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Meeting Jesus at Uni:
Structure, Anti-Structure and Conversion Levels in Two Evangelical Student Groups
University of Oulu, Finland
First posted: 22 March 2006
This article will re-examine conversion experience, often a preserve of the psychology of religion, by assessing it in terms of Turner’s model of structure and anti-structure. It will argue, in contrast to many psychologists of religion, that conversion experience is not merely caused by a loss of identity. Instead, it will maintain that underlying can be a marked increase in structured identity and one level, while there is a decrease on another. This article will look at and compare the issue of conversion experience in the largest, student-led, evangelical groups within two universities drawing upon fieldwork with these groups. Specifically, it will look at the issue of conversion experience in the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) at Oxford University and the Aberdeen University Christian Union (AUCU) at Aberdeen University .
Conversion experience, for the most part, has been assessed with the psychology of religion. The general conclusion, reached in a variety of ways, is that conversion experience tends to occur when the individual loses their sense of identity, often due to considerable change in circumstances. While not necessarily disagreeing with this assessment, this article will the examine the issue in greater depth through the anthropology of religion. Specifically, it will employ Turner’s notions of liminality and communitas to argue, drawing upon original fieldwork, that conversion can be seen to occur when a person suffers high structure (or identity) or one level, but concomitant low structure on another. It will present these conclusions by drawing upon fieldwork with university evangelical groups whose stated aim is to foster conversion.
For many British students, university is a highly ‘liminal’ experience. It is a Rite of Passage which raises the status of the student and during that passage, therefore, the student’s status is highly ambiguous. The student is neither an adult nor a child, they live in a town but concomitantly live separately from it. The experience may also be highly transitional. Students are often taken away from their certainties in terms of geographical location and may socialise with other students from very different social classes or religious backgrounds from their own. Many discussions of conversion have noted a connection between times of existential change - something that is a significant component to the liminal phase - and conversion experience. Many of these discussions argue, either implicitly or explicitly, that a person tends to undergo conversion experience when their life becomes deeply uncertain, at times of change, and they concomitantly become involved in some kind of religious group. Many scholars also concur that conversion is often a lengthy process, even if many converts can pin-point a moment of conversion. (E.g: Rambo, Coleman). However, conversion is seen as bringing structure to an unstructured existential situation. As stated, this article will draw upon fieldwork with the largest evangelical group at two British Universities in order to suggest a somewhat different way of looking at this issue.
As stated, while the article will agree that conversion may be linked to a time of change it will be interested in the levels of structure within this superficial lack of structure, an issue that has not previously been explored in the context of conversion. This article will demonstrate that, according to my fieldwork with Oxford University Christian Union (OICCU) and Aberdeen University Christian Union (AUCU), levels of conversion are higher if the circumstances in which the conversion occurs are highly unstructured on one level but highly structured on another. It is this superficially contradictory duality which, in the view of this article, appears to lead to the highest levels of conversion. Thus, it will demonstrate, drawing upon fieldwork with the two evangelical groups, that Oxford University is the most structured and unstructured and the level of conversion while at Oxford , in OICCU, is higher than in AUCU. It will also look at the possibility of conversion being an example of anti-structure in response to a further level of structure within the liminal phase, following Eade and Sallnow’s critique of Turner’s model. As such, on a methodological level, the article will critique the understanding of the liminality, as antistructure, proposed by Turner. While it will broadly accept the model of conversion (as a process) proposed by Rambo it will, however, propose that the model would be improved if the apparent importance of both anti-structure and structure in that process were explored.
The article will first discuss Turner’s notion of liminality and various discussions of conversion. It will also provide background information on the evangelical groups assessed. It will present a detailed fieldwork methodology before employing this fieldwork with OICCU and AUCU to demonstrate differences in the levels of liminality at the two universities and differences in the levels of conversion between the two evangelical groups and discussing them. Broadly, the article will speak to scholars across disciplines by means of its fieldwork discussion and its examination of the university experience. It will attempt to understand the differing structures of this experience and the consequences of these differing structures.
Rites of Passage
Turner draws upon Gennep’s discussion of Rites of Passage (Gennep: 1960) and expands greatly upon the nature of liminality. For Turner, Rites of Passage involve a ‘passenger’ passing through a gap between two cultural realms – ‘a liminal phase.’ In this passage, he experiences a ‘state of transition’ which differs markedly from his previous pre-liminal or his future post-liminal experience. This passage tends to involve ‘segregation, marginality and aggregation.’ (Turner 1969: 4) In this regard, there are two kinds of rite: status reversal and status elevation. University will be seen as an example of the latter. In the liminal phase, the passenger lacks a specific place in ‘cultural space.’ He is made ‘passive and humble’ and, indeed, ‘ground down to be refashioned anew.’ As a consequence the fellow-passengers tend to experience a strong sense of togetherness in which social distinctions and structure become less relevant. Turner terms this feeling communitas. (Turner 1969: 95) This allows strong bonds to be fostered, vital for the survival of the community. (96) For Turner ‘Communitas is where structure is not.’ (126) Or at least it is ‘rudimentary’ structure. (96). Thus, for Turner, a liminal phase is anti-structure, or at the very least a loosening of structure, between two, compararatively speaking, clearly defined and structured periods. However, he makes clear that the liminal phase is ultimately broadly structured.
Turner also distinguishes between the ‘liminal’ and the ‘liminoid.’ The ‘liminoid’ tends to be noted in industrial societies, in Turner’s view. In such complex societies, people’s work lives are segmented into different groups that might have little actual contact. These workers are controlled, more so than in tribal societies, by structured time and rhythm. The liminoid is understood, by Turner, to be the break from such rigidity in the form of leisure time. Thus, the ‘liminal’ is in some way part of societal structure whereas the liminoid is effectively a break with it. (Turner 1992: 54-56) As such, a graduation ceremony might be regarded as liminal while a Pop Concert might be understood to be liminoid. Liminality is perceived to be less likely in a fragmented, industrial society. However, Turner admits that the liminoid can be found in tribal societies and that the liminal can be found in industrial societies in the form of Church and even academic rituals. (Turner 1992: 58) He further notes the way in which ‘today’s liminoid is tomorrow’s liminal,’ (58) citing the way in which Pilgrimage gradually became part of the structure of Medieval Christian life while still being clearly liminal.
