Saturday, February 27, 2010

Navigating Adolescence Alone: A Dangerous Passage

They were 14 years old—three boys with hooded sweatshirts, skateboarding outside my classroom on a Saturday. When they removed the steel drainage cover in the center of the school’s quad and were propping it against a wall to skate against, I intervened. I approached the boys and asked them to replace the steel plate. They only complied when I added, “If you don’t look at me when I speak, I don’t know if you’ve heard me.” Getting into my car I noticed that one entire side had been gouged with a key.

I’m a sixth grade teacher. I understand the warrior mentality. Middle schoolers want to be fearless. They want to take risks. They found an opportunity that afternoon to act out these ancient yearnings in response to my authority. I believe problematic adolescent behaviors are manifestations of ritualistic cravings, and that they are rich with symbolic meaning. These boys are not ‘bad.’ They are yearning for robust challenges to guide them in their transition to adulthood. The transition I am referring to is what anthropologists would refer to as a rite of passage.

‘Adolescence,’ as a developmental stage, is a recent construct. It is a result of compulsory schooling, child labor laws and juvenile justice legislation. Tribal societies do not have this designation. By means of a great ceremony, children are ritually transitioned to adulthood. The transition is complete. There is no ambiguity. There is no adolescence.

To understand the power of the yearnings behind many adolescent behaviors, we must understand something of our long social evolution as a people. During our 200,000 years of history, humans developed elaborate customs to meet our emotional needs. Rituals such as the rite of passage have ruled our existence for 95 percent of this history. Adolescent rites of passage are found in tribal cultures throughout the world. It is believed that such rituals have been with us for millennia.

Throughout this long social history, 14-year-old boys like these skateboarders would not be considered children. Prehistoric societies would have transitioned them to adulthood under the supervision of the elders from their community. These boys would have been given new names, new dress, new scars or tattoos, new tribal secrets and the respect accorded only to adults. After a ritual separation from the tribe, they would have been welcomed back with great ceremony as freshly minted men, acting in accordance with the powerful expectations of their community. They would have experienced a rite of passage. They would be forever men. This is an ancient rite and, I would argue, an ancient right.

My own sixth graders become remarkably focused when I discuss these matters with them. We study prehistoric peoples in sixth grade. To make it more relevant to them, I infuse our routines with ritual. We sit in circles, walk in silence, and appreciate each other in a daily council. Our classroom is our ‘tribe’—I am the elder, and each of them is a young warrior with great challenges to face as they transition to adulthood. They become intensely serious when we engage on this level. I believe they long for a relationship with an elder who will guide them, take them seriously, challenge them, guard them, believe in them and expect much of them. I try to fill this role. They respond in kind. A rite of passage has always demanded a deep connection between the youth and the elders. In one recent study of adolescent risk behavior, researchers concluded that, “Parent-family connectedness and perceived school connectedness were protective against every health risk behavior.”

We wonder why our young people are so angry, so distant. We shake our heads when they race cars, take drugs, dance through the night, pierce their bodies, tattoo themselves and challenge one another to take risks. Our adolescents are initiating each other and they are not qualified to do this. Yet they know something is amiss. They are silently angry at us, brooding and aggressive. Yet they are full of a vital life force that we elders should learn to tap, to believe in and to channel in meaningful ways.

Instead of initiation and integration, our 12-year-olds today are abruptly taken out of the nurturing world of the elementary classroom. They are thrust into middle school with a group of teachers who cannot remember their names. Students roam the hallways, searching for meaning in this chaotic environment. We know that the transition to middle school is associated with a dramatic increase in risk behaviors, plummeting test scores and decreased self-esteem. Suicides, homicides, pregnancies, drug abuse, car fatalities and a host of other problems haunt this age. However, research shows that these behaviors occur less frequently for students who remain in the same schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. More important than grade configuration however, what matters is that kids have a connection with a caring adult to help them navigate the challenges of adolescence. Without such connections, adolescents turn to one another for guidance and initiation. It doesn’t work that way. It never has.

