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Victor Turner and Symbolic Anthropology

Updated on December 6, 2016
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The Midnight Muse received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of South Florida and writes about world cultures.

Interpreting Culture Through Symbolic Anthropology

Victor Turner was a British anthropologist who was recognized for his work in symbolic anthropology. He began working within the field of anthropology as an orthodox British structural-fundamentalist and collected data on social and political organizations. During this time, he was confronted with the enigmatic problem of trying to understand and interpret the form and style of individual cultures.

At that time, the prevailing academics advocated that ritual symbols were reflected within a culture and that a society was composed of an interwoven cultural institution comprised of social positions. These anthropological predecessors postulated that rituals were a method that promoted social cohesion within a culture. (Turner 1992:3) Some of the academic researchers who were responsible for promoting these theories included the social psychologist, David Émile Durkheim; the social anthropologist, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown; and the ethnographer, Bronisław Malinowski.

Effects of Psychology on Symbolism

Victor Turner set out to discover a new process that could be used to understand culture through the dynamic properties of symbols. (Turner 1992:4) He used the research of the Gestalt psychologists as a basis for providing a "positional meaning" that explained the display and usage of ritual symbols within a culture. (ibid.) In order to garner a wider understanding of symbolism, Turner also relied heavily on the research of Sigmund Freud, a contemporary psychoanalyst of the same era. Victor Turner was interested in the process of transmitting culture symbols between generations. Freud's work, the "Interpretation of Dreams," presented Turner with the foundation that was required for his research. Freud's work concerned the analysis of symbols in dreams. Turner's fieldwork with the Ndembu had confirmed that a single ritual symbol could stand for more than one referent, being perceived as multivocal in its interpretation, and these conclusions coincided with what he had learned from Freud's book. (Turner 1992:18-19)

An Overview of Symbolic Anthropology

The analytical tools and methodologies established by Victor Turner provide a mechanism for anthropologists to understand culture and the influential role of symbols within a society. The following provides a brief overview of the foundational definitions and mechanics of Turner's approach to symbolic anthropology and how these strategies can be implemented to interpret culture, provide a cultural context for interpreting symbols, and understand the purpose of ritual within a society.

Symbols and Their Meaning

The result of Victor Turner's research was a method that could be used to analyze, classify, and describe the role of a symbol and its positional relationship within a culture. Symbols are attributed with having three different dimensions: the operational, the exegetic, and the positional. (Dolgin et al. 1977: 190)

  • The operational dimension shows the simultaneous meaning between the symbol and its use.
  • The exegetic dimension consists of the explanation of the symbol's meaning by the actors within the system.
  • The positional dimension explains the relationship between symbols.

Interpreting Amalgamated Symbols

The primary focus of the Victor Turner's research was centered on the multivocal and polysemic nature of symbols and their ability to coalesce the seemingly disparate significances that were represented by the symbolic vehicle and the polarization of the referents assigned to the major ritual symbol. (Dolgin et al. 1977:183) Charles Keyes uses the term processual symbolic analysis to describe the aforementioned analytical methodology that was implemented by Victor Turner. (Turner and Turner 1978:243) Victor Turner defines his novel approach using these proprietary techniques for analysis as, "... the interpretation of symbols operating in dynamic systems of signifiers, their meanings, and changing modes of signification, in the context of temporal socio-cultural processes." (ibid.)

Analyzing the Meaning of Complex Symbols

The concept of liminality was a favorite topics and key focal point of Turner's research and he endeavored to provide a suitable explanation that reconciled the disparate characteristics associated with this social axiom.

Sometimes two ritual symbols are united together in juxtaposition to provide an alternative interpretation that can be substantially different from the original meaning that was expressed by individually by each symbol. The understanding of these oppositional symbols is often confined to the context of a specific culture and its interpretation is rarely ubiquitous among other cultures. (Dolgin et al. 1977:187) In this manner, conglomerations of symbols can be established to represent conceptual antagonism. (Dolgin et al. 1977:188)

The use of ritual symbols that apply elevated levels of complexity can be used to communicate detailed information and provide specific meaning within a targeted culture; however, the utilization of simplistic ritual symbols often results in a more universal understanding of the expressed information and can be successfully interpreted more pervasively throughout multiple cultures that exist beyond the point of origin. (Dolgin et al. 1977:189)

The Role of Ritual Symbols in Culture

To understand what a ritual symbol is, we must first define both a ritual and a symbol.