For Turner, there are a number of different types of communitas. Firstly, there is existential-spontaneous communitas. He gives the example of hippy groups as conforming to this type. (Turner: 1969: 132). This is sudden communitas such as a collective religious experience. Davies gives the example of Pentecost. (Davies: 2002: 123) Second is NormativeCommunitas. Here, the original existential-spontaneous communitas has been organised into a social system which attempts to maintain that communitas. Finally there is Ideological Communitas, in which a utopian group is formed around the original communitas. (Turner 1969: 132) University, I would submit, would exemplify normative communitas. To a great extent, it is an example of communitas. However, this occurs within the broader structures of society and as such there are ceremonies to carry a student into (matriculation) and out of (graduation) the liminal phase. But a university such as Oxford , while causing communitas, is also a highly structured experience with its colleges and so forth.
Eade and Sallnow criticise Turner on empirical grounds. Turner cites the pilgrimage as being a liminal phase. Eade and Sallnow claim that, certainly in the context of a pilgrimage, there often appears to be evidence of boundary-making procedures and strong animosities between pilgrims while there is also evidence of a loosening of structure. (Eade and Sallnow 1991: 2) This might be seen at an Christmas Party if people socialised mainly with those of a similar rank. Hence, there is boundary-making a reassertion of the very structures that are broadly loosened by the communitas. One could suggest that Pilgrims engage in boundary making procedures because they require some kind of structure in an ill-defined and liminal environment. Turner himself points out that liminality is, ‘for many the acme of insecurity, the breakthrough of chaos into cosmos . . .’ (Turner 1982: 46) and this reaction would fit in with this. Thus, when arguing that university is a liminal phase, this article will draw upon a modified version of Turner's model. I would define liminality as having anti-structure on one level and structure on another. I will demonstrate university to be a liminal phase both narrowly according to my revised model and also in accordance with Turner's. Thus, having looked at Turner’s notion of liminality, I will now turn to the issue of conversion.
Precisely how conversion experience, as distinct from any other kind of religious experience, should be defined is a matter of some debate as are its causes. Sociologist Milton Yinger has conducted a useful survey of the issues surrounding religious experience and although this was some years ago, I would suggest that it is still germane. Yinger emphasises that ‘religious experience’ is a broad notion that transcends different cultures even if the experiences themselves are structured by the religious socialisation of the person undergoing the experience. (Yinger: 1970: 144). Broadly, however, Yinger regards religious experience as a response to what is perceived to be the experience of ‘ultimate reality,’ whatever this might be understood to be in each case. (144). Thereafter, Yinger argues that religious experiences themselves can be classified with regard to their degree of intensity. They range from those that are (1) 'confirming,' in which a person is merely aware of God or whatever it may be. (2) 'responsive' - in which case the person feels that God is aware of them. (3) 'ecstatic,' in which the person is communing with God. (4) 'revelatory,' in which God tells the person, and only that person, something significant, rendering them a Prophet of sorts. (145). In this regard, Yinger draws upon Stark's taxonomy of religious experience, which is very similar. (Stark: 1965: 99). More recently, Rambo has presented a very similar argument. The experience of conversion, he argues, will vary according to an individual’s traditions, the nature of their religion, their life history and so forth. Despite its individual nature, however, Rambo provides us with a number of conversion types: (1) Intellectual conversion – in which one makes sense of the world through the religion or group. (2) Mystical – Involving some kind of religious experience. (3) Experimental – When one is invited to pray for the first time, for example. (4) Affective – when one is converted due to ones love for the group and desire to be part of it. (5) Revival – When one is converted in the context of a charismatic meeting and (6) Coercive – When one is manipulated into conversion by a number of means. (Rambo: 1993: 12). Conversion experience can be seen, therefore, as a specific kind of religious experience. Firstly, the very fact that it is seen as a ‘conversion’ means that it is an experience within the structures of a religious society in which converts are accepted and in which conversion itself is a motif. In this regard, Yinger draws upon Gordon’s distinction between 'Ecclesiastical Conversion' and 'Inner Conversion.' (146). The former is the one of greater interest to this article. Gordon argues that Ecclesiastical Conversion is a religious experience, of any degree of intensity, which causes a person to move from one religion to another or from no religion to a religion while the latter merely renews ones pre-existing religiosity. (Gordon: 1967: Ch. 1). Of course, this perceived sudden change may only be part of a long process, an issue which will be discussed below. I fully appreciate that the debate on precisely how ‘conversion’ is defined is far from closed. Some might argue that only a Pauline style Prophetic conversion is really a conversion. But surely, if the experience, no matter what its intensity, causes one to ‘convert’ then it should be placed within this category at least broadly.
The second question is what are the causes of conversion experience or how does conversion occur? To a certain extent, there is general agreement amongst scholars in this area that conversion occurs due to lack of certainty and existential structure. Sargent contends that conversion is strongly related to ‘dissociation’ – where one is extremely happy or frightened. (Sargent: 37) Sargent further argues that such states will leave one highly susceptible to suggestion, although it can make one deaf to all suggestion thereafter. (41) In this context, a person can experience visions and experience intense joy. Such situations can especially be caused by distress (85) and, in his seminal work on the subject, James finds a connection between great distress and subsequent conversion. This distress is seen to be caused by uncertainty due to existential change. (James; 1952: 149) Rambo highlights the distinction between ‘normative conversion’ – that is conversion congruous with a particular group’s conception of it – and ‘descriptive conversion’ which could be used to encompass similar experiences amongst all religious groups. (Rambo: 5) Regarding this broader theoretical perspective, Rambo submits that conversion ‘is very rarely over night’ and further highlights a number of conversion types. For Rambo, conversion is not a sudden epiphany but rather it is a long process, caused by distress in the face of a disordered life, which may culminate in a dramatic experience or may be retrospectively understood as a conversion some time later. (2) Having converted, one reconstructs ones-self autobiographically in terms of the conversion. (137) ‘(1) Context (2) Crisis (3) Quest (4) Encounter (5) Interaction (6) Commitment (7) Consequences.’ (17) Sara Savage points out, we cannot simply relate conversion to distress or everyone who became distressed would convert. Rather, we should relate it to stress caused by loss of identity and a concomitant crisis of expectation. This crisis of expectation, she suggests, generally occurs at times of existential change and in this she concurs with James and Rambo. (Savage: 2000: 8) Hence, these various explanations for conversion have in common the view that conversion is a response to change, to a loss of structure of ‘identity,’ in Savage's case, would seem to be an example. Many also connect conversion to liminal phases and, in this sense, appear to implicitly draw upon Turner’s understanding of liminality as an ‘absence of structure.’ It is this that this article will criticise. Before moving onto to fieldwork issues, however, I think it would useful to look at the evangelical groups concerned.
