views updated May 23 2018


LIMINALITY . Liminality, "being on a threshold," is the condition that prevails during the inner phase of rites of passage, those rituals performed in many societies to transfer a person from one stage of life to another. Liminality is the experience of being betwixt and between. In his book The Rites of Passage (1909), the folklorist Arnold van Gennep first isolated and named the rites of passage that accompany changes of place, state, social position, religious calling, and age in a culture. His study mainly focused on the life crisis rituals of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Van Gennep found that as a general rule there were three stages in the rites: separation, margin or limen, and reaggregation. The first phase detaches the ritual subjects from their old places in society; in the second, the liminal phase, the subjects pass into a cultural and spiritual realm that has few of the attributes of either the past or coming state; the last phase installs them, inwardly transformed and outwardly changed, in a new place in society. Van Gennep used the word limen the Latin for "threshold"for the middle stage, because his researches showed much door symbolism in the rites, the participants often entering the new ritual life over a threshold or entryway.

During the forty years following the publication of van Gennep's book the special stage of mid-transition was rarely examined by researchers, except in Henri Junod's exemplary study of the circumcision rituals of the Thonga of Mozambique (19121913). From 1951 to 1954, during anthropological studies of ritual, Victor Turner and Edith Turner participated in the rites of passage of the Lunda-Ndembu of Zambia. In 1964 Victor Turner, using his understanding of the betwixt-and-between milieu of the boys in the Ndembu circumcision lodge and of the girls in their initiation seclusion, wrote a general article, "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage," newly establishing the word liminality as the description of the midphase of the rites and employing for his examples the liminal phases from the rites of a number of different societies. His further work (Victor Turner 1969, 1974, 1982, 1986) opened up a broad view of liminality worldwide, existing in hitherto unrecognized forms; subsequently the concept was recognized in anthropology, theology, performance studies, literature, psychiatry, psychology, and education.

The liminal phase is ambiguous because it is a threshold between more or less stable phases of the social process. It has frequently been likened to death; to being in the womb; to invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, and the wilderness. The initiates are stripped of their status, removed from a social structure maintained and sanctioned by power andultimatelyforce, and leveled to a homogeneous social state through ordeal. However, in seclusion their secular powerlessness is compensated for by a sacred power, in this place that is not normal to life at all, a "no-place," at a time taken right out of normal life, a "no-time"a realm of pure possibility that resists classification. The sacred power is the power of the weak, derived from the resurgence of nature when structural power is removed and from the experience of spiritual beings and things, inseparable from the power of nature. Much of what has been bound up by social structure is liberated, notably the sense of comradeshipcommunitas even communion, the oneness between person and person, whereas sooner or later the subjects begin to experience more fully the wisdom traditions of their society in a visionary, unified waytraditions that are able to achieve great conjunctive power. Turner demonstrated in anthropology that this liminal period is an essential component of human experience, one that has been obscured by an erroneous equation of the "social" with the "social-structural." Liminality, then, in its manifestation is not identifiable as a social construction of reality.

The Preindustrial Rites of Liminality

The actual rites may vary greatly, but it is instructive to learn the main patterns recurring in the liminal phase of the numerous well-documented puberty rites of preindustrial peoples (for example, Bateson, 1958; Farrer, 1991; Junod, 19121913; Richards, 1956; Turner, 1967; and Walens, 1981). The general term liminality refers not only to the middle phase of the rite of passage but also to the period from the beginning of the separation phase through the marginal or seclusion period and until the person is back in normal life. The whole is a period of liminality.

In the first phase, separation, the novices are physically separated from the other members of the community and take the entryway into the seclusion area. In the liminal phase the elders may strip off the novices' clothing, leaving them just as simple human beings. The helpers then wash them in order to purify them from evil influences and dress them in special clothing. Then the initiates pass through an ordeal to test their spiritual or physical stamina. They may only eat certain foods and have no name, just "novice." In this period the novices are the babies of the culture, belonging to the future, or they become as animals in the wilderness, or they may be spiritually invisible or spiritually in trance and "dead." Indeed the main theme of most initiations is the death and rebirth of the novices, dying to their old life in order to move to a new life. At this time the novices and those in the lodge enjoy the spirit of communitas, a sense of fellowship.