  • Rituals
    A ritual, according to Victor Turner, is "Formal behavior prescribed for occasions not given over to technological routine that have reference to beliefs in mystical beings or powers." (Turner and Turner 1978:243)

  • Symbols
    Victor Turner describes a symbol as being like a sign except that there is a likeness between the thing which is being signified and the meaning. (ibid.)

Now, what does this all really mean? According to Turner, the ritual symbol is, "the smallest unit of ritual which still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior... the ultimate unit of specific structure in a ritual context." The ritual symbol is defined by semantic relationships. It has multiple meanings, or significata, can be associated with other distinct significata, and can simultaneously condense and represent many things. (Dolgin et al. 1977:184) The ritual symbol also stretches between two poles: the ideological and the sensory. (ibid.) The ritual symbol joins these two opposing poles together and offers both emotion and social values. (Turner and Turner 1978:247)

Expressions of Ritual Symbols in Cultural Themes

Each culture has multiple themes that are expressed and within each of these themes there exists multiple ritual symbols. Morris E. Opler defines a theme as, "dynamic affirmations that can be identified in every culture." and explains that by understanding the theme of a culture it is also possible to understand its character, structure, and direction. (Dolgin et al. 1977:185) A cultural theme promotes a specific concept or activity within the culture and the mechanism that expresses that theme is the ritual symbol. Ritual symbols can be multivocal and have the ability to represent multiple themes simultaneously. (ibid.) This multivocal portrayal is immutable and the ritual symbol is only capable of communicating a theme in a formalized manner and does not allow for individual variances in its portrayed manifestation. (Dolgin et al. 1977: 186)

Structural Foundations of a Ritual System

Ritual systems include actions, objects, events, and words for communication with invisible forces. It also includes the transmitting of these rites through an oral tradition. (Turner and Turner 1978: 244) Many ritual systems are built upon myths and theology that form the grounds for interpretation. In societies that do not have myths, there are three foundations that ritual symbols are built on: nominal, substantial, and artifactual. (Dolgin et al. 1977:191)

  • The nominal foundation is the name of the symbol.
  • The substantial foundation is the physical and sensory properties of the symbol.
  • The artifactual foundation is the technical side of the conversion of an object for use in ritual.

Dominant Ritual Symbols and Their Meanings

Usually, rituals occur in an organized and cyclical fashion. Within the entire system of the ritual, there are clustered together a set of dominant ritual symbols that are centralized during each ritual. (Dolgin et al. 1977: 186) Although these dominant symbols occur in all of the rituals, each referent of the ritual symbol can only be used for a selected part of a given ritual. (Dolgin et al. 1977:187) Since a ritual symbol may stand for a large number of referents, during this period of use, only a fraction of its total meanings is able to be demonstrated. (ibid.)

The meaning of the dominant symbols are interpreted in three ways by the order of reference: the manifest meaning, the latent meaning, and the hidden meaning.

  • The manifest meaning is that which the observer is completely aware of and is directly related with the goal of the ritual itself.
  • The latent meaning is that which the observer is only partially aware of and may or may not fully understand later. This meaning usually has relationships with other aspects of life within that culture.
  • The last is the hidden meaning, and is that which the observer is totally unaware of and is related to those things which are shared with all members of a culture such as infancy and possibly prenatal experiences. (Turner and Turner 1978:246)


  • Dolgin, Janet L., David S. Kemnitzer, and David M. Schneider, eds. "Symbolic Anthropology." (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.)

  • Turner, Victor, ed. "Celebration." (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1982.)

  • Turner, Victor W. "Blazing the Trail." (Tucson & London: University of Arizona Press,1992.)

© 2015 Midnight Muse


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