Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Liminality

I have found some way to write about liminality at least once for every semester I’ve taken anthropology – I’m not planning on stopping now.

To my credit, it’s an attractive theory. There’s something rather magical about a space, a moment, or break before change, even when the reality is much more mundane.

Liminality is being at the threshold, where space and moments collide into something new altogether and reality feels altered; the ultimate result being some kind of change.

But for now, here’s a crash course.

Weddings, significant birthdays, graduations, wars, funerals, travel – these are all temporal (potentially) liminal experiences. These moments can also be grounded in places – seasides, airports, doorways, borders between nations, and prisons (Thomassen 2012). All points of transition, of change.

Theories surrounding the liminal state are attributed to two main writers: Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.

Van Gennep published The Rites of Passage in 1908, theorising the titular rituals as all the ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or form one cosmic or social world to another (Van Gennep 1908). It is a marker of change in being, whether that be in status, time, or age, and signified in all sorts of ways, gifts, parties, eating special things, or making wishes. Van Gennep (1908) isolated three distinct rites: those of Separation, Transition, and Incorporation.

Separation takes the person (or people) from their “Known World” by breaking things apart, entering the liminal space/transitional period, until things are joined together once more through Incorporation (Van Gennep 1908). Take the example of a Western, heterosexual wedding: the bride is separated from her current state when her father walks her down the aisle, existing in an in-between state of being neither married nor unmarried until the proper rituals (putting a ring on, reciting vows) are complete. Thus everything is restored to how it was before, but with one key difference – the bride and groom are now married.

Rites of Passage was largely ignored until Victor Turner revisited it some 50 years later in The Forest of Symbols (1967), where he brought these ideas to the forefront of anthropology, emphasising the symbolic importance of the Liminal state and its necessity for social unity (see: Communitas). Described as being “betwixt and between”, it is anti-structure (see: Communitas – another important theme of liminality), and focused around experience and connections with other people outside of everyday life. This state thus provides people with freedom from their normal social confines and customs allowing them to express their creativity and be their true self (Turner 1967). It allows people to find out new things about themselves which otherwise would have remained unknown within the familiarity and routine of everyday life, and return to their Known World armed with this new knowledge (Harrison 2012).

However, due to its anti-structure nature, liminality is and should not be a desirable state of being, nor should it be celebrated. Spend too long in this space, creativity and freedom sour into boredom, imprisonment and a sense of exile and homelessness (Thomassen 2012). Thus everyone must inevitably reincorporate themselves back into their own society, and return to the concreteness and belonging of a lived space that has been refreshed because of experiences within the liminal state.

It’s at least a little bit magical right?

And to see it as anything but, well, where’s the fun in that?


My Article on Communitas

Harrison, J 2006, ‘A Personalized Journey: Tourism and Individuality’, in V. Amit and N. Dyck (eds.), The Cultural Politics of Distinction, Pluto Press, London, pp. 110-130.

Thomassen, B 2012, ‘Revisiting Liminality’, in H. Andrews & L. Roberts (eds.) Liminal landscapes : travel, experience and spaces in-between, Routledge, London, pp. 21-35.

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

Van Gennep, A 1960, The Rites of Passage, trans. M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Kaffee, Psychology Press, Chicago.

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