The initiates live for some time in their seclusion lodge, a nonordinary place in nonordinary time. In the heart of the liminal period occur some of the greatest rites of the culture. Music and song draw the spirits near, giving an immediate sense of the unity of people and spirits. Certain objects and images help to bring the spirit to the place, or the elders make special objects that are the spirit itself. These are rites of revelation that the novices actually experience. The initiates may share in the sacred objects and become deeply aware of spirit presence. The spirits, through the elders, give the novices new names or mark their bodies in some way, making them full members of the community.

Masked figures may appear. They are the spirits of ancient times or beings half-human and half-animal; they can appear with both fearsome and comic aspects. These figures constitute "symbolic types," sometimes humorously in the form of clowns or dirty old men or women. Finally, the novices share in a communion feast, which unifies the participants in a group and with the spirit beings from beyond the mortal sphere.

At the end, during the reaggregation phase, the initiates go through rites of rebirth and return to the community as initiated members. Celebration marks the end of the ritual. Such is the power of these rituals that the physical and inner aspects working together can bring about changes of the person's consciousness and identity.

Thus the biological change of a person, whether at the exact moment of bodily change or not, becomes the occasion for a plunge into the fount of all change, which is a mysteryespecially to the subject. This is very different from an ordinary change, such as changing one's supermarket when moving to a new area. The sacred objects of initiation, often having to do with ancestral beings and their present power, radiate this power and show the neophyte what all have discoveredthat they too, the neophytes, belong with such an array of beings and will eventually become ancestors themselves.

It is this sense that also explains the important class of liminality that has to do with the coming of a vocationa spiritual callbringing the gift of healing and other gifts and arts of humanity. The same pattern holds, except that in the life pattern of the one who is called, the initiative commonly comes from a spiritual source and is not prompted by natural bodily changes. (For an example of liminal trance and the inception of the shamanic healing gift, see Friedson, 1996.)

Liminality in the Contemporary World

Liminality is even further extended in the developed and modern world. Here it refers to broad areas of life within the mainstream, on its margins, and below it. In the mainstream, the rites of passage of contemporary religions still exist. However, as most religions only claim optional memberships, the rites are not universal. Their life-crisis rites may be circumcisions, christenings, shaving as a Hindu or Buddhist, bar mitzvahs, marriages, funerals, and so forth. The time of child education is liminal in the sense of being betwixt and between infancy and adulthood, but schools have so structured education that only the playground scene and street corners after school have the character of true liminality (McLaren, 1985).

Examples of those in marginal liminality are pilgrims, monks and nuns, critics of the structure, members of the counterculture, revolutionaries, writers, poets, philosophers, and novelistsa group that shades into the world of theater, film, television, music, sports, and at the folk level, clowning, charivari, celebration, and carnival. In the twenty-first century one may include vegetarians, alternative healers, and members of a great number of new religions; even the new world of the internet has a strongly liminal character. Victor Turner identified most of the marginal genres as those practiced in leisure time in industrial societies and not within the necessary structures of earning one's living. The term he used for them was liminoid genres, that is, genres broken off, as it were, from the former curious features of the inner rites of passage and migrating to the margins of society, the center of which is now ruled by business, industry, and law; the marginal genres then developed independently (Turner, 1982, pp. 3255). However, in the twenty-first century the term liminoid is rarely employed. The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere opposes the use of the term: "The restriction of the liminal to special localized arenas in complex societies makes for too artificial a distinction between preliterate and industrial cultures" (Obeyesekere, 1986, p. 821). The problem of terminology is not yet solved.