I believe that we adults—we ‘elders’—must understand our historical role. We must be willing to step forward and meet the vital challenge of bringing our youth across the threshold to adulthood. If we can no longer offer them a challenging initiation to adulthood, we can at least make sure that no adolescent goes through the middle school years alone. We must model for them what it means to be a man or a woman. This is our deep responsibility, and it is their ancient right.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Communitas and the Evolution of Culture: One Teacher's Musings

In this post I will be describing the concept of communitas, a phenomenon first identified by anthropologist Victor Turner in his study of tribal rites of passage. In its original use, the term was used to describe the experience of those in the ‘liminal’ space (from the Latin term limen, which means threshold), a place into which initiates would go to transition from childhood to adulthood.

In exploring the theories developed around the phenomenon of communitas, I seek to show that those in a state of communitas can reshape cultural norms and values in both positive and negative ways.

Human Culture: Universal Elements in Multiple Guises

Before exploring Turner’s theories, it is important to define what is meant by ‘culture.’ Human culture, comprising the shared beliefs and practices held by members of a social group, is a complex phenomenon. Anthropologists and evolutionary theorists have discovered a large set of human behavioral characteristics that are common to all populations across time and space, but how these ‘human universals’ (Brown, 1991) express themselves as ‘culture’ differs significantly from place to place and from one historic time to another. To take an example, music is a human universal, but how it will manifest can vary widely between cultures, whether in the instruments built, the rhythms and scales deployed, or the dances that accompany a ritual or performance. (Other universals found in all human populations include, among others: anthropomorphism, baby talk, males more prone to lethal violence, meal times, marriage, age statuses, making comparisons, childhood fear of strangers, moral sentiments, body adornment, coyness display, death rituals, visiting, proverbs, rites of passage, fear of snakes, jokes, and taboos).

While the cultural expressions of these human universals will differ between geographically distinct populations, making culture a seemingly arbitrary agent of social cohesion, the ideas held at any given time by a particular people will bind them together in a tangible and consistent collective that instinctively resists change. Still, these shared cultural beliefs are susceptible to dissolution over time, and when viewed across the arc of recorded history, humans seem to continually reinvent their way of being in the world, collaboratively shifting ideas about the world around them, about how to treat one another and about what practices are fundamentally right and wrong and why. It seems to be an inevitable characteristic of human cultures that attitudes and behaviors do in fact change. It may be more accurate to say that they evolve, for when we evaluate cultural change with respect to the greater good, we see shifts towards increased equality, tolerance, and respect for human dignity and rights. Eisler (1996) has noted, “If we look at the whole span of our planetary history, there seems to be in it a trial-and-error thrust toward those traits…powerfully expressed in our human striving toward beauty, truth, justice, and love.” Still, these changes happen gradually enough that most of us take present-day beliefs for granted as simply “the way people are” or even “the way people have always been.” The human lifespan is relatively short in relation to the ebb and flow of cultural change, leaving the present moment appearing static as opposed to part of an evolutionary arc of ever-changing concepts and beliefs. For most of us, the ideas we hold in the ubiquitous ‘now’ can appear to have no historic obligation to change, and so human beings will adhere tenaciously to the prevailing beliefs of their culture, however untenable future generations may find such notions to have been. In this context, what is regarded to be ‘the truth’ at any given moment, especially as regards social values, may not remain so in the future. Summing up this idea in compelling language, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was reputed to have said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

