As one of the most important proponents of humanistic approaches to anthropology, Edith Turner has influenced how anthropologists think about women’s roles within the discipline and how anthropologists write. Her first solo authored book, The Spirit and the Drum, originally written in the 1950s but not published until 1987, cannot easily be located in postmodern and feminist categorizations. In anticipation of postmodernist debates in anthropology, this deeply personal account of her years with the Ndembu of southern Africa challenged anthropologists to rethink both the fieldwork experience and ethnographic writing.
For most of Turner’s career, she worked in collaboration with and was often overshadowed by her husband Victor Turner, who she met during World War II and with whom she shared a lifelong love of literature. After the war ended, while her husband attended the University College of London and then University of Manchester, Turner began an informal anthropological education. At the same time, she cared for their children, she attended lectures at Manchester, read anthropological theory and ethnography, and discussed the profession with her husband, his students, his colleagues, and his professors.
When her husband was awarded a Rhodes-Livingstone grant to conduct ethnographic research, Turner went into the field with their three children and collected data, writing her own field notes on rituals, ceremonies, and women’s life, typing her husband’s field notes, and serving as photographer on the project. Although their colleagues were aware that Turner and her husband collaborated in all aspects of research and writing, they rarely shared bylines. To a great extent, she put aside her literary and anthropological goals in order to support her husband’s career and raise their children.
Not until the 1970s was Turner formally recognized for her anthropological contributions. In 1974 she was one of the founding members of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, and in 1978 she shared authorship with her husband on the volume Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives. In 1980, Turner was awarded a Master of Arts degree in English, despite never having earned a Bachelor’s degree. In 1983, she was appointed Lecturer of Anthropology at the University of Virginia, where her performative approach to teaching has left an indelibly positive influence on her students.
Since her husband’s untimely death in 1983, any doubts about Turner’s capabilities as a fieldworker, theoretician, and anthropological writer have been laid to rest. At an age when most anthropologists are retiring, she has produced an oeuvre over the last 20 years that most anthropologists never accomplish. Aside from editing the journal Anthropology and Humanism, she conducted research in Zambia, Alaska, and Ireland, focusing on traditional healing, initiation and other rituals, and symbolic experience. In addition to a respectable number of scholarly articles, she has written three important ethnographic monographs: The Spirit and the Drum, Experiencing Ritual (1992), in which she returned to Zambia after
thirty years to update her research on spiritual processes and theories of pilgrimage, and The Hands Feel It (1996), which is about the spiritual beliefs and healing practices of the Inupiat of northern Alaska.
- Turner, E. (1987). The spirit and the drum: A memoir of Africa. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Turner, E. (1996). The hands feel it: Healing and spirit presence among a northern Alaskan people. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.