At some point in your career, you’ve probably worked on a big company initiative - collaborated with a special team that was selected just for the task. They are rare opportunities to make a contribution, so you worked intensely, fostered new relationships, and when it was done, returned to your usual role. After the project was turned in you felt a rush of exhilaration from finishing. But then, surprisingly enough, you felt anxious, maybe even a little “off” as the initiative was implemented and you watched how it fared.
What you experienced is known as the state of liminality that exists in a rite of passage. A state of liminality during a rite of passage is the time of uncertainty - when an identity or role that was known and comfortable is left behind to make way for something new and unknown. In our example above, your historical status among your co-workers could change depending on the initiative’s success or failure, each outcome resulting in different expectations and a modified reputation.
Before exploring how this concept applies to brand strategy, it’s instructive to go over the original application of liminal space, and then proceed into how the term has been extended to be inclusive of many other contexts.
The concept was initially introduced by the anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep in his analysis of Rites of Passage (1909). Van Gennep had researched global rites of passages, often religious in scope, and determined the universal pattern of said rituals consisted of three steps:
An example of these rituals is the historical transition from childhood to adulthood. Simply explained, the child, often with a small cohort, was removed from the general community (family, neighbors, peers) into seclusion. Together, they experienced events such as circumcisions, hunts, heat, cold, limited resources, and other actions meant to detach them from their former state of a child and transfer them to their new state of an adult. But while in seclusion, they were neither a child nor an adult, they were in a liminal space. As they re-emerged from this separation, they were reintroduced into their community as adults, with new expectations and responsibilities.
The anthropologist Victor Turner then expanded the idea of the liminal space to include secular rites in the Western World. In 1969 he revisited the idea of the liminal space and expanded the term to apply to situations that are secular in nature in contemporary societies. Turner used events such as fraternities, weddings, bat/bar mitzvahs, and story lines to describe events in the modernity space. While individuals were secluded in the scenarios described by Van Gennep, that was not necessarily the case in secular/Western scenarios. Instead, the first step can be recognized by an event, a crisis, a law, a celebration, in other words, something that happens in the presence of other people, or with a smaller cohort of people. The next step, however, is similar to Van Gennep’s step, and that is that liminality is a place that is not permanent, it’s a place of waiting, a place where you are not feeling like yourself, a place where a change takes place, where you have left something and waiting for the new to take form, or as dramatically described by Turner; a place where death and birth exists.
"Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, customs, conventions, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transition." (Victor Turner, Chapter 3, Liminality and Communitas, 1969)
The third step, reintroduction, is also similar to Van Gennep’s model, perhaps with a less drastic change in status or self. Thinking of our initial example, changes in expectations, responsibilities, or perceived identity may simply be a slight shift rather than wholesale change.
Turner’s adjustments can easily be applied to scenarios in business, brands, and culture at large. In our next blog, we’ll explore how this concept applies to modern brands, and how trust can be enhanced by understanding how to engage and interact with a brand’s target audience that is in a liminal state.