This capacity for cultural ideas to change radically may best be illustrated with an example. Taking social attitudes towards an institution like slavery; Until the last century, slavery was practiced legally in the majority of large-scale human societies, beginning with the Bronze Age civilizations that emerged out of the Neolithic Age some 5,000 years ago. As recently as 1855, an advertisement for a slave sale in the United States, posted in a town square in Kentucky read, “Great Sale of Slaves. Seventeen Bucks, aged from twelve to twenty, excellent. One wench, Lizzie, aged 23 with 6 month old Piccaninny.” Another advertisement from the same period tells of a slave woman for sale, with her two children, ages 11 and 12, to be sold separately. In 2009, just 154 years later, there is no country in the world that publicly sanctions the institution of slavery. While an active slave-trade still exists in the world, exploiting in particular large numbers of children, its operations remain criminal and underground. Many people today are appalled to read the above advertisement, because the cultural beliefs and attitudes that tolerated and condoned slavery have changed. This has occurred on a global level. Our collective humanity no longer holds shared beliefs nor engages in collective practices that legalize the enslaving of one human being by another. Again, this is not to minimize the oppressive conditions experienced by an estimated 27 million people worldwide held in illegal slavery today. Those conditions are severe and intolerable. The point is that slavery, once a widely condoned social practice and legal institution, is now considered a cultural aberration rather than culturally acceptable. This is a dramatic collective shift in prevailing social perception and values that has finally culminated in the dismantling of the legalized slave trade during the last 200 years of human history. Against a backdrop of 5,000 years of institutionalized human slavery, this global abolition has occurred very recently, during just the past 3% of recorded human history. While slavery is considered morally objectionable today, something of a ‘truth’ we hold to be self-evident, this was obviously not always the case.

Communitas: The Secret Ingredient to Cultural Change

How does culture change, how do shared beliefs and values evolve within human societies? I will argue that as human beings engage in communitas, they begin a subtle and yet powerful process of directly impacting the cultural beliefs and values of their society. To look at communitas more directly, I will relate a personal story. When I worked as classroom teacher of early adolescents, conversations about cultural evolution was a frequent subject. I encouraged this sort of dialogue because it kept students receptive to the possibility that changes in our world, in particular positive changes, were a frequent aspect of human development over time. In a world where stories of human tragedy too often drown out messages of hope, young people become cynical. As a teacher, I considered it a part of my job to be the frequent proponent of idealism, or at least a consistent advocate for a practical optimism. Early adolescents crave this sort of world view simply to breath in (or imagine) the possibility of their full being. They literally suffocate under incessant media stories of societal and planetary despair and we elders owe them a healthier diet for their future, a more complete and honest story our human potentials.

One day on our way to lunch, following a lively discussion about how American culture once had supported slavery, an especially thoughtful 12-year-old girl named Erin approached me while we walked to the cafeteria. “Mr. Astin, as we look back at slavery from our modern perspective, we know that it was wrong. We can see that, even if many people back then didn’t see it. I just keep wondering what are people going to say 150 years from now when they look back at us? What will they say that we are not seeing about our world today? What do we need to change about ourselves for the better?” Erin’s question culminated in a fascinating phenomenon that afternoon in Room 6. Her simple challenge, presented to the class after lunch, quickly inspired a passionate dialogue and a flurry of activity. The students engaged her question head on, and within minutes were discussing child labor in the global textile industry. The argument went something like this: if we Americans purchased clothing produced in poorer countries, might we be participating in a system that harms other children, children just like them? If we continued to do this knowingly, they wondered, how are we different from people who lived comfortably during the time of slavery without ever speaking out? The students began to inspect the tags on each other’s shirts. “Look! This one’s from Indonesia!” shouted Tina. “Hey, they make less than a dollar a day there!” yelled a boy who had been hunched over a nearby computer screen. I watched with the clouded eyes of a proud teacher as my students proceeded to rip the labels off their clothing. This was something I didn’t dare put a stop to. A special adolescent energy had overtaken them; 12-year-olds will get that way. They pinned the labels to the front board, circling them and writing the names of the countries of origin in big confident letters: Guatemala, Philippines, Pakistan, China, Honduras. It was as if by removing the labels they could separate themselves momentarily from the implications of this condition of our culture, a condition they had suddenly discovered to be akin to participating in an injustice against other children, manifest through a simple buyer’s ignorance, or the momentary excitement of landing a cheap deal. Ignorance was no longer bliss, no longer even O.K. Child labor; they would have no part of it in that moment. That afternoon, the entire class in Room 6 was having a shared group experience with a distinct set of recognizable attributes. Specifically, they were in the state of spontaneous communitas, a collective understanding between people that was marked by an emotional connectedness and a feeling of empowerment. The anthropologist Victor Turner, who first coined the term in 1969, says:

