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Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of the second stage of a ritual in the theories of Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and others. In these theories, a ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status. This change is accomplished by separating the participants from the rest of their social group (the first, or preliminary stage: separation); a period during which one is "betwixt and between", neither one status nor the other (the liminal stage); and a period during which one's new social status is confirmed (the final, or postliminal stage: reincorporation).
The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition, during which your normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to something new.
A simple example is a college graduation ceremony. The students are first separated from the rest of their community, both by gathering together and by wearing distinctive clothing. When the ceremony is in progress, the participants are no longer students but neither are they yet graduates. This is the distinctive character of liminality. Upon receiving his or her diploma, the student officially becomes a college graduate. The dean and professors shake the student's hand in congratulation, giving public recognition to the student's new status as a person with a college degree.
The liminal phase of this example can actually be extended to include the period of time between when the last assignment was finished (and graduation was assured) all the way through reception of the diploma. That "no man's land" represents the limbo associated with liminality. The stress of accomplishing tasks for college has been lifted. Yet, the individual has not transitioned to a new stage in life (psychologically or physically). The result is a unique perspective on what has come before, and what may come next.
Another example of liminality can occur when someone has just awoken from a dream and is unable to distinguish whether or not their dream really occured.
During the liminal stage, normally accepted differences between the participants, such as social class, are often deemphasized or ignored. