Victor Turner’s Postmodern Theory of Social Drama:
Implications for Organization Studies
David M. Boje, Ph.D., New Mexico State University
August 1, 2003
I review Victor Turner’s more postmodern moves, such as process, indeterminacy, liminality, fragmentation, and metatheatre.
The contribution to organization theory of studying Turner’s social drama is in developing a postmodern theatrics that is more processual and dynamitic than dramaturgical theories advanced by Burke and Goffman. Turner acknowledges the influence of Burke and Goffman in his postmodern theatre concepts, but moves off to explore the indeterminacy, liminality, and fragmentation aspects (defined below). This postmodern dramaturgy allows us to explore how patterns emerged in the seeming chaos of successive situations.
Most reviews of theatre theory focus on contrasts of Burke and Goffman (Boje, Luhman, Cunliffe, 2003; Gusfield, 1989; Kärreman, 2001; Oswick, Keenoy & Grant, 2001), while hardly mentioning Victor Turner’s work (1969; 1974, 1982a, 1982b, 1985). Goffman (1959, 1974) is often criticized, in these reviews, for using theatre as metaphor and for being less sociological than Burke. Burke (1937, 1945, 1972), by contrast, is said to view theatre as part of everyday life and extend literary criticism to politics and sociology. Goffman is also criticized for engaging in "sociological reductionism" and for not being "particularly dramaturgical at all" (Kärreman, 2001: 96, 107).
Turner acknowledges roots to Burke (Turner, 1982a) and to Goffman (Turner, 1985: 181). Burke and Goffman have been applied to organization and public administration studies. Within organization studies, there is a growing body of research taking Goffman seriously. His approach fits neatly with Mintzberg’s (1973) managerial roles and more recent studies of charismatic leadership behavior as dramaturgic (Gardner & Alvolio, 1998; Harvey, 2001), emotional improvisation (Morgan & Krone, 2001) where the leader is the spokesperson and dramatist of organizational life. Work by Czarniawska-Joerges (1997), Mangham (1990), Mangham and Overington (1987), and Rosen (1985, 1987) also seeks to apply tools and devices from theatre to organizational realities and the dramaturgical perspective has become quite central to charismatic leadership studies (Conger, 1991; Gardner & Alvolio, 1998; Harvey, 2001; Howell & Frost, 1989; Jones & Pittman, 1982).
Theatre for Burke is not a metaphor used in some areas of organizational or social life; human action is dramatic (Gusfield, 1989; p. 36; Kärreman, 2001, p. 106). As Maital (1999) puts it, "organizing is not like theatre -- it is theatre" (as cited in Oswick, Keenoy & Grant, 2001, p. 219). Burke’s dramatistic pentad has been used widely to analyze organizations as theatres of action (Czarniawska-Joerges & Wolff, 1991; Mangham & Overington, 1987; Pine & Gilmour, 1999). Pine and Gilmour (1999) use Burke’s dramatism to assert work is theatre and every business is a stage. Czarniawska (1997) explores how the identities of organizational actors are constituted theatrically through role-playing and image construction.
We see this critical postmodern integration in the writings of Guy Debord (1967) on "spectacle," Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) on "carnivalesque," and Augusto Boal (1972, 1992, 1995) on Theatre of the Oppressed.
Social drama, says Turner, is defined as aharmonic or disharmonic social process, arising in conflict situations (1974: 37; 1985: 180). Social drama is defined by Turner (1985: 196), as “an eruption from the level surface of ongoing social life, with its interactions, transactions, reciprocities, its customs making for regular, orderly sequences of behavior.” Turner’s social drama theory has four phases of public action:
There is a sequence of processual acts and scenes across the four phases of social drama, with dynamic shifts in scripts, characterizations, rhetoric, and symbolism. The processes were more dynamic, rapid, and forceful during the crisis, and now there is a lull in the action. There are six key concepts which we can use to explore the dialectic of spectacle and carnival, as well as reactionary counter-carnival theatrics.
