Enter the Liminal Zone

When anthropologist Victor Turner began writing about the three stages of the ritual process and the role of the middle stage in facilitating experiences of personal, social, and cultural transformation, he was inspired, in part, by the turmoil and transition of the late 1960s. Today, we are living in what feels like another period of uncertainty. Sure, we have Google, Netflix, Twitter, wearables, self-driving cars, and the exploits of the Kardashian-West clan to help maintain our confidence in the stability of the present and the promise of tomorrow. But we are worried. Or, at the very least, we are wondering.

In the last year or so, we have watched men become women, citizens become enemies, neighbors kill neighbors, police reveal dirty secrets, and reality TV stars lead in the polls for President of the United States. Add to this global, cultural news feed of uncertainty the turmoil and transitions experienced every day by people around the world – the birth of a child, life as a teenager, becoming an adult, the death of a loved one – and the insight that emerges is of liminality.

From the Latin word limen, meaning “a threshold,” liminality refers to a state of ambiguity or disorientation in which people find themselves temporarily suspended in and between physical, social, spiritual and personal states. With the known world and all of its order suspended, experiences of liminality, like a death, a divorce, or a marriage are, according to Turner, neither here nor there, now or then until the individual makes a transformation or a transition into a new social and/or personal state.

First coined in 1909 by the French folklorist and ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, the concept of liminality was developed by Turner in the late 1960s as a model to explain how the middle phase of rituals helps people make transitions from one status or stage in life to another. According to him, this middle phase is “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.” It is a place, a time, and an experience of uncertainty where fear accompanies excitement, where who you are is not who you will be, and where creativity and transformation beckon. It can be an underworld, a netherworld, or a world between worlds where everything is not what it seems. It can be a scary place filled with characters, energies, and ideas that slow your progress towards transformation. But it can also be a thrilling place, because knowing you are about to move from an old state to a new state and become somehow new and transformed is really the only way that, as humans, we grow.

Moments of human change and personal growth should be of great interest to anyone working in the field of innovation. Whatever the critical transitional experience where people are experiencing uncertainty, worry, fear, and maybe excitement, such moments represent the greatest opportunities for brands to practice empathy, communicate with consumers, and see their way to what will be the most valuable product or service ideas coming to market.

Whether it’s the power of an insight that transforms a company’s understanding of how some patients live everyday as a liminal day between normal/abnormal and healthy/ill, the a-ha moment that dawns on employees in the middle of an organizational transformation project when they recognize their own liminality, or the responsibility that comes from acting as a guide or mentor to help customers navigate their way through tough and confusing times, liminality – for anyone with their eye on either today’s zeitgeist or every day’s humanity – should be a word on every executive’s lips.


the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.