This paper examines to what degree a 10-week expedition to Ghana, West Africa may be considered a rite of passage for its British participants. A case study method was adopted to interview 14 British youths two months before leaving on expedition, three times on expedition, and six months post expedition. Thematic analysis was employed to identify positive and negative indicators of van Gennep's (1960) three stage model of rites of passage: separation, transition, and incorporation. The findings indicated that while the structure of the expedition mimics rites of passage on a superficial level, there are some aspects central to rites of passage that are missing from the overseas expedition experience. Expedition providers may consider adopting van Gennep's model as a way to 're-introduce' young people back into their communities with added responsibilities.
Each year, more than 10,000 British young people go overseas on structured experiences (gapyear.com, 2001), but little is known about the hows and whys of this cultural phenomenon. These experiences vary from teaching placements in rural schools, to environmental conservation projects, to expeditions that involve a self-reliant journey using temporary shelters. Almost all of these programmes take place in developing nations.
My interest lies in gaining a deeper understanding of how young people are influenced by an overseas expedition and in identifying the essential ingredients of this experience. Though a number of people have written on the value of youth expeditions (Gair, 1988; Grey, 1998; Hebborn, 1993; Maddern, 1990; Potter, 1998; Schusser, 1998; Surtees, 2000), only three investigations have focused specifically on learning more about the overseas expedition experience from the perspective of a young person from the United Kingdom (Allison, 2002; Grey, 1984; Kennedy, 1992). This study focuses on the British youth development charity, Raleigh International ('Raleigh' from now on). Raleigh's goal is to inspire people to "discover their full potential" through ten week expeditions to developing nations where they take part in three different projects: environmental conservation, community service, and adventure (Raleigh, 2003).
As someone who has led expeditions over the years, I have often overheard people claim that expeditions are a rite of passage for young people. In fact, I had heard this statement so often that it prompted me to seek out the origins of this phrase so I might contribute to future conversations on this topic with some degree of confidence. Thus, the aim of my research was born: how is an overseas youth expedition like a rite of passage? The review of literature blends the anthropological theory on rites of passage with insights from modern educators and psychologists on the role of rites of initiation for young people today.
The phrase 'rites of passage' was coined by the Belgian anthropologist van Gennep in 1909. First translated into English in 1960, the book The Rites of Passage (van Gennep, 1960) outlined how life was a series of passages from one stage to another, each passage comprising three rites: separation from one's original social pattern, passing through a state of transition unlike the past or coming state, and incorporation back into one's original social structure (van Gennep, 1960). Initiation into adulthood is just one of several rites of passage that also include birth, childhood, marriage, and funeral.
Van Gennep labelled the second stage of rites of passage liminality. This idea was expanded upon by the British anthropologist Victor Turner (1969), who claimed that liminality was characterised by experiencing communitas: a coming together of people. This can be likened to the common outdoor education cliche, 'group bonding'.
A literature review on different cultures' approaches to initiating young people into adulthood suggests similarities between the Australian Aboriginal walkabout and the Native North American vision quest. …