Conflict – Conflict situations between patriotic nationalism and the peaceniks make us aware of the beaches in the societal fabric. “Conflict seems to bring fundamental aspects of society, normally overlaid by the customs and habits of daily intercourse, into frightening prominence” (Turner, 1974). People are divided, taking sides, using theatre to dramatize their differences. In the weeks leading up to the war, and during the war, a cleavage occurs between antagonistic groups. At the same time in crisis, there is the flash of imaginative fire, an inspirational force to be harnessed. The conflict escalates locally, as a reflections of the globally conflict in the Middle East. Some crises spread, and more and more people turn out for vigils, marches, parades, rallies, and teach-ins. For Turner, public crisis has a liminal quality, betwixt and between, more or less stable phases of the social process. Antagonists dare and taunt each other, to deal with liminal forces. For example, the majority accept U.S. occupation of Iraq, even though no weapons of mass destruction were found. On May 30th, members of the administration disclosed that there never had been proof of WMD, but saying they were there, served as a way to rally the nation to go to war.
Within the spectacles and carnivals there are factions. There were a series of social dramas in the U.S. that weakened the solidarity of the peace movement. Acts of repression under the U.S.A. PATRIOT act and Homeland Security were used to make peace people fearful of being blacklisted. They have a chilling effect on free speech. We resist being reintegrated back into that social fabric of the status quo; communitas is broken, and our freedoms are curtailed.
Performance Processes – A society is defined by Turner (1985: 44, Paraphrasing) as a set of interactive processes that are punctuated by situations of conflict, with intervals between them. Turner’s theatrical approach, being processual and dynamic, is more appropriate than Burke or Goffman’s to explore the rise and fall of social movements. In his 1985 book, (On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience), Turner develops a postmodern treatment of social drama. He explores the contingent, ad hoc, and emergent character of the phases of social drama (breach, crisis, redress, & reintegration), focusing on how conflicts run their course. The situations interact over time. “One set of interactions influence the premises for the next”(Turner, 1985: 48). During periods of intense global conflict, such as the outbreak of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, we became a dense network of social organizing. During the week leading up to March 19th war in Iraq, we had events, such as rallies, teach-ins, retreats, marches, and vigils happening daily. We joined the millions of people who tried to persuade the administration not to go to war. Once war happened we persisted with our vigils and marches, trying to bring a swift end to the conflict. After the administration declared an end to the war (though the fighting continued), our numbers dropped off, and many people reintegrated into more normal patterns of social life.
As the antagonist to disputation play out the conflict phases of social drama, there is resistance to acts of suppression and repression (Turner, 1985: 44). Contentious issues are kept in abeyance in ritual situations, but can surface again in public situations; some political situations threaten to turn violent, both in their protest and in their repression. Solidarity of a nation at war, for example, has a chilling effect on political rivalry, so as not to threaten the safety of troops deployed in battle theatres. The unresolved conflicts and rivalries carry over into subsequent ritual situations in ways that affect behavioral patterns. In this way as Pondy observed, conflict events are interdependent over time.
The performance events interact such that situations develop spontaneously out of quarrels with domestic and foreign policy which “rapidly acquire formalized or structural character” (Turner, 1985: 45). For example, “contending factions draw apart, consolidate their ranks, and develop spokesmen who represent their cases in terms of a rhetoric that is culturally standardized” (p. 45).
Liminality – Key to Turner is the “betwixt and between” features that have liminal qualities (Turner, 1985: 113). Liminality is defined by Turner (1974: 52), as being “between successive participations in social milieu.” There is a grander “liminal transition” in the peace movement, and seemingly no way to stop the growth of fascism that embeds American governance (Turner, 1974: 47). There is liminality in the transition from the conceptual system of democracy to another one, we in the movement call, fascism (Turner, 1974: 51). There is also liminal decay, a reluctant reincorporation into the charade and façade of polite society, into more stable social processes. The reentry is accompanied by rituals of humiliation for the peace movement heroes, such as Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky. For example, status degradation and social leveling are indicated by the distribution of playing cards depicting peace heroes as traitors, and most wanted. The tricksters have won the symbolism wars, and liminality is existentially untenable to those of us hanging in with the peace movement.
