Turner Chapter: Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in ‘Rites de Passage’

In his chapter, Turner discusses the idea of liminality within rites of passage in society. Taken from the concept of ‘rites de passage’ by Van Gennep Turner explores the idea of the ‘liminal period’. Turner sees the transitional nature of rites of passage as a process rather than a fixed state of being; he describes it as “a relatively fixed or stable condition”, which then holds different cultural properties to that of a state (Turner, 1969, p93). Turner describes how Gennep saw that rites of passage occurred in all changes of place, state, social position and age, which consisted of three defined periods. Firstly, separation; whereby the subject is removed from their original place of being and group. Margin (limen) where the subject is described as having no particular place, a sense of being between stations stripped of all cultural ties. Lastly, is the period of aggregation where the passage is consummated and the subject returns to a structured society now holding a new place in its make-up.Turner argues that rites of passage not only demonstrate the symbolical changes of a culturally defined existence e.g. the males passage from boyhood to adolescence to manhood but also how it applies to any change of physical state; such as that of a country moving from war to peace or scarcity to prosperity. Furthermore it can be applied to a non-ascribed status progression, where subjects achieve in moving up the ladder in society, political office or a secret society.

For example, in the case of American Presidents, their rites of passage are clearly defined, with a clear and defined process in the case of US presidential elections. First is the process of separation where the candidate is removed from their home and daily life and required to travel around the country in order to win over each state and its voter, a long and gruelling process. The period of liminality is often referred to as ‘Transition’ the President-elect is neither in the Oval office nor in his previous role e.g. Governor, Senator or Congressman. In this position the President –elect has little to no authority, they have no say over the Presidents final decisions for the progress of America which often causes much animosity between the two. Moreover the President-elect has no control over the creation of his Congress and Senate in this period; they are a truly ambiguous and to use Turners phrase from King Lear a “naked unaccomodated man”. The liminal period here is a good example of Turner’s ideas that those in the liminal period are considered ambiguous creatures; neither here nor there. In some societies they are considered neither male nor female, but simply “human prima material”. Last is the moment of aggregation, where the newly elected President is re-introduced to the country as their leader in the Inauguration ceremony.

This rite of passage not only applies to the subject in this case but also the entire population as they go through the states of separation, liminality and aggregation alongside the Presidential candidate. The period of separation comes in the form of voting; where the public are asked to remove themselves from the current and think ahead to what future could be and make a decision. The margin or liminal period is very similar to that of the candidates. The votes have been cast, and the public no longer have control, it is simply the majority that will win. This carries over into the transition period which sees the end of one regime and the beginnings of another. Although less aligned to Turner’s concepts of being emotionally betwixed and between, the country do physically encounter the idea of ambiguity and the identity of a collective force that transcends age, sex and class.

It is very easy to see how the basics of Turner (and Gennep’s) arguments can be applied to contemporary situations, although not all areas of the original ideas can be carried forward, the framework is one that can be applied to many modern day cultural, political and biological transitions in the world.


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