Reflection on Turner’s Chapter ‘Betwixt and Between’

In his chapter ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’, Victor Turner examines a class of ritual which Arnold van Gennep termed ‘rites de passage’. The rites constitute transitions between states, a ‘state’ here meaning a ‘relatively fixed or stable condition’. Van Gennep identified three phases in these rites: separation, margin (or limen) and aggregation. Turner focuses on the second phase, that of liminality. In the liminal period, the transitional-being is described by Turner as being ‘no longer classified and not yet classified’. That means they are not what they once were and not yet what they are going to be; they are between states.

 

The liminal period in many rituals is quite short, however, I believe that some liminal periods are never-ending. For me, becoming a migrant enters a person into a liminal stage where they remain ‘betwixt and between’. In my first year of anthropology I focused on migrants and the ways they attempt to counter displacement in their new environment. I discovered that migrants feel they belong to both their original and new country (and culture) and at the same time, neither. This accords with my own experience as a migrant. When I was six I moved from England to Australia, and now I have returned to study for a year it is clear that I am both English and Australian, but at the same time I am neither. The moving from one country to another represents the separation phase. Migrants are detached from their former country, fellow citizens, social structure and set of cultural conditions. Once in their new country migrants are in the liminal period, they are no longer a member of their original country and not yet a complete member of their new country. Whilst migrants may go through a process and ceremony to become a citizen of the new country, this does not truly enable them to become a fully-fledged member of the new society and culture, because they will always associate with, and feel a part of, their original culture. They are forever betwixt and between.

 

I also see similarities between university study and liminal periods. That is, university students are no longer school children, but are not yet fully developed adults with a set role in society. In England, there is also an aspect of separation for the university student, as they often choose to study away from their previous place of residence, where they were a member of society and a kinship group. The idea that university is a liminal period arose particularly when Turner was discussing the communication of instruction during the liminal phase. He found that such instruction teaches the transitional-being to ‘think with some degree of abstraction about their cultural milieu’. As anthropology students, we are being taught to step back from our cultural assumptions and understand other cultures, and our own culture, through unbiased eyes. I have also experienced this expectation of abstract thinking in all aspects of university study. It has been made clear since my arrival that University of Birmingham students are expected not to take things for granted, but to question and formulate unique ideas. Turner also states that transitional-beings return to society with ‘more alert faculties … and enhanced knowledge of how things work’ and that rituals are designed to ‘unite man and office’. Surely this is what a university is designed to do. It gives students knowledge and in many cases shapes them for a particular career. After graduation, students are considered ready to find their role in society. This represents the third phase of aggregation.

Therefore, there are a number of instances in our society where liminal periods are evident. They perhaps do not contain all of the symbolic elements that Turner outlined as being present in ritual liminality, but many of the characteristics are present.

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