Vale Edith Turner

Edith Turner — Edie as she was universally known — passed away on 18 June 2016. Perhaps the quickest and least accurate way to describe Edie is “Victor Turner’s wife”. But her importance in anthropology is pretty much totally erased by that description. Edie was a tremendous influence on Vic, and all of his work should be read with the recognition that there is a silent second author on the piece: Edie. But even reducing Edie to merely a co-author of some of the most important anthropology ever written doesn’t do her justice. Edie outlived Vic by 33 years, producing her own brand of anthropology with flair and originality. Edie produced around five books between Vic’s death and her passing — that is to say, after she was sixty-two years old, an age when most people are on the verge of retirement! In them, she crafted an audacious, unapologetic anthropology of religion that parted ways with secularism, science, and over-seriousness… and never looked back.

Rumors in my graduate school days were that her shamanism class at UVA included her actually being possessed. I don’t know if that is true, but it probably wasn’t far off the mark. Today in anthropology some more theoretically recondite researchers coquettishly hint that ‘supernatural’ phenomenon might be real, or ought to be considered real, or The Other’s idea that they are real out to be taken seriously. Turner’s anthropology took this idea and radicalized it decades before the ontological turn — indeed, she was in some ways an influence on the Stragnerian (Roy Wagner + Marilyn Strathern) branch of this school. But in preceding them she also exceeded them. Her question was: What would anthropology be if spirits are real? Her answer, in books like Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy and Among the Healers: Stories of Spiritual and Ritual Healing around the World was an affirming, spiritually engaged, orthodoxy-busting anthropology.

In many ways, Vic and Edie were godparents to the entire baby boomer generation of anthropologists. While other members of the Silent Generation examined them, peer reviewed them, hired them, and promoted them, Vic and Edie stayed above the fray and kept the countercultural fires stoked by scrupulously avoiding any institutional authority capacity in which they would have to say no. Edie’s anthropology was a pan-spiritual kinda-Catholic pre-and-post-New-Age shamanism that epitomizes some of the most cosmic influences of the baby boomer generation she not only nurtured, but learned from.

This was not and is not my cup of tea — indeed, her style of anthropology is pretty much diametrically opposed to mine. But I think it is amazing that anthropology is a discipline where Edie’s work could find a home. It’s value lies not only in the use that it’s practitioners get out of it, but for the way it informs the anthropological imagination of all of us who are exposed to it, whether we follow in Edie’s footsteps or not.

If Edie’s life or work moved you, I’d encourage you to donate to the Edie Turner Anthropology Award if you feel so inclined.

A Curated, Short List of Open Access Resources on Edith Turner

The best source on Edie’s life is chapter 5 of the superb book The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith by Timothy Larsen. But if you would like to learn more about Edie’s life there are…

The Reality of Spirits, by Edith Turner
An open access version of an article from the journal Shamanism from 1997.

A CV of Edith Turner
From 1996, but still useful.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Vale Edith Turner

  1. Why using the reductions “wife of” and “silent co-author”, even when so “generously auto-corrected” in the first place?

  2. Thanks for this post, Rex. I took Vic’s “Comparative Symbolism” course at Chicago, where well over a hundred students and others would meet at their townhouse in the evening, once a week — only 12 of us actually registered, everyone else drawn by Vic’s brilliance and the excitement of the seminar. Edie would hover in the background, occasionally serving drinks to everyone (mostly cans of soft drinks, as I remember), but more than once I had a chance to talk to her on the side and was always struck by her intelligence and thoroughly anthropological perspective — it did not surprise me at all when she came into her own as an anthropologist after Vic’s death, though many of my classmates from those grad student years were shocked that she could be so much more than a hostess….

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