This article will focus on the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) and the Aberdeen University Christian Union (AUCU). It will draw upon participant observation fieldwork with these groups. In both cases, they are largest evangelical groups at their universities with, according to my own fieldwork, 250 and 170 members respectively. The article has chosen to focus on these groups because it is examining conversion experience at times of change. The university experience, to varying degrees, will be shown to be a time of change or liminality. Also, the stated purpose of both of these groups is, in essence, to help ‘the Holy Spirit’ to convert people to Christianity or, at least, their particular version of Christianity. Conversion is an important motif in both groups. This can be noted in many ways, not least that both groups have a large number of ‘testimonies’ from group members (stories of their conversion experiences) posted on their websites. Also, on two occasions during my fieldwork, there were publicly spoken testimonies at OICCU meetings. Thus, I think fieldwork with these groups, in their university context, is highly germane in the discussion of conversion being conducted here. University, as will be demonstrated below, is an example of the kind of period in life in which the commentators on conversion that have been discussed would expect conversion experience to occur and it is dealing with groups for whom ‘conversion’ is highly significant for group membership.
Both groups refer to themselves as ‘evangelical Christians’ and both are affiliated to the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) and, more broadly, to the International Federation of Evangelical Students. This information is made quite clear on their websites. (AUCU: 2005, OICCU: 2005). According to James Barr, evangelicals tend to be ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’ in their understanding of Christian doctrine and with regard to lifestyle ethics. They are, of course, Protestant. (Barr: 1977). In his historical discussion of evangelicalism, Bebbington makes precisely the same points. (Bebbington: 1989). Indeed, for Barr, to a certain extent, there is little distinction between ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism.’ UCCF has a Declaration of Faith which all those who wish to join a CU must sign that they agree with. According to this declaration, the Bible is ‘inerrant . . . as originally understood.’ Thus, there is heavy implication that belief in ‘evolution’ is not acceptable amongst group members. The Bible is also seen as a guide for how to live here and now, which implies that the lifestyle ethics that it is seen to advocate in the view of evangelical Christians are appropriate in the modern world. The declaration also declares a literal belief in doctrines that some Christians might reject such as Hell for non-believers. Apart from this declaration, UCCF makes clear that the purpose of a CU is to a create a ‘witnessing community on campus’ and make Christianity and God known to Non-Christian Students. (UCCF) Thus, its purpose is, in essence, to persuade Non-Christians to become Christians and to create a community for those who are already Christians. I entirely appreciate that this summary of evangelicalism is doubtless simplistic. It overlooks disputes within evangelicalism, such as the appropriateness of Charismatic behaviour and so forth. There is also a movement known as ‘Post-Evangelicalism’ which, though evangelical, is more ‘liberal,’ particularly with regard to lifestyle. (See Tomlinson, 1998) But as a general summary, I think it is useful.
There were, however, differences between the degree conservatism in the two groups. All those whom I interviewed from both AUCU and OICCU claimed to believe in Hell and to believe that Non-Christians would, in fact, go to Hell. All of those to whom I spoke claimed to believe in the Devil as an actual force in the world. 23/25 in AUCU and 24/25 in OICCU rejected Evolutionary Theory and all believed in the reality of doctrines such as the Resurrection. The only major doctrinal difference between the groups, and it is perhaps a mute point to term this a doctrinal difference rather than, perhaps, a difference of emphasis, was the apparent numbers, in each group, who had under-gone a conversion experience. Of the twenty-five AUCU members interviewed, five admitted that they had never had a conversion experience but had simply always been Christians. In OICCU, by contrast, only one person of the same sample number made this claim. I also noted conformity in terms of social belief. In OICCU, all thought it was acceptable for Christians to drink but none to become drunk. Only one felt it was acceptable for Christians to smoke, only one felt it was acceptable to date a Non-Christian and none felt it acceptable to take drugs of any kind. All felt premarital sex was unacceptable. In AUCU, the results in relation to drinking and sex were the same. But two felt it was acceptable for Christians to smoke, two would date a Non-Christian and none would take drugs. The results from both groups would seem to indicate a slightly higher degree of differentiation in OICCU than AUCU. In terms both of religious and social belief, OICCU evidences a slightly higher degree of differentiation, and thus group structure, than AUCU.
In both cases, two terms were spent at the universities and working with their Christian Union. I studied AUCU from September 2002 to April 2003 and I studied OICCU from April to June 2003 and from January to March 2004. As stated, the over-all method employed was participant observation. Participant Observation is useful precisely because, as Holy and Stuchlik argue, one is able to rely on ones own empirical evidence of group proceedings. (Holy and Stuchlik: 5) Considering the length of time for which one is involved, it is highly unlikely that one has to fear that the group have altered their proceedings on ones account. Thus, participant observation ensures that one is not reliant on the conceivably biased or poorly recalled memories of group members. One is also not reliant upon what certain members of the group desire one to know. One can see when things go wrong and thus observe the workings of the group as they are rather than as they are desired to be. Of course sometimes simulation is useful in appreciating the ideals of a group but I think this is more useful for groups more clearly divided than the ones I was studying. A difficulty, over a lengthy period, is ones own memory and, consequently, one should record or note as soon as is convenient, any events of significance which occur. The method is also useful because it allows you develop bonds with group members, and the group as a whole, meaning they are more likely to confide desired information in you. Naturally, there are some difficulties with this method. One is reading ones own perceptions into the actions of group members. One must remember that, as evangelical Christians, they perceive the world in a very different fashion from oneself on many levels. One might attempt to read into a person’s intense crying that they are unhappy but may interview them to receive a remark like, ‘I wasn’t crying on the inside.’ Thus, one must be careful in this regard, not to make assumptions. I also found that a minority of members, especially in OICCU, attempted to ‘witness to me’ – that, in essence, persuade me to become a Christian. One has to be diplomatic and sensitive in dealing with such approaches.