“Spontaneous communitas is a direct, immediate and total confrontation of human identities…It has something ‘magical’ about it. Subjectively there is in it a feeling of endless power. Is there any of us who has not known this moment when compatible people –friends, congeners- obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved?…When the mood, style, or ‘fit’ of spontaneous communitas is upon us, we place a high value on personal honesty, openness, and lack of pretensions or pretentiousness…Individuals who interact with one another in the mode of spontaneous communitas become totally absorbed into a single synchronized fluid event” (1982, p. 48).

This description of communitas delineated by Turner can be compressed into the following key components.

  1. “Feeling of endless power”
  2. “Feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved”
  3. “Place a high value on personal honesty, openness, and lack of pretensions”
  4. “Become totally absorbed into a single synchronized fluid event”

The theory of communitas emerged from Turner’s study of ritual rites of passage among tribal peoples. Earlier, Van Gennep (1908) had noted that a central component of all rites of passage among indigenous peoples was participants’ entrance into a liminal state in which they were neither completely in their previous state, nor in the new state. Traditionally, this period of transition would occur away from the village and away from the family of origin, and be supervised by the same-gender elders of the initiate’s tribe. The liminal period within the rite of passage involved challenging ordeals such as fasts or vision quests. These ordeals would result in, or are accompanied by, a set of tangible elements marking the change in status from child to adult, such as visible scars and tattoos, or new names and new dress. The liminal period, as Katcher’s (2002) points out, contains those key elements of communitas;

“an intensification of lateral bonds… acceptance of authority, minimization of differences between participants, commitment to task, increased sense of meaningfulness, and engagement in performance or play without role distance. It is during these periods of liminality that the behavior changes necessary for the passage into another state occur and the characteristics of the liminal state facilitate that behavior change” (p. 189).

The Cognitive or “Pedagogical” Component of Communitas

Turner argued that this state of connectedness and heightened emotion was one important feature of ‘communitas.’ In addition to these affective components of the experience, Turner also identified a cognitive component in communitas. This ‘pedagogical component’ as he called it, was marked by participants’ sense that they were no longer bound by the familiar cultural norms, routines, strictures, and belief systems. This collective extrication from the confinements of culture, and the consequent reordering of cultural forms in the moment of communitas, are the consequence of a breaking up, or fragmenting of culture into separate elements for those in communitas. Participants in the experience of communitas, whether tribal initiates in some remote jungle setting (‘normative’ communitas), or simply a group of close friends engaged in a deep and resonant conversation (‘spontaneous’ communitas) generally perceive cultural norms and values to be suspended and fractured, inapplicable and irrelevant in that moment. What becomes most visceral instead, is the heightened emotional connectedness and the sense of great future promise generally held therein. According to Katcher, this “pedagogical system…proceeds by dissecting the symbols and relationships of a society into its parts and then recombining them” (p. 190). That is, the collective ideas, beliefs, notions, and values that together constitute the ‘culture’ for participants in a state of communitas become disrupted, fragmented and perceptually rearranged in the moment of communitas. ‘Culture’ during communitas, with all its usual norms, customs, and structures that limit possibility, exist outside of the liminal experience and are perceived to be non-fixed or changeable in that moment. Anything becomes possible, great change seems inevitable, hope is tangible and ecstasy in this state becomes visceral. Culture, insofar as it constitutes a confining set of belief paradigms, is literally jettisoned for those experiencing communitas. As such, participants freely restructure culture into new paradigms, including those that may contravene existing strictures or taboos. Often, those in communitas may just as easily generate new and believable utopian visions, as curiously myopic constructs of reality. In Turner’s (1982) own words,

“The factors or elements of culture may be recombined in numerous, often grotesque ways because they are arrayed in terms of possible or fantasized rather than experienced combinations…In liminality, people ‘play’ with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them. Novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar elements…[the essence of liminality is] the analysis of culture into factors and their free or ‘lucid’ recombination in any and every possible pattern, however weird” (p. 26).