The freedom from set social structures enjoyed by marginal genres has liberated them to develop and ramify still further: they are more liminal than the rites of passage genres. They are above all creative; they are plural and tend to be fragmentary, experimental, idiosyncratic, quirky, subversive, and utopian. They are produced by identifiable individuals, sometimes using what is akin to the shamanistic gift and thus extending the faculties of the human being. Those in the genre tend to follow a calling; they may suffer from their marginality and are hard to categorize. They are often practitioners and performers, but even their more passive followers, such as the readers of their books, spectators of performances, students, or church congregations, also belong to a varying extent in the liminal, liberated, non-workaday category.

As for the liminality of the lowly, it is seen in subjugated native peoples in the early twenty-first century. They have no chance of a level playing field while the whole of modern technology is stacked against them. People of color and strangers of different race are in this category as well as the poor, outcasts, and anyone physically or mentally impaired. The most telling group is women, who are physically smaller than men and even now often are subjugated by law and custom to the other sex because structural power tends to be on the men's side. The battle of the feminists still rages. Nevertheless, a rich culture of inclusiveness has grown around those low in the structure, and they often have been assigned the symbolic function of representing humanity without status qualifications or characteristics (Turner, 1974, p. 234). This sense is that of the powers of the weak. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights showed the same ethic in 2004, and the idea of democracy is founded on the value of the simple human being seen as undifferentiated, beyond social structures and human-made distinctions.

In the last decades of the twentieth century another class of the liminal has risen to the fore out of the class of the lowly, that of bad liminality or permanent negative liminality. This is the state of people who fall through the cracksthe suicides and the hopeless. The group is represented by those who suffer nervous breakdowns or depression; the subjects of violence; those with post-traumatic stress disorder; those suffering from cancer, HIV, psychiatric disorders, alcoholism, and self-abuse; those who are alienated, such as the Dostoevskian figure of Raskolnikov; the socially invisible; the "disappeareds," immigrants, those with no identity or qualifications, homeless, and without health insurance, and thus often with physical impairments and therefore unemployable, constituting an unrecognized "lower caste," even in U.S. society. Then there are those in conditions of misfortune, or devastating wars, or disasters such as the nineteenth-century Irish famine. Finally, people of very great age exist, enduring circumscribed lives in assisted-living facilities, perhaps on permanent dialysis, or in hospice, facing a lonely death.

The spectacle of their suffering continually hangs before one's eyes and one does not know what to do about the problem. Some of those who have helped the sufferers have been beatified, such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta. The liminality of the negative group seems to be in other hands. Phenomena that have the power to tip the scale on these states may be the visit of a divine spirit bringing healing and salvific gifts, such as at Knock in Ireland; the coming of a prophet, such as Moses leading the Hebrews to the promised land; the spontaneous communitas that arises in disasters, for instance, the Dunkirk spirit; the stimulation of the mainstream that produces activists and revolutionaries, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela; movements, such as Methodism in its day and liberation theology; and for the individual, conversion, as in the case of Thomas Merton, or the experience of Alcoholics Anonymous, or the near-death experience. In conclusion, liminality is the "time out" from the everyday that has become available for humans to reflect, reevaluate, comment, critique, challange, and possibly change routines and structures. They are still free to "drop out, turn on, and tune in." Liminality is pure possibility, creativity, a venue or means for personal, social, and cultural change, growth, and healing.

See Also

Gennep, Arnold van; Rites of Passage; Turner, Victor.


Daly, Robert. "Liminality and Fiction in Cooper, Hawthorne, Cather, and Fitzgerald." In Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism, edited by Kathleen Ashley, pp. 7085. Bloomington, Ind., 1990. Liminality in U.S. society as seen through the eyes of novelists.

Friedson, Steven. Dancing Prophets: Musical Experiences in African Healing. Chicago, 1996. The liminal spirit world of Tumbuka healers, with a detailed discussion of ritual music.

Holmes, Urban T. "Liminality and Liturgy." Worship 47, no. 5 (1973): 386397. An Episcopal scholar and pastoral leader claims liminality for Christianity.