The information obtained from group members was of two kinds. Firstly, it related to their social and religious views (including conversion) but also their experience of university life. In each case, 25 members were surveyed and another 25 interviewed. Surveys were given out on a random basis, except that the appropriate gender balance was ensured. The surveys questioned members as to their background in terms of church, area, schooling, parental occupation and age. It also enquired into religiosity, conversion experience and life-style ethics. The interviews draw upon the survey information. Members were interviewed, therefore, such that they were also representative in terms of social background in Oxford , where this was a significant divide according to my surveys. In AUCU, there was a significant Northern Irish minority and I, therefore, interviewed an appropriate percentage accordingly. The interviews themselves were informal and conversational. They often took place in a bar, for example, or coffee shop. There were also open-ended. I had a number of questions which I planned to ask on various issues before-hand. But the interviews, in essence, developed into conversations. Putting the interviewee at ease was also important because, asking them about conversion, I was questioning them, in most cases, on the most dramatic event in their lives and often an event that occurred at a very traumatic time for them. One had to be very sensitive in dealing with such issues.
Interview and Fieldwork Difficulties
I would submit that, for the kind of information I was attempting to elicit, open interview was the most useful method. Naturally, one could, instead, have asked all CU members, or a sample of members, to simply write about their conversion experience. This would have taken less time and provided more, perhaps, with more data but there are difficulties with this approach. Informal interview allowed me to create a personal bond with the interviewee over the period of the interview and afterwards. Even before the interviewee told me about his or her ‘conversion,’ they had shared part of themselves with me. They had told, for example, about their beliefs, about their relationships and about their life history. I would suggest that such a bond would not be developed either in a more formal interview or in surveys in which I would effectively be anonymous. This bond, I would suggest, meant that interviewees went into considerable detail, especially with regard to the issue of conversion and, more importantly, the circumstances surrounding their conversion. Using the informal interview was particularly important in OICCU. When I approached AUCU to conduct fieldwork those in charge found this quite acceptable and were prepared to treat me as an ‘honorary member’ of the group. By contrast, many OICCU members, including the Executive Committee, seemed to regard me with a great deal of suspicion. They heavily restricted my access to certain meetings, forbade me to attend their weekly ‘College Group’ meeting and refused to send me any of the emails that were sent to group members. The President took a lot of persuading to allow me to conduct my fieldwork, as he questioned whether it would be ‘helpful’ to his members. When I spoke to OICCU members, a minority were inclined to question why I was asking them questions and some even attempted to evangelise me. Getting to know OICCU students, who, it transpired, were part of a group somewhat disliked by many students, in a social context allowed me to break-down this hostility in a way that surveys would not have done to the same extent and, perhaps, nor would formal interviews.
Secondly, I would argue that survey or formal interview would be restrictive. There would be set questions and, to a degree in a survey, set answers. Informal interviews, by contrast, simply allowed CU members to talk, albeit directed to a degree. This was extremely useful because it the put the interviewee at ease and allowed me to discover information that might not have been broached in a formal, structured interview. The survey method, in my submission, is very useful in order to ascertain general trends amongst large groups of people. However, when one is dealing with a small group, and one wishes to understand this group, I would suggest that informal interview is far more useful. Moreover, such a method essentially means you are part of the group, in a way you are not if you conduct formal interviews. This, I would argue, further helps to create a bond and further inclines ones interviewees to provide information.
The second part of the fieldwork related to understanding the universities themselves and thus their degree of liminality. This took three forms. Firstly, a significant component of the interviews with OICCU and AUCU members involved asking them about university life in relation to liminality. Thus I enquired, without using anthropological language, about various issues of ritual as high ritual would point, following Turner, to liminality. Were there matriculation and graduation ceremonies? Were there frequent rituals within the colleges, such as formal meals? Did university societies themselves have ‘rituals’ in the form of formal meetings or formal meals? Students were also asked, in detail, about the nature and frequency of these rituals. I was equally interested in the question of structure. How structured were Halls of Residence (in Aberdeen ) compared to Oxford colleges? Did people tend to live in them for their whole time at university? In the context of informal interview, such broad questions were allowed to lead to further discussion often with very interesting and fruitful results. I also asked about student societies, such as the Union Society (a debating society), to discern how this differed between the two universities. With regard to communitas, I was particularly interested in questions of background. Had the students met large numbers of people from different social or religious backgrounds from their own? Had they come a long away to attend the university or were they from the same area? Had they lived away from home before? Was attendance at such a university usual for those from their background? Indeed, the question ‘Do you still live at home with your parents during term time?’ was asked because, at Aberdeen , a minority of students did so. A broad array of questions were asked of CU members at both universities with regard to ritual, transition and the degree to which the university fostered communitas. These questions pushed forward the discussion and assisted in discerning the degree and nature of liminality at the two universities. Many of the questions were also inspired by my own experiences as an undergraduate at Durham University and the differences that I noted between this and Oxford and Aberdeen . Of course, I appreciate that there is a personal dimension to how many of the guiding questions were composed and, thus, one had to be careful not assume too much from ones own undergraduate experience.
