

During the reflexive moment within the flow, the ethnographic subject is empowered, or at least achieves the illusion of empower-


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ment. Events that flow may be orchestrated by tricksters, diviners, travel guides, theater directors, and researchers. For the diviner, stage-managing the moments of flow determines the success and public recognition of diagnosis and healing. Muchona's control of the flow of his conversations with Turner and Windson created a moment of empowerment for the Ndembu doctor and the vision of a new type of social relationship. By decentering ethnography, the researcher achieves documentary authenticity as an observing par- ticipant in the unfolding of events and a co-creator of alternative cultural narratives. By creating a sense of collectivity, play relieves the burdens of marginality and social guilt, but it does not erase the cultural distance between ethnographers and their subjects. Although there are many alternative readings, Turner's discourse on play, liminality, and flow may be interpreted as an effort to decenter ethnography by attenuating the subject/object distinction and, for a fleeting moment, creating a common meeting ground for ethnographers and their subjects.9

Conclusions: Reflections on Reformulating an Anthropological Vision

I first met Victor Turner in 1969 when I was a graduate student at Harvard University. Our encounter took place, not on a dusty Zambian road, but at the Harvard faculty club where I sat next to him at a student luncheon. In awe of this great figure, I expressed my interest in going to Africa, possibly Zaire, to study ritual in an independent church. I voiced my enthusiasm about his work. As I had been studying Tshiluba, he smiled and spoke to me in a strange dialect that I later learned was Lunda. I did go to Zaire, and our paths did not cross again for several years.

When my doctoral dissertation was finished, at the encourage- ment of a colleague, I sent a copy to Turner. He responded with a short note stating that although the work 'smelled of the lamp,' it was worthy of being published with revision and considerable cut- ting. He sent me a set of guidelines for revision, and I set about working. Thus began our correspondence, which lasted nearly a decade, and included his comments and suggestions on several of my articles.

To restructure my work, Turner suggested that I view myself as an 'observing participant' struggling to become part of another culture. Through reflexivity, I would discover the limitations of my


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own subjective position and, perhaps, the impossibility of my sociological project. When my book was completed, Turner wrote the foreword, summarizing his view of the enterprise (Turner, 1975a:8).

Bennetta Jules-Rosette approaches the rituals of an African independent church from an unusual standpoint. Through conversion she became a member of the Apostles of John Maranke. Her 'fieldwork,' in the traditional sense, ended at that time, but by treating her own membership as a 'vehicle for description' she seeks to overcome the dichotomy between commitment and detachment. To each level of sociality corresponds its own knowledge, and if one wishes to grasp a group's deepest knowledge one must commune with its members, speak its Essential We-talk (to combine the vocabularies of Martin Buber and Alfred Schutz). Reflexivity may negate immediacy, solitude may negate society, but these negations may be negated. One may observe while participating, have an objective relation to one's own subjec- tivity. Durkheim and Kierkegaard may yet be friends!

In seeking to carry Turner's classic dialogue with Muchona one step further, I had, perhaps, committed the 'original sin' of believ- ing that subjectivities are permeable and cultures can be seen from the 'inside-out.' Like Turner, I did not problematize the colonial or postcolonial subject then, although the struggles of independent churches are certainly replete with the history of political repres- sion. My goal was to become part of the flow, and Turner was the perfect mentor.

Some years later, in commenting on an article I had written, Turner made quite different remarks.

With the waning of colonialism, the 'natural science' model is obsolescent, that which makes a binary opposition between metropolitan 'subject' and colonized 'object.' Your paper sees phenomenological sociology and sym- pathetic philosophers as providing a better way of seeing a more egalitarian relationship between the anthropologists and those they live among and try to understand....10

The metropolitan/colonial binary opposition was dear to Turner and was one of his underlying preoccupations. Nevertheless, the tools that he provides for examining the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial subject remain implicit in his works on the Ndembu. His later reflections on collective and plural reflexivity sketch a 'universal' human subject, but this subject stands outside of a specific historical context. The Ndembu are re-envisioned

through the lens of Greek mythology and philosophy, while

Watergate is compared to a traditional African ritual of affliction.

Although the originality and brilliance of these comparisons is


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undeniable, one wonders whether something crucial has not been omitted: the mirroring of the colonizer in the eyes of the colonized, Muchona's costume changes, and the impossibility of a truly plural reflexivity.