So communitas has an affective component in which participants experience a deep connectedness, a kind of ecstatic emotional enmeshment in which there is a sense of shared empowerment and a belief that ‘anything is possible,’ as well as a pedagogical component defined by participants’ new and unorthodox perspective on cultural norms and values, a dismantling of collectively held social beliefs and attitudes, a rearranging of ‘what is’ outside of oneself.

While Turner’s early work focused on the role of communitas in tribal rites of passage, he later expanded his ideas to include the role of communitas in modern urban society. Communitas in these more contemporary settings can occur between friends, members of a religious organization, a group of people engaged in a ‘deep’ discussion, or a pair on a first date. Communitas is not limited to those undergoing a ritual initiation in some tribal setting, although it was here that Turner made his observations and discoveries. As Turner noted, “It [also] becomes visible in…millenarian movements, in monasteries, in the counterculture, and on countless informal occasions” (2002, p. 96).

Communitas and the ‘Rave’ Experience

One example of the collective expression of communitas may be illustrated by examining the phenomenon of ‘rave’ culture. This culture has strong features of communitas, and during the last 20 years, it has become an international phenomenon among a relatively sizeable contingent of global youth.

A ‘rave,’ in simplest terms, is an all-night dance party, which may include light shows and artificial fog, and in which a genre of recorded electronic music (house, techno, trance, jungle, among others) is played continuously by a DJ. Participants, or ‘ravers,’ frequently ingest psychotropic drugs, the most common being Ecstacy (MDMA), which tends to “induce a sense of intimacy with others and diminished feelings of fear [and] anxiety.” In a study of youth ‘ravers’ in a working-class suburb outside of Cork, Ireland, researcher J. D. Kaplan (2002) found that,

“An entire subculture has been created around Ecstacy use and the rave scene…Ravers ‘stand outside’ structured society by taking part in recreational activities that are considered inappropriate or unacceptable by adults and non-drug users…[This] subculture is a means by which the youth respond to and create meaning out of the circumstances in which they are placed by society. They create solutions, imaginary or otherwise, to the problems they face.”

In this case, rave culture represents both an opportunity to participate in anti-structure, and also a chance to share in an ecstatic, communal experience. Opposing the social structure and engaging in an intimate connectedness, are both critical elements of communitas. Interestingly, Kaplan found that members of feuding youth gangs who attended these raves, surrendered their roles and statuses at the door, noting that, “the rave atmosphere produces a sense of harmony among all rave goers. Everyone gets along—Northsiders and Southsiders, even people who were normally ‘worst enemies.’” Unfortunately, the opposing gangs who got along so well during a rave, caught up in what they called a ‘love buzz,’ returned immediately to the old hostilities when they met in the streets the following day.

In another comprehensive ethnographic study of the rave phenomenon, Graham St. John (2004) states that, “rave holds a conspiratorial optimism…Rave promoters have successfully endorsed raving as...a nocturnal utopia upon which rave-tourists disembark from the everyday lives…With rave, class, ethnicity, gender and other social distinctions were imagined to dissipate…The deep logic of such an experience is that it is simultaneously impermanent and perennial.” Indeed, ‘optimism,’ ‘utopia,’ and the dissipation of ‘social distinctions’ are critical features of communitas. In Rave Culture: An Insider’s Overview, Fritz (1999) writes, “for a few hours they are able to leave behind a world full of contradiction, conflict and confusion [the ‘statuses’ of social structure], and enter a universal realm where everyone is truly equal, a place where peace, love, unity and respect are the laws of the land” (p. 172).