In order to further ensure the accuracy of these results I also questioned, only with regard to the nature of the university, a large number of undergraduate students at Oxford and Aberdeen in a less structured manner. I did not, for example, take the names of these interviewees and only made notes after the interviews. Of course, it was more difficult to make contact with these people. In the case of Aberdeen , I was able to get to know many Non-Christian students through my tutorials in the Divinity Department. I was then able to network from that point. I also attended meetings of various Aberdeen University societies such as the Conservative Association, the Creative Writing Society and Students Against War and spoke to students there. Thus, a broad array were spoken to about these issues. At Oxford University , this was slightly more difficult because I could not meet undergraduates through tutorials. I attended, in my capacity as a participant observer, an Oxford University ‘formal.’ There was no equivalent at Aberdeen . At this formal, I found were particularly willing to talk to me, despite my being a stranger, presumably because they had had a little a drink. I also attended meetings of the Union Society, Oxford ’s ancient debating society of which I was a member. This was especially useful because those who attended were drawn from across the university and it was particularly easy to strike up conversation with people. I found conversation to be particularly important with Non-Christian students. When I, at first, distributed surveys to a particular student society at Aberdeen , the participants did not take the surveys at all seriously and used them as an opportunity to engage in ridicule. When I actually spoke to members of the same group, they took me more seriously so I decided that interview was a more useful technique. It was also useful because I knew so little about the universities and the interviews raised issues I perhaps would not have thought to enquire about.
In the following discussion of communitas and liminality and the two universities, I will therefore draw upon interviews with CU members, unstructured interviews with other students and my own observation of, what are in effect, university rituals or rituals, at least, occurring within the university. I appreciate, of course, that there is an element of subjectivity, in fieldwork, in asserting how liminal a situation is. I will attempt to narrow this by looking for specific notions that we would expect to find in a liminal phase such as separation, ambiguity, the means to create strong social bonds and so forth. Thus, having examined how the information was obtained, I will now turn to the information itself.
University as a Liminal Phase
University is a transitional phase. One enters at around the age at which one reaches legal majority. In England this is generally eighteen while in Scotland it is generally seventeen. By the end of the phase they have a degree and, consequently, potential access to professions that they would not otherwise have access to. Students are also, it might be argued, not quite adults at this point or, at least, are not quite recognised as having this status. Although most students are living away from home, their environment can be compared to a school in some respects and their behaviour is regulated, in the main, by the university rather than civil authorities. At many British universities, students are even catered for at the beginning of their courses as if they were at home. University is an ambiguous space, in which one is neither child nor adult. At a university such as Oxford , one is a child in the sense that one lives in a college, is catered for (at certain regulated times) and cleaned for by a college. However, in many other senses, one is an adult. Students are effectively left to organise themselves. They have their own elected government (the Student Union) which has its own newspaper. There are often other newspapers as well as various societies including political parties. The level of academic supervision is far lower than at school with attendance at most classes, at least in certain subjects, being voluntary to a certain extent. Students are free to engage in adult activities such as drinking, clubbing and sexual intercourse. But to varying degrees, university involves separation, status change and status ambiguity as with the liminal periods assessed by Turner. It is, in fact, not uncommon for high numbers of undergraduates to suffer from home-sickness and even depression. (Fisher:1994:41) Perhaps related to an awareness of the fact that university is a step towards adulthood is the understandable concern with existential questions such as ‘Will I ever find a partner?’ or ‘Will I ever truly be happy?’ Such questions, in such an intense environment, are only likely to compound a sense of unhappiness and uncertainty. (Conn:1986:26)
Of course, there are differences in the level of liminality between different universities and, indeed, differences in the level of liminality between different groups within the universities. I will now examine the issue of liminality at both Oxford and Aberdeen Universities . The discussion will demonstrate that the degree both of structure and communitas are higher at Oxford than at Aberdeen , in general. As stated, the information employed here is drawn from interviews both with CU members and, in a less structured way, other students at the universities.
In many ways, life at Oxford University is highly structured and controlled. Indeed, it might be suggested that it these very structures which lead to a high level of communitas. A student's presence at Oxford is marked, most broadly, by Rites which imply a high degree of liminality. According to all my interviewees, there is a both a graduation ceremony and a matriculation ceremony at Oxford . These are both highly formalised. They take place in Latin, they involve wearing formal gowns and, in the case of graduation, kneeling in order to have the degree bestowed. Indeed, the opaqueness of these rituals, to outsiders, would further imply a highly structured experience, congruous with the model of liminality espoused.
Within the colleges themselves, there is also a high level of ritual activity. This could be noted most obviously in ‘formals’ which occurred, in most colleges, at least once a week. These meals would indeed be highly formal. Students would have to dress smartly and wear their academic gowns. In some, but not all, colleges there would even be prayers from the chaplain at the start of the meal and everyone would stand as the college Master and other dignitaries took their place at high table. These ‘formals’ were compulsory and non-attendance would result in sanctions. There were also broader university rituals, such as having to wear Oxford husk for public examinations. Again, these rituals point to high level structure and differentiation, in terms of clothing, which also implies a high level structure. Life in the college itself was also highly structured. Living in college as a first year was compulsory. In most cases, only college members could enter the college, unless by arrangement, and in some colleges members of the opposite sex had to be signed in and then signed out by 10pm . As stated, the colleges were catered and college members, in general, all had dinner together in a single sitting.
Outside of the college system, according to my interviewees’ information, the university also appeared to be structured, at least when compared to Aberdeen . Though it was in Oxford , it was an entirely separate community. Students had their own bars (and each college had a bar), three newspapers, their own night clubs, their own Gentlemen’s clubs and various student societies which, in many cases, met very frequently. Hence, in a sense it could be argued that Oxford University offered a very clear, structured sense of identity as ‘ Oxford students’ and as members of their respective colleges. Indeed, as an aside, I noted a significant minority of Oxford students wearing clothing (such as OU or college tops) that conspicuously identified them as Oxford Students or as members of a certain college.
But, concomitantly, I would suggest, Oxford University also offered students a lack of structured identity on another level. This, I would argue, would especially be the case for those from state schools. Many such state school students, according to those whom I interviewed, would have never previously lived away from home and would find the traditions of the University very different from anything that they had previously experienced. As such, Oxford would be cause anti-structure in terms of geography because they would students from all over the UK . It would also cause anti-structure in terms of social class. 50 percent of Oxford students have attended private schools (Oxford University: Statistics Dept) and it is highly likely, therefore, that state school pupils would meet them and even find themselves living on a corridor together. Thus, Oxford would cause a challenge to identity in terms of social class. This would perhaps be augmented by the fact that, according to all state school pupils whom I interviewed, attendance at Oxford would not have been expected while for many at public school, according to my interviews, attendance at Oxford or Cambridge seems almost to run in the family. The ceremonies of the university would, perhaps, be equally intimidating as they are in Latin, a subject not generally taught at state schools. Clearly, then, the structures of the university, not least the college system, would lead to communitas as students from different social and geographical backgrounds live together and dine together.