Through his works, Turner developed a new vision for the

anthropology of his time-a shift from structure to process, from function to reflexivity. Developed toward the end of his career, the

anthropology of experience as an approach to exploring the

unfolding of 'indigenous' meaning structures is the next step that Turner's work would have taken (Bruner, 1986:9). Although this

approach has been more fully articulated by Turner's followers since his death, he laid the initial foundations. Turner believed that old and new models should be incorporated according to a principle of 'recovered law' (Turner, 1977c:61). Moreover, he emphasized the importance of moving across disciplinary boundaries, from

anthropology and philosophy to theater, in this process of incor- poration. The balance that Turner sought to achieve between struc- ture and process, between ritual and reflexivity, has generated new

ways of reading cultural texts in the postcolonial era and allows us to resituate his work as a transitional production in the flow of

anthropological theory.


1. Edith Turner's comprehensive prologue to On the Edge of the Bush (1985:1- 15), a posthumous collection of Victor Turner's essays, situates the trajectory of his ethnographic and research experiences. She illustrates the evolution of con- cepts such as social drama, reflexivity, and flow by describing Turner's influences extending from the original research on the Ndembu to his collaboration with director, drama critic, and theorist Richard Schechner. My essay makes no such attempt at biographical reconstruction. Instead, I endeavour to situate Turner's work with respect to changing currents of anthropological theorizing and reflec- tions on ethnographic discourse.

2. In his dissertation manuscript 'From Knots to Web: Fertility, Life- Transmission, Health and Well-being among the Aluund of Zaire' (1991) and in 'Bodies of Remembrance: Knowledge, Experience, and the Growing Memory of Luunda Ritual Performance' (forthcoming), Filip De Boeck analyzes Luunda rituals of initiation and healing. His new ethnographic materials provide an infor- mative basis for re-examining Ndembu-Lunda rituals and the findings presented in Turner's early research.

3. James Clifford (1988:48) uses Turner's association with Muchona to illustrate the interplay of 'monophonic and polyphonic exposition' in ethnographic writing. He emphasizes the status of Windson Kashinakaji as an intermediary in the ethnographic trilogue and the ways in which Windson's voice is muted in the final account. Dialogical anthropology involves a move toward the decentering of


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ethnography, which is a major concern of this paper. Nevertheless, my interest here focuses on Muchona as an 'atypical' colonial subject and the interplay of sub- ject positions and identities between Turner and Muchona as the ethnographic text unfolds.

4. Susan Vogel (1991:14-31) uses the metonym 'digesting the West' to indicate the ways in which contact with the West through colonial domination and postcolonial interactions has been reconfigured in African cultural and artistic expressions. 'Digesting the West' is a dialectical process in which fragments of Western culture are put to new and innovative uses in the African context. Muchona's extended dialogue with Turner forced the diviner to digest the West as part of a new identity that emerged for him during the course of his interactions with a cultural outsider.

5. For Garfinkel (1969:8-10), reflexivity is part of the process through which individuals make their activities socially accountable. While reflexivity relies upon profound social knowledge, Garfinkel does not treat reflexivity as a cultural category in which plural or collective accounts are presented as explanations of changing cultural values. Turner's modified and expanded use of plural reflexivity supports his use of the social drama model as a way of resolving collective and universal social conflicts.

6. This quote appears in nearly identical form in Turner's essay entitled 'The Anthropology of Performance' (Turner, 1985:203). In this 1985 essay, Turner elaborates on the role of reflexivity as a feedback and 'scanning mechanism' at the redressive phase of social drama.

7. Jean Baudrillard (1981:44-45) is also fascinated by Watergate, which he interprets as a ritual drama that simulates the death of political power. Turner analyzes Watergate as a social drama comparable in its social and emotional con- sequences to Ndembu conflicts over village headmanship (Turner, 1982:70 and 74).

8. Cultural products, such as tourist art, are exchanged at these crucial points of intersection where old and new cultures meet but do not mesh (cf. Jules- Rosette, 1984:5-19).

9. Following Greimas's model, this decentering of ethnography takes place at the attribution phase of the narrative program in which the positions of narrative subjects are reversed as a new narrative unfolds (Greimas, 1970:174-175).

10. This letter is extracted from my personal correspondence with Victor Turner (1977a) in late 1977.


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