Each situation in the peace movement affects the premises of the next one. There is am emergent pattern to the inter-situational events. The successive events have liminal spaces between them. Liminal space is Turner’s concept of what is betwixt and between situated events. In the liminality between situations, a leader is without a situation to rally around. For example, as the Iraq invasion drew nearer, the number of local organizing events that I lead and facilitated was denser, and in the final weeks, there was an event every day. Now that the invasion has morphed into an occupation, local events are few and far between. This liminal space is a time for mourning our failure to get our President to stop the war; it is a time for rest and reflection, a time to plan for the next situation. For a few weeks in late April and early May, it looked like Syria would be the next campaign. But, that has subsided. The 2004 election is a bit far off to worry about.
I am neither what I have been nor what I will become. Similarly, peace consciousness is a liminal space, not yet what it will be. The peace movement refuses reintegration until the social order transforms to something more non-violent than what it is.
Summer vacations, the exodus of students from a university town, also decreased our numbers. Our rebellion is low-key, smoldering factionalism divides us. Members of PeaceAware slip back into anonymity of daily routine. Only a few die-hards persist with vigils or demonstrations outside Congressman Peace’s events.
Indeterminacy – Indeterminacy is always present in the background of any ritualized performance, ready to intrude. Spectacles, even with expert choreography, scripting, and stage handling, fail to contain the embedded chaos. For example, the search for weapons of mass destruction slips into a sea of indeterminacy along with the war on terror. Each emplotment unravels. The exact meaning of a speaker's utterance or performance is a contextualized exchange in which meaning is often indeterminate. Various stakeholders will apprehend different views of the performance. Aristotle’s poetic elements of theatre are in constant flux, with ever-shifting indeterminate plots, characters, themes, dialogs, rhythms, and spectacles. All the president’s men cannot bind chaos with the most advanced theatrics. The spectacle is always self-deconstructing. Yet, chaos can be used to confuse. There is a sequence of rhetoric switching in the justification and legitimation for war.
The rhetorical and speech styles have shifted since the war was a way to find weapons of mass destruction hidden from the UN inspectors, to war being way to protect the troops, to a way to support the president. On 30 May 2003, Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair, they the administration did not believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; officials thought it was best way to get officials to go to war. "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on," says Wolfowitz. It was also a way to get the public on board. In this sense, the spectators cannot determine the cause for the war, and now that war is declared officially over, the original premises no loner matter.
Spectacle cannot fix the fluidity of context, nor bind the shifting context from infecting performance processes. The situational adjustments of President Bush’s handlers, betrays the flux and fluidity, and indeterminacy of everyday life. This indeterminacy, says Turner (1985: 185), “is towards postmodern ways of thinking” about social life.
Fragmentation - Fragmentation is definable as a persistent dialectical “opposition of processes” with many “levels of processes” (Turner, 1985: 185). Postmodern theory spotlights moments when fragmentation takes center stage, revealing how social reality invades spectacle during moments of conflict. Spectacle role-playing is not able to cover the breakdowns between official perspectives and countless counter stories revealing fragmentation. For Turner “the truly ‘spontaneous’ unit of human social performance is not role-playing sequence in an institutionalized or ‘corporate group’ context; it is the social drama which results precisely form the suspension of normative role-playing, and in its passionate activity abolishes the usual distinction between flow and reflection, since in the social drama it becomes a matter of urgency to become reflexive about the cause and motive of action damaging to the social fabric” (Turner, 1985: 196).
There are moments in institutionalized spectacle, where the social drama of conflict emerges, and Bush engages in reflection. In such moments the fragmentarity of the social fabric becomes temporarily visible, “as factors giving meaning to deeds that may seem at first sight meaningless” (p. 196). These are moments of reflection when we can see an irreparable schism between war and peace factions.
The more the Bush handlers defragment, the more Bush’s performance processes reveal oppositions and layers. The thespian nature of his performance unmasks itself, resulting in a media that begins to reflect upon the fragmentation covered over by performance controls. The president is detected as a performing actor.