This said, the experience of Oxford would still be liminal for those from public-school backgrounds. Oxford attracts members of the upper-class who hail from and have schooled all around the country. Such undergraduates would have been unlikely to have had intimate contact with pupils from state-schools, adding a further transitional aspect to the experience. Also, historically, the purpose of Oxford was a transformative one. It took young gentry from around the country in order to prepare them for certain professions such as politics, the law and the church. (Allen: 1988: 35) Hence, university can be seen to remodel members of the upper-class. It is still liminal for them even if it is more liminal for those from state schools. Even though Oxford might be perceived as less liminal for those from public-schools there would still exist, we might suggest, an atmosphere of liminality, which they would be affected by, simply because Oxford is so liminal for so many of its students.
In many ways, Aberdeen University is far less structured than Oxford . It has a graduation ceremony but it does have a matriculation ceremony. This lack of emphasis on rites could be seen as evidence as a lower level of liminality. There is no college system at the university. First year students can, if they so wish, live in one of the very few University owned Halls of Residence. They can be catered for or they can opt for a self-catering flat. They do not actually have to live in a University run Hall and, if they so wish, can live in a privately owned Hall or, indeed, anywhere they wish to as long as they are able to attend a certain number of lectures per term. The Halls simply offer a place to live and have meals. There are no ‘formals’ or anything comparable to College Day or any such rituals. Outside of Halls, students can wear normal clothing to exams. Thus, the degree of structure and control, in these respects, is considerably lower at Aberdeen . Also Aberdeen students are far less separated from local people. Indeed, a significant minority of Aberdeen students are from Aberdeen or thereabouts. There is only one student bar and, in general, students go to the same public houses and night clubs as local people. There is only one student newspaper and, in comparison, the student societies are few in number and relatively inactive, according to my interviewees. Thus, the structures of Aberdeen University do not, in comparison to Oxford at least, offer students a high level of Aberdeen University identity. And, as an aside, in comparison to Oxford , I noted very few students who conspicuously identified themselves as members of Aberdeen University by means of dress.
At the same time, in comparison to Oxford , the level of communitas at Aberdeen University appeared, according to both interviews and personal observation, to be considerably lower. Aberdeen University has far fewer privately educated students than Oxford – around twenty percent ( Aberdeen University : Statistics Dept). But even so, for many of the same reasons I have highlighted above, I would expect Aberdeen to involve less transformation for private school students than state school ones. According to my interviewees, students at Scottish private schools would expect to attend one of the ancient Scottish universities and a degree from one of them would not cause a considerable lifestyle alteration. Equally, an important transforming dimension for both kinds of pupil could be found in the ambiguity created by contact between social groups. But because the percentage of private school pupils at Aberdeen is far less than at Oxford , I would expect this contact to be less and interviewees testified to this. In this respect, the degree of liminality is lower for a state-school pupil. There was also less communitas due to contact between different geographical groups. Almost all students to whom I spoke were Scottish and a large minority were from the north of Scotland . There is a tendency in Scotland for students to attend their nearest university whereas in England students will frequently attend a university that is some distance from them. Glasgow University tends to attract large numbers of students from that area and equally, Aberdeen University attracts large numbers from the north of Scotland . The Dearing Report into Higher Education makes this very point: ‘Compared to the rest of the UK , Scots tend to study close to home.’ (Dearing: 1997) As such, many Aberdeen undergraduates are less separated from their environment than their counterparts at Oxford meaning that there is less transformation. Indeed, historically the numbers of Scottish people attending university is higher than the number of English people. According to the Scottish Parliament:
Thus, attending university is less of change for a Scottish pupil: it is less transitional than for an English pupil. A sizeable minority of Aberdeen students, other than mature students, live at home. This would also render the university less liminal, at least for them, and mean that they were, to a greater extent, children. Unlike with Oxford University , it might be suggested that at Aberdeen there is less of an atmosphere of liminality and that this might permeate even those for whom Aberdeen is a fairly liminal experience.
Conversion and Liminality: Discussion
Hence, it has been noted that at Oxford at least, there is high level of anti-structure and loss of ‘identity,’ as Savage has put it, but at the same time there is a high level of structure and thus identity created for students. At Aberdeen , the level of structure and anti-structure were found to be lower than at Oxford . In the following, I will demonstrate that the degree of conversion experience is higher the higher the degree of both structure and anti-structure in circumstances. Thus, it will be shown to be higher at Oxford University , in OICCU.
As has been demonstrated, the degree of liminality at both universities would be higher for pupils from state school backgrounds. We would therefore expect not just that the level conversion would be higher at Oxford than at Aberdeen but that it would higher within this particular sub-category at Oxford than outside it. This, indeed, was borne by the results both of surveys that I conducted and of my interviews. The level of conversion at Oxford is considerably higher than at Aberdeen . It is higher both in the sense of students from Non-Christian backgrounds becoming Christians - which would definitely be congruous with the definition of 'conversion' earlier discussed - and in terms of students from Christian backgrounds having conversion experiences and deciding that they were not truly Christians beforehand. From my sample of students, 20 per cent of OICCU members were from Non-Christian backgrounds and had had a conversion experience while at university. Another 4 percent were from Christian backgrounds but claimed that they had not truly been Christians themselves until they had had a conversion experience at university. Of these people, who had undergone conversion experiences at university, the vast majority (80 per cent) had attended state schools. And, as has been stated, these are, in most cases, the very people for whom we would expect university to be the most liminal. Amongst the students in AUCU, 8 per cent claimed to have had conversion experiences while at university and, of these, half claimed not to be from Christian backgrounds. All of the students who had undergone conversion experience while at Aberdeen , in my sample, had attended state schools.