In what ways is a rave akin to a tribal ritual or other more conventional form of communitas? One might argue that the inclusion of electronic music, fog machines, intoxication from illicit drugs, groups of strangers, that these components of the rave make it a poor representation of communitas. In Anthony D’Andrea’s (2007) study of raves entitled Global Nomads, he describes some of his observations; “I spotted Shiva, an old blond German hippie, dancing in a seemingly trance state. Staring aloof into the sky, he jerked as if musical tweaks electrocuted his body.” In a seminal study of ritual among Australian aborigines entitled The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, noted anthropologist Emile Durkheim (1912, cited in Olaveson, 2001) relates components of the rituals he observed; “Once individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated…and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation…from every side there are nothing but wild movements, shouts, downright howls.” Finally, Bobby C. Alexander (1991), describing Pentecostal church rituals in the United States, says that congregants, “shout, stomp their feet, jump, shake, jerk, dance…During the ecstatic display, participants are animated as if shot by an electrical charge. Their intensity rises and falls in a series of surges” (p. 36). All three events, an all-night rave, a ancient tribal gathering, an African-American Pentecostal ritual, bear striking similarities. While a rave may indeed represent a more ‘severe’ contemporary form of communitas, these three descriptions drawn from quite different contexts, all allude to a kind of ‘electrical’ surging atmosphere among participants, and point to the universal quality of collective communitas.

Turner argues that entering a state of communitas is something all human beings do, consciously or not, and that such regular suspension of role and status is a necessary part of remaining healthy and sane, irrespective of an individual’s culture, social class, or religion. As he noted, “exposure to or immersion in communitas seems to be an indispensable human social requirement. People have a real need…to doff the masks, cloaks, apparel, and insignia or status from time to time even if only to don the liberating masks of liminal masquerade” (p. 99).

Society and Communitas: Structure versus Anti-Structure

Beyond the affective and cognitive components of communitas, there is a feature of communitas that challenges the prevailing values and beliefs of the social structure, and has the capacity to alter these structures. To understand this, we must examine Turner’s model of society.

For Turner, society itself is composed of two contrasting realities. One of these realities is the social structure comprised of all the roles, statuses, classes, occupations, as well as beliefs, actions and attitudes held by people that together work to sustain a given social structure. All of these elements of the social structure are in place to perpetuate culture on a material, even on a survival level. This social structure, however limiting and imperfect, is necessary to sustain society. In contrast to the social structure in which people inevitably hold rank above and below one another or occupy varied hierarchical statuses, Turner identified what he called the “anti-structure,” which is expressed in the experience of communitas. Turner argues that in spite of obvious inequalities, people possess an inherent belief in “society as a homogeneous, undifferentiated whole.” (1974, p. 98). The unequal social statuses and ranks inherent in society are, on the other hand, perceived of as “roles, not concrete human individuals.”

According to this model, each of us, however unconsciously, subscribes to utopian visions of a world in which fairness and goodness apply to all individuals equally, “the attainment of which religious or political action, personal or collective, should be directed.” While we therefore recognize statuses, these are understood as roles which people play. Ultimately, human beings generally expect that the goal of social structure is to eventually lead everyone to “an Edenic, paradisiacal, utopian, or millennial state of affairs.” Therefore, in life, we are all confronted with an odd juxtaposition of realities. First, each of us in our day-to-day existence, experiences roles, statuses, hierarchies, and divisions throughout society which privilege some more than others, both with respect to political and social power, as well as material resources. This is the reality of the social structure, upheld by cultural norms, values, laws, and practices. Then at the same time, each of us holds that all people ultimately possess some potential to be judged and treated equally. On some level, we see everyone as having comparable potential, value, and ultimate worth, and that an idealized society should eventually reach a more egalitarian state. For Turner, people have “a deep intuition of a unity in all things” existing alongside “arbitrary and manmade divisions…that disunite men.” Alexander (1991) sums it up this way:

“While social structure is both positive and necessary for social life because it organizes society to meet material needs, it is also problematic…Differentiations among social status and roles, by nature, creates ‘alienation.’…The primary motivation behind [communitas]…is the desire to break free temporarily of social structure in order to transcend its existential limitations and reconfigure it along communitarian lines” (p. 27).

