Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Communitas

The late Yale graduate Marina Keegan captured the world’s attention in 2012. First, when she died in a tragic car crash at 22, just five days after her graduation, and next, when her last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Lonelinesswent viral. It writes, hopeful and glittering bright with youth:

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you.” (Keegan 2012)

What she didn’t know was, at least in anthropology, we do.

It’s called Communitas.

A word tied to Victor Turner and his work on liminality, it is described as a mystical solidarity, or an egalitarian, non-rational bond that forms between people during the liminal state betwixt and between worlds that may not necessarily have been possible or conceivable outside that space. In fact, the state is often characterised by experiences of communitas.

So how does this happen?

Such is the anti-structure nature of liminality that status ‘dissolves’. The boundaries that previously held people apart socially in society, age, status/class, gender, kinship position are all gone and people are instead equal in terms of a shared humanity. It is a sharp contrast to the hierarchy of everyday life, yet it is the place where people can be one and create connections that would not have existed within the social structure of an everyday reality. “… Every normal action is involved in the rights and obligations that defines status and establishes ’social distance’ between men” (Turner 1967, p. 110), but in the liminal space, people are free to “be themselves” as they are released from their normal social confines and customs and no longer feel as if they have to “act” their role. 

However liminality cannot be maintained forever without some sort of social structure or order to stabilise it, thus, moments and periods such as these end, and things inevitably return to the categories to which they belong, but, thanks to communitas and the unlikely bonds that people have made in the process, they are not necessarily in the same form in which they left… Thus Turner emphasises the liminal state for social unity due to its capacity to bring people together, inducing solidarity and social order (Turner 1967). It is a way of renewal, and a vehicle for transition, social cohesion, and restabilising order in society.

Although Marina Keegan never discovered this word, I think she encapsulated its feeling rather beautifully – like human-made magic that brings us closer together in this messy, complicated world.

Image Source: Amazon


References:

My article on Liminality

Keegan, M 2012, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Article, 27 May, Yale News, viewed 7 June, <https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2012/05/27/keegan-the-opposite-of-loneliness/&gt;.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

See Also:

Lani’s article on Collective Effervescence – a similar, but slightly different experience

Olaveson, T 2001, “Collective Effervescence and Communitas: Processual Models of Ritual and Society in Emile Durkheim and Victor Turner”, Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 26, pp. 89-124.

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