Of course, another variable factor here is the ‘Gap Year.’ Another issue which it would be germane to raise here is that of the Gap Year. Certainly in the UK, the taking of a Gap Year, between leaving school and going to university, has become increasingly popular. The Gap Year may take many forms. Students might work for the part of the year to fund travelling abroad, they might work abroad or they might simply travel abroad for the entire year. The Gap Year is important to the current study because it would appear to be congruous with the idea of liminal space. During the Gap Year, or at least part of the Gap Year, the student, as with university, leaves behind many of their cultural norms and networks and becomes, to differing degrees, independent. The fact that the Gap Year might often involve going abroad and experiencing a different culture would, perhaps, render the Gap Year particularly liminal for many students. As such, the Gap Year was one issue that I asked about in interviews. Amongst AUCU members, the numbers having a Gap Year were very small. Only three students had taken a Gap Year, one was from Northern Ireland and the son of a GP, one a private school-boy from England and the son of an architect and one the daughter of a Scottish Minister. In OICCU, far larger numbers had taken a Gap Year. Taking a Gap Year appeared to be particularly popular amongst those students who had been to private schools. Of the ten OICCU students, in my sample, who had attended private schools over half (6) had taken a Gap Year and in all cases this had involved travelling abroad. Amongst those from state schools, less than one third, (4) had taken a Gap Year. Thus, assuming the Gap Year is liminal, this again demonstrates that university is, in general, more liminal for those from state schools.
These results have a number of implications. They demonstrate, as has been agreed by various scholars of religion, that there is a connection between a period of change and conversion experience. Indeed, my results demonstrate that the more 'changing' or transitional the period is, then the higher the level of conversion experience appears to be, as demonstrated by its presence in these evangelical groups. However, my discussion has also demonstrated that conversion does not seem to increase the more unstructured a situation or the greater the degree to which participants experience a lack of identity. This is point made explicitly be Savage and to a lesser extent by Rambo as well. Rather, I would argue that the fieldwork demonstrates that in the liminal phase with the highest degree of conversion ( Oxford ) a relatively strong sense of identity is offered by the university. At Aberdeen , a relatively low sense of university identity seems to be offered. But while Oxford University offers a structured identity on one level, it offers anti-structure and communitas on another level. It appears to be this superficially contradictory situation, whereby the liminal phase offers a high degree of structure and a high degree of anti-structure, that leads to the highest levels of conversion experience, as has been noted. Hence, if these results were pushed broadly we would not merely expect to find high levels of conversion during times of change but particularly during times of change that are both highly structured and involve a concomitant high level of communitas. University is one example of such a period but there are, of course, many others. It might be suggested that living is hospice is an example of such a period. It would interesting to see if people who are dying are more likely to undergo religious experiences in hospices than if left to die in less liminal circumstances, such as at home.
Rambo argues, as we have seen, that conversion is very rarely over night and is part of some kind of broader structure involving a particular religious group - a process. I would like to pursue this point slightly further by looking at a different kind of structure of which conversion might be a part - the model of structure and communitas in groups proposed by Turner and critiqued by Eade and Sallnow. It might be argued that the level of conversion is higher at Oxford because the group, as my information discussed above demonstrates, that OICCU is a more tightly structured group than AUCU and, as such, conversion is more important to it. I would counter that both groups are affiliated to the same evangelical organisations and, as such, conversion is implicitly of equal importance to both. But, secondly, the point raises the question of why the main evangelical group at Oxford should be more highly structured than AUCU and how this fits into the discussion of liminality. It has been argued that the liminal phase involves structure on one level and communitas on another. The university experience, as has been noted, exemplifies this. Eade and Sallnow, however, argue that, during the Pilgrimage (which is assessed as another example of liminal phase) there is communitas and, indeed, Turner implicitly accepts that there are also structures involved. However, they further argue that, within the liminal phase, there is a reassertion of structure. I would suggest that structured, student groups - which are not part of the broader university structure - might be seen as examples of these kinds of boundary-making procedures. At Oxford University , at least with regard to OICCU, the boundaries are stronger than at Aberdeen University with AUCU. In terms of religious belief and life-style ethics, OICCU appears to be more highly differentiated than AUCU. Thus, I think there is good reason to suggest that groups such as OICCU and AUCU are a further level of structure within the liminality, a boundary-making procedure. But if it is accurate that a highly liminal phase involves both a high level of structure and high level of communitas, then we would surely expect OICCU, as it still occurs within a liminal phase, to offer a high level of anti-structure as well as a high level of structure. In this regard, I would suggest that religious experience, and therefore conversion experience, can be seen as this level of anti-structure. Conversion experience, according to those whom I interviewed and many scholars in this area that we have discussed, is, in essence, a highly emotional and dramatic experience, but one that involves a change of religious perspective. Superficially at least, it is unstructured and will often result in various forms of highly emotional behaviour such as crying or intense, almost physical pleasure. As we have noted, the level of conversion is considerably higher in OICCU both amongst those who semi-joined the group and then became Christians or those who joined the group, as Christians, and then had a conversion experience. In this sense, conversion experience could be regarded as a kind of emotional release in the context of a highly structured situation which a person has been attracted to because of the anti-structure in the broader liminality. Indeed, this argument would add credence to Rambo's model of conversion because he emphasises that a potential convert tends to be involved in the group itself before the conversion experience takes place. Thus, while broadly, in the liminal phase, conversion appears to be connected to a high level of structure and communitas, at a narrow level it perhaps is the very communitas in tightly structured groups that develops within the liminal phase.
In arguing this point, I am not attempting to dismiss other views of conversion. I am simply suggesting possible ways in which my own fieldwork can be interpreted. However, I am suggesting that conversion experience might be understood as kind of emotional release, within a group of which a person is a member if perhaps a somewhat marginalised one. I am not, of course, suggesting that all conversions follow this kind of pattern. Many people may have conversion experiences that are vaguely Christian and then search for the appropriate group. But what I am suggesting is that conversion experience should not necessarily be understood as a response to a loss of identity, as Savage and others have argued. My fieldwork points towards the view that conversion is more likely to occur in circumstances in which a person, effectively, has a very structured identity on one level and a fractured identity on another. Moreover, the conversion itself may be seen as an emotional release, of sorts, necessitated by a highly structured groups which has developed in a liminal phase and still reflects that liminality and consequent structure and anti-structure. I draw these conclusions with some hesitance and must emphasise that I am not attempting to develop of a meta-theory of religious group dynamics. However, I am suggesting that Turner’s view of liminality can be modified as can the understanding of conversion, as caused, by in effect, a loss of structure, advocated by scholars such as Savage. While I agree that conversion may occur, broadly, due to loss of identity, I am suggesting that this superficial lack of structure can involve, perhaps, various further levels of structure and anti-structure.