Metatheatre - Turner (1985: 181) invents the term “meta-theater.” Where for Burke and Goffman, all the world is a theatre stage, for Turner, “meta-theatre” is the communication about the communication process, spectators and actors reflect upon how the actors do what they do on stage, “the ability to communicate about the communication process itself” (p. 181). In contrasting his own dramaturgy work with Goffman’s, Turner (1985; 181) says that for him “dramaturgical analysis begins when crises arise in the daily flow of social interaction.” Turner continues, “Thus, if daily living is a kind of theater, social drama is a kind of meta-theater, that is, a dramaturgical language about the language of ordinary role-playing and status-maintenance which constitutes communication in the quotidian social process” (p. 181). Metatheatre then is for Turner, reflexivity by everyday actors about the communication system, where they consciously show spectators what they are doing. Turner studies reflexivity in crisis phase of social interaction, but also within the redressive phase. Turner theorizes four phases, breech, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration in what he calls ‘social drama.’
Metacommentary, is a term Turner, 1982a: 104) borrows from Geertz, “a story a group tells itself about itself” or “a play a society acts about itself.” Metatheatre then builds upon the idea of metacommentary, “an interpretive reenactment of its experience” (Turner, 1982a: 104). In the positive, metatheatre reenacts conflicts, giving them contextualization, so that with metacommentary, facets are illuminated and accessible for remedial action. Through multiple reflections, spectators are able to provoke transformations in everyday life. On the negative side, the metatheatre distorts event and context in ways that provoke conformity. For example, our weekly street theatre is a metacommentary on global, national, and local conflicts, a time for reflection and reflexivity. Our signs are commentary, and we resist conformity. We are opposed by metacommentary of our critics, what see our acts as traitorous, seditious, and rebellious. Both sides use drama to provoke and persuade.
Metatheatre is about the dialectic process of framing through theatre, in ways that appeal to the frame of mind of the spectator; resistance is about bringing counter-frames to bear on dominant frames.
In the next section I apply Turner’s constructs of conflict, performance processes, liminality, indeterminacy, fragmentation, and metatheatre to that antagonism of the war and peace movements.
Aristotle (written 350BCE). Citing in the (1954) translation Aristotle: Rhetoric and poetics. Introduction by F. Solmsen, Rhetoric. (W Rhys Roberts, Tran.); Poetics (I. Bywater, Tran.). New York, NY: The Modern Library (Random House). Poetics was written 350 BCE. Custom is to cite part and verse (i.e. Aristotle, 1450: 5, p. 23) refers to part 1450, verse 5, on p. 23 of the Solmsen (1954) book. There is also an on line version translated by S. H. Butcher http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html or http://eserver.org/philosophy/aristotle/poetics.txt
Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Caryl Emerson, Michael Holquist, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1973). Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hé lè ne Iswolsky. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Best, Steve & Douglas Kellner (1991) Postmodern Theory. NY: Guilford Press.
Best, Steve & Douglas Kellner (1997) Postmodern Turn. NY: Guilford Press.
Best, Steve & Douglas Kellner (2001) Postmodern Adventure. NY: Guilford Press.
Boal, A. (1992). Games for actors and non-actors. (A. Jackson, Trans). A conflation of two books, Stop C’est Magique (Paris: Hachette, 1980) and Jeuz pour acteurs et non-acteurs (Paris: La Découverte, 1989) with additions by Boal. London, UK: Routledge.
Boje, David M. (2001). Carnivalesque resistance to global spectacle: A critical postmodern theory of public administration, Administrative Theory & Praxis, 23(3): 431-458.
Boje, David M. (2003). Theatres of Capitalism. NJ: Hampton Press. In press.
Boje, David M. John T. Luhman, & Ann L. Cunliffe (2003). A Dialectic Perspective on the Organization Theatre Metaphor American Communication Journal. Volume 6 (2): 1-16.
Bumiller, Elisabeth (2003). Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights. The New York Times. 16 May, accessed on the web May 31 2003 at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/16/politics/16IMAG.html
Burke, K. (1937). Attitudes toward history. Las Altos, CA: Hermes Publications.