We most directly experience this absence of roles and statuses whenever we enter into a liminal space with others, whenever we engage in the experience of communitas. In the state of communitas, social roles dissolve, there is a heightened sense of equality, and also a strong feeling of togetherness and utopian potential. We humans, Turner argues, must engage in acts of communitas in order to constantly revitalize our deep-held utopian values of human equality, and also to disassemble and reevaluate cultural ideas and practices. Given that communitas is an act of anti-structure, Turner notes that, “in times of drastic and sustained social change, it is communitas which often appears to be central, and structure which constitutes the ‘square’ or ‘straight’ periphery.” (1974, p. 100).

Interestingly, engagement in spontaneous communitas, while a requirement of all people, is done most openly and with the least inhibition by people in “the lowest castes or classes in stratified society” (Turner 1974, p. 99). Such groups likely experience the most alienation and oppression by the social structure, and therefore become the most inclined to engage in experiences of ‘anti-structure’ or communitas. By the same token, for those “in positions of command or maintenance in structure, communitas…represents a real danger and, indeed…for all those, including even political leaders, who spend much of their lives in structural role playing it also represents a temptation. Who does not really want to shuck off that old armor plating?” (ibid, p. 99). One need only reflect on the frequent ‘fall from grace’ of politicians, preachers, and athletic super-stars, whose breaking of cultural codes and norms in their personal lives reveals perhaps the intense pressure they feel to escape the ‘armor plating’ of status. The degree to which they are expected to remain within their socially defined public ‘roles’ certainly generates immense pressure to “don the liberating masks of liminal masquerade” from time to time, however problematic such forms of communitas become to their personal lives. Indeed, extra-marital intrigue, or illicit drug use, with all the secretive and potent emotional bonding such behaviors often entail, may be among the more common, if least healthy forms of interpersonal communitas for people in extremely structured social roles, such as politicians, spiritual celebrities, and famous athletes.

Institutionalized Communitas

It is important to realize that society exists as a balance between structure and anti-structure. The former, however inequitable, sustains life on a material level, while the latter serves to restore, however temporarily “the basic human unity beneath social-structural distinctions, which are arbitrary” (Alexander, p. 30). If either structure or anti-structure (communitas) gets the upper hand however, there are significant problems for a society. Quoting Turner again;

“Both social modalities are indispensable for human social continuity, neither can exist for long without the other. Indeed, if structure is maximized to full rigidity, it invites the nemesis of either violent revolution or uncreative apathy, while if communitas is maximized, it becomes in short its own dark shadow, totalitarianism” (2002, p. 100).

Unchecked, inflexible social structures invite revolution. Such structures inhibit new ideas, forward progress, social innovation, and cultural evolution. Should the social structure be wholly unresponsive to the novel ideas and utopian values that emerge constantly from the rituals of human communitas, this entrenchment will eventually bring about a massive upheaval. A major role of communitas then, is to push social values forward, to challenge strict cultural paradigms, to evolve humanity’s vision for itself. Alexander (1991) stresses that “the experience of communitas, or awareness of the need for communitas, leads to alternative forms of social structure that promote community…[affirming] communitas’s concrete agenda to reform the existing social system in the direction of equality” (p. 31, 39). It is exactly this ongoing activity of human beings, this perennial dance within the anti-structure of communitas, which gradually shifts cultural attitudes and beliefs, and induces collectively the forward evolution of culture towards more egalitarian paradigms and social forms.