This article has drawn upon participant observation fieldwork with two student-led, evangelical groups operating at Oxford and Aberdeen universities. Drawing mainly upon this fieldwork, in which the groups were studied in depth and compared, this article has assessed what it means for students to come to university and have a conversion experience with regard to issues of liminality, structure and communitas. It has thus looked at the relationship between conversion experience and a liminal phase. In this regard it has attempted to add to discussions by Savage and others by looking at the many levels of a period of change, or loss of identity, and how these relate to conversion experience. Broadly, it has also critiqued Turner's understanding of liminality as a lack of structure and provided further evidence for the understanding of liminality advocated by Eade and Sallnow. The article first examined various discussions of conversion, as well as the issue of liminality and communitas. It set out its fieldwork methodology looking at information both in relation to the discussions of Christian Unions and university life more broadly. The various difficulties with and methods of obtaining information were looked at in this regard. It also examined the nature of evangelical student groups, at this point, and demonstrated that, in many ways, OICCU is a more structured group than AUCU. Thereafter, the article looked at Oxford and Aberdeen Universities and, drawing upon its fieldwork with members of the evangelical groups, demonstrated that Oxford University is both more structured and more unstructured that Aberdeen University and that this would be particularly acute, in both cases, with students from state schools. Thereafter, the article turned to the issue of conversion and compared OICCU and AUCU. Conversion was highest in OICCU and this was especially so amongst students from state schools for whom university was the most liminal.
Thereafter, the article discussed the possible implications of these findings. It argued the evidence pointed to the view that the more liminal a phase is, the more structured and unstructured it will be. Moreover, the more liminal it is, following this definition, the more conversion experience there will be. Thus, it was argued it is too simplistic to claim that conversion results from a loss of identity because a university can give a person a very structured identity, while concomitantly challenging their old identity. Secondly, it was suggested, following Eade and Sallnow, that conversion experience could be seen as an emotional outlet in response to highly structured circumstances. It argued that Christian Unions could be seen as boundary-making procedures and that OICCU, in more liminal circumstances, had stronger boundaries than AUCU. As such, it would be expected, in a liminal phase, to offer more communitas which it did in terms the place for religious experience and thus conversion. As stated, this was less salient in AUCU. The article suggested that was a possible way of understanding the structural dynamics of conversion in a liminal phase and was thus going further than simply connecting conversion to this phase and consequent loss of identity. This research can be built upon by looking at conversions in other similar liminal phases – such as religious retreats – to see if the same dynamics can be found. I would strongly recommend future research in this regard.
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 Although Bloch (1992) examines changes in self caused by the liminal phase, he does not look at ‘conversion’ in the religious sense.
 Certainly Rambo has looked at the structure of how a person moves from being, for example, an atheist to a Christian. However, he does not look at the structure within what he terms the 'crisis,' which is seen as a loss of identity during the time of change. I am merely suggesting that the ‘crisis’ can more complex than a ‘loss of identity’ as Savage puts it (See later discussion).
 As an aside, I would argue that a tightly structured group such as OICCU could be seen, following Eade and Sallnow, as an example of boundary-making within the liminal context of university. It might be argued that university is normative communitas and so OICCU (and other student groups) is merely structural apparatus, like the college system, assisting students in passing through the liminality. I disagree for a number of reasons. A university such as Oxford allows students of very different social backgrounds to meet and live together on the same level. OICCU is only for evangelical Christians. It therefore draws very strong boundaries and, at this level, can hardly be seen to exemplify communitas. Secondly, very few students join tightly structured societies such as the CU and there are very few other examples of such societies. As such, these are not part of the university structure. They are a separate, voluntary, level of structure within the broader Rite of Passage and thus seem to reflect Eade and Sallnow.
 It might asked whether it is the liminality that leads to conversion or whether it is conversion that is evidence of liminality. I would answer that a liminal phase is in between two marked existential periods and is thus a period of change. A high level of ‘conversion experience,’ at least in the specific circumstances that I am examining, may be seen to further illustrate a high level of liminality but the situation could still be liminal without this and could be demonstrated to be so through the presence of a number of other factors, not least, ritual.
 These universities were chosen as part of broader fieldwork for a PhD thesis on university evangelical groups. They were chosen because they were universities attracting students from comparable backgrounds but from different countries. Noticing the differences between Durham University , where I was an undergraduate, and Aberdeen inspired an examination of the issue of liminality which was then further pursued at Aberdeen University . For further detail see Dutton (2005).
 See below for discussion of fieldwork method.
 For further discussion of fieldwork and interview method see, for example, Hammersley and Atkinson, (1995).
 One should also be aware of the Postmodern critique of the anthropologist’s role. Wagner (1981) argues that the anthropologist structures other cultures in response to the ‘culture shock’ caused by comparison to their own culture and fieldwork is a part of their own culture. The critique is certainly thought-provoking but has been broadly critiqued itself. See, for example, Lyotard (1992).
 Indeed, I only conducted my fieldwork with OICCU because the Executive Committee of the CU at Durham University had refused to allow me to conduct my fieldwork at all. For a more detailed, albeit not academic, discussion of these experiences see Dutton ( 30th January 2003 ).
 My previous attendance at Durham University seemed to assist in engaging with Oxford students. It made a ‘connection’ in many cases because students from the same schools (public schools such as Eton ) attend both universities. A large number of Durham students go there having been unable to get into Oxford , seeing it as the next best option.
 A number of authors have looked at the nature of university life in Britain . See, for example, Kingsbury, (1974), or Fisher, (1994).
 For further discussion of the Gap Year see, for example, Jones, (2004) or Simpson, (2004).
 But Turner notes that such structures as ‘markets, hospices, hospitals . . . transport’ (Turner and Turner: 1978: 10) are part of the pilgrimage. I would suggest that it is the sharing of these structures that assist in bonding the pilgrims and creating communitas.
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