MacAloon, John, ed. Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle. Philadelphia, 1984. The liminality of charivari, clowns, diviners, demon exorcism, carnival, and the Olympic Games.

McLaren, Peter. "Classroom Symbols and the Ritual Dimensions of Schooling." Anthropologica, n.s., 27, nos. 12 (1985): 161189. Liminality among school students.

Nichols, J. Randall. "Worship as Anti-Structure: The Contribution of Victor Turner." Theology Today 41, no. 4 (1985): 401409. A Presbyterian theologian examines worship in the light of liminality.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. "Stages of the Social Drama" (review of On the Edge of the Bush by Victor Turner). Times Literary Supplement (July 25, 1986): 821. Contains a critique of the liminoid.

Prosise, Theodore O. "Prejudiced, Historical Witness, and Responsible: Collective Memory and Liminality in the Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance." Communication Quarterly 51, no. 1 (Summer 2003): 351 (16). The Holocaust museum at Los Angeles planned as a liminal experience.

Turnbull, Colin. "Liminality: A Synthesis of Subjective and Objective Experience." In By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, edited by Richard Schechner and Willa Appel, pp. 5081. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. Liminality as the sacred itself among the Mbuti hunters of Congo.

Turner, Victor. "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage." In The Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society for 1964, pp. 420. Seattle, 1964. Also published in The Forest of Symbols, by Victor Turner, pp. 93111. Ithaca, N.Y., 1967. Turner's original statement on liminality.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, N.Y., 1969. A full-scale exposition of liminality, its place in society, and its variations. Examples are taken from African peoples; from the Hindu Caitanya movement, Bauls, and Holī festival; from the Buddha, Gandhi, and Tolstoy; from Saint Francis and the Benedictine order; from Melanesian millenarianism; and from hippies and gang life.

Turner, Victor. "Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas." In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, by Victor Turner, pp. 231271. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974. An essay on genres of liminality, including rock music.

Turner, Victor. "Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual." In From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, by Victor Turner, pp. 2060. New York, 1982. An explanation of the liminal and its continuation in the liminoid genres.

Turner, Victor. "Rokujo's Jealousy: Liminality and the Performative Genres." In The Anthropology of Performance, by Victor Turner, pp. 99122. New York, 1986. The liminality of Japanese Noh theater and Lady Murasaki's Genji.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage (1909). Chicago, 1960. The discovery of rites of passage.

Ethnographies illustrating the liminal phase of puberty initiations among indigenous peoples

Bateson, Gregory. Naven: The Culture of the Iatmul People of New Guinea as Revealed through a Study of the "Naven" Ceremonial. Stanford, Calif., 1958. Boys' and girls' initiation.

Farrer. Claire. Living Life's Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision. Albuquerque, N.M., 1991. Girls' initiation.

Junod, Henri A. The Life of a South African Tribe (19121913), vol. 1: Social Life, pp. 7199. New York, 1962. The circumcision rites of the Thonga of Mozambique.

Richards, Audrey I. Chisungu. London, 1956. Girls' initiation among the Bemba of Zambia.

Turner, Victor. "Mukanda: The Rite of Circumcision." In The Forest of Symbols, by Victor Turner, pp. 151279. Ithaca, N.Y., 1967. Boys' initiation among the Ndembu of Zambia.

Walens, Stanley. Feasting with Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Young men's initiation among the Kwakiutl of the northwest coast of Canada.

Edith Turner (2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018

liminality A term introduced by Arnold van Gennep (Rites de passage, 1909), liminality refers to an intermediate ritual phase during initiation, in which initiates can be considered either sacred or potentially polluting to the mainstream society because of their anomalous social position. New social rules are commonly taught during the liminal phase, and strong, endearing, and creative bonds often develop between fellow initiates.


views updated May 17 2018

Liminality (rituals negotiating thresholds): see RITES OF PASSAGE.