Burke, K. (1945). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Burke, K. (1972). Dramatism and development. Barre, MA: Clark University Press with Barre Publishers.
Carr, Adrian (1996) Putative Problematic Agency in a Postmodern World: Is It Implicit in the Text--Can It Be Explicit in Organization Analysis? Vol 18 (1): 79-.
Debord Guy (1967). Society of the Spectacle. La Société du Spectacle was first published in 1967 by Editions, Buchet-Chastel (Paris); it was reprinted in 1971 by Champ Libre (Paris). The full text is available in English at http://www.nothingness.org/SI/debord/index.html It is customary to refer to paragraph numbers in citing this work.
Fox, Charles J. and Miller Hugh T. (1996) Modern/Postmodern Public Administration: A Discourse About What is Real. Vol 18 (1): 41-.
Fox, Charles J. and High T. Miller. (1995a). Postmodern Public Administration: A short treatise on self-referential epihenomena. Administrative Theory & Praxis 15(2): 52-70.
Fox, Charles J. and High T. Miller. (1995b). Postmodern Public Administration: Toward Discourse. Thousand Oaks :Sage Publications, Inc.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis. New York, NY: Harper Books.
Gusfield, J. R. (1989). The bridge over separated lands: Kenneth Burke’s significance for the study of social action. In H. Simmons & T. Melia (Eds.), The legacy of Kenneth Burke, pp. 28-54. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Hoffman, Leslie (2003). Bush Brings Tax Cut Message To Bernalillo. The Associated Press, May 12. Accessed May 31st at http://www.abqjournal.com/news/apbush05-12-03.htm
Kärreman, D. (2001). The Scripted Organization: Dramaturgy from Burke to Baudrillard. Pp. 95-111 In R. Westwood and S. Linstead (Eds.) The language of organization. London: Sage Publications.
Kristeva, Julia (1980a) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Edited by Léon Roudiez. Translated by Alice Jardine, Thomas Gora and Léon Roudiez. New York, Columbia University Press, London, Basil Blackwell
Kristeva, Julia (1980b) "Word, Dialogue, and Novel." Desire and Language. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora et al. New York: Columbia UP, pp. 64-91.
Kristeva, Julia (1986). Word, dialogue, and the novel. In T. Moi (Ed.), The Kristeva reader. (pp. 35-61). New York: Columbia University Press.
Oswick, C., Keenoy, T. & Grant, D. (2001). Dramatizing and organizing: Acting and being. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 14 (3), 218-224.
Saunders, Doug (2003). White House insider cleans up Bush’s image on film. Globe and Mail. May 28th. On line at http://www.globeandmail.ca/servlet/story/RTGAM.20030528.ufilm0528/BNStory/International/
Swartz, Marc J., Victor W. Turner, & Arthur Tuden (1966) Political Anthropology. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.
Turner, Victor (1967) Carnival, Ritual, and play in Rio de Janeiro. pp. 74- 92. In Alessandro Falassi (Ed.) Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Turner, Victor (1974). Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.
Turner, Victor (1982a). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. NY: PAJ Publications (Division of Performing Arts Journal, Inc.).
Turner, Victor (1982b, Editor). Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Turner, Victor (1985). On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Edith L. B. Turner (Ed). Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.
Zanetti, Lisa A. (1997) Advancing praxis: Connecting critical theory with practice in public administration. 27(2): 145-167.
Zanetti, Lisa A. and Carr, Adrian (1999) Exaggerating the Dialectic: Postmodernism’s ‘New Individualism’ and the Detrimental Effects on Citizenship. AT&P Vol 21 (2) 205-.
Zanetti, Lisa A. & Carr, Adrian (1997). Putting critical theory to work: Giving the public administrator the critical edge. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 19(2): 208-224
 WMD just a convenient excuse for war, admits Wolfowitz By David Usborne 30 May 2003 http://news.independent.co.uk/low_res/story.jsp?story=410730&host=3&dir=75