Notes on the Sociology of Religion (19)

John C. Rankin

Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, 1995), Chapters 3, 4.


  1. Background: a) 1920-1983, born in Glasgow; b) University College at London, Manchester University; professor at Univ. of Chicago;  c) field study w/Ndembu in canal Africa; d) famous for development of rites of passage, “symbolic and interpretive anthropology” alongside Clifford Geertz; e) use of Levi-Strauss.
  2. Central Ideas: a) Rites of passage − 1. separation (pre-liminal), i] away from childhood; 2. transition (liminal),  i] at about puberty, reincorporation, i] now an adult, ii] persistent memory of process; b) liminal phase (p. 94) − 1. threshold/marginal stage, i] “Ritual powers of the weak” (p. 102); inferior, weak, marginalized, ii]  “submissiveness and silence” (p. 103) + “blank slate,” “stripped” (p. 108), iii] contrast w/status system, iv] court jester; prophets and artists, v] rules of St. Benedict, 2. Communitas, i] “Area of common living,” ii] ritual process brings low status high, and high status low, to maintain tribal unity and thus serve communitas, iii] “Community is where community happens” (p. 127), iv] “Subjunctive mood” (p. 127), v] Martin Buber: I/Thou/We, 3. social structures v. communitas, i] communitas has an existential quality; structure is cognitive/set of rules, ii] “Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality” (p.128)., iv] structure in Millenarian movements, patrilineal norm, matrilateral Tallensi, Nuer, matrilineal Ashanti Sky God + python, (p. 122); c) modalities of Communitas − 1. three modalities: a] existential or spontaneous; b] normative; and c] ideological, 2. latter two already within structure, 3. spontaneous communitas develops structure to survive initial phase, i] Gonzalo in Shakespeare’s Tempest, ii] Franciscans (reactionary reality of poverty vow), sought permanent liminality, but structure came in nonetheless, iii] Francis not able to govern; second generation of leadership needed, iv] Sahajiya movement in Bengal (Krishna).
  3. Conclusion: a) descriptive power of the rites of passage; b) the power of liminality to shape impending structures, at least internally in pursuit of communitas with Ndembu.
  4. Critique: Liminality remains liminal, as Assad might point out.


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House of Lords 17 October 2017

Text of John Rankin’s address on the occasion of the 500th annive5rsary of the Reformation.