True colors: A critical assessment of Victor Turner's study of Ndembu religion

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Charles E. Winquist


Turner, Victor, Zambia

Subject Categories

History of Religions of Eastern Origins


This dissertation argues that Victor Turner's reduction of religion to an expression of beliefs prejudices the study of religion generally, and Ndembu religion in particular. It submits that this definition of religion allows Turner to abstract Ndembu religion from its historical context and situation in colonial rule, to operate without a coherent theory of the sacred, and to pay no attention to the question of the meaning of world and of the human in the colonial situation. The purpose of this dissertation is to advance a critique of the work of Turner which does the following: (1) grounds Ndembu religion in its colonial context; (2) develops a perspective on Ndembu religion as a contact phenomenon; (3) articulates a coherent theory of the sacred and of religious practice as they relate to Ndembu religion and its historical and socio-cultural context; (4) explores the meaning of world and of human in the political context of colonial Zambia.

The significance of my thesis consists in the possibility it suggests of relocating and redefining the problem of religion, of sensing in the religion of contact some rudiments of a colonial discourse. The studies of Turner as well as those of his critics are characteristically cast in the Enlightenment mode of the Human Sciences which, as Charles Long (handout to a graduate seminar, Syracuse University, 1989) points out, hides and obscures, in the name of scientific objectivity, the experience and response of colonized cultures, "a mode whose adequacy has been undermined by five hundred years of Western domination of other parts of the world." My thesis is a conscious effort to transcend this foundational disability in the Human Sciences.


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