Authoritarian Communitas

Spontaneous communitas by its nature demands of social structure that it exist in the service of utopian ideals, that the political and economic systems of social structure function to create more egalitarian social systems, not sustain inequalities. Yet what happens when communitas is not guided by an ideal utopianism or when its participants reside too long outside of a rational self-reflection? This seems to be the case when communitas becomes institutionalized. When people experience such a heightened sense of interpersonal connectedness and togetherness on a continual basis, when communitas becomes a frequent and ongoing dimension of an organization or group, this can lead to the formation of an entirely new set of beliefs and values that, for members of the group, completely replace the prevailing cultural norms and paradigms outside of the group. Sometimes these beliefs may be progressive and can evolve a culture, as in the case of the American Anti-Slavery Society, or they can be degenerative and self-destructive, as in cult movements like The People’s Temple. In either case, these ideas and beliefs are held to tenaciously. Yet when the new emergent ideologies of the group are not directed toward equanimity or egalitarian ideals, but serve more personal and/or demagogic goals, groups often isolate themselves. Even less ideological groups engaged frequently in communitas, can feel themselves to be alienated from the larger culture. As Turner notes,

“The varied expressions of [institutional] communitas such as monasteries, convents, socialist bastions, semi-religious communities and brotherhoods, nudist colonies, communes in the modern counterculture, initiation camps, have often found it necessary to surround themselves with real as well as symbolic walls… Thus to keep out structure, structure has to be constantly maintained and reinforced” (2002, p. 101, emphasis added).

Communitas then has the capacity to reduce culture to its constituent parts, and allow participants to re-envision culture in new ways, sometimes towards utopian and egalitarian ideals, while at other times simply to justify participants’ collective attitudes and values which are standing in conflict with the larger cultural values.

Conclusion: Communitas and School Culture

As noted earlier, my own personal effort to build community in my classroom, to create a prevailing group identity, and to direct the passions of the collective towards some redress of social ills, has relied heavily on my capacity to generate an experience of communitas among my 6th-graders. We held councils, walked in silence in nature, had closing appreciations and morning arrival traditions, and engaged one another ritually and collectively in numerous other ways on a daily basis. Taken together, activities such as these supported a powerful feeling of ritual and solidarity for the students and myself. At the end of each year, in a card the students signed for me, a common theme in group identity and sense of shared value. Actual comments from on card include, “You’ve made our class feel like a community,” “I love everyone in our community,” and “I’ve learned the importance of community.”

Another critical aspect of my approach to building and sustaining this classroom community concerned my emphasis on community service. Group cohesion was both framed and accentuated by placing our collective privilege in the context of any number of global issues that consistently revealed systemic or acute injustices negatively impacting other peoples. By regularly reviewing the larger global context of human suffering, staying abreast of social justice issues beyond our borders, and designing classroom initiatives to directly address those concerns in concrete ways, the students balanced the institutional communitas of our vibrant community with practical activism. In this way, the elevated emotional dramas that were inherent to communitas could be regularly moderated against the backdrop of this ongoing examination of and engagement with real social issues.

Working in school contexts, and regularly engaging the energies and emotional intensities of early adolescents is a wonderful opportunity and yet a delicate process, especially for schools or teachers who value the power of community and personalization and strive to build authentic relationships as central to the school philosophy. In tribal society, the rite of passage was timed to leverage the intensity of youth towards very high expectations of behaving as adults, a transition between wholly distinct states and a transition that occurred very quickly and very completely.

The model of communitas as delineated by Turner and others, offers a useful tool for educators working in such intimate contexts with adolescents. It allows us to both understand the wonderful power of communitas as a mechanism for cultural evolution, and to appreciate the critical need for regular self-reflection and self-assessment so that ideologies don’t become rigid and isolationist, developing into what Turner called “protective institutional armor” (1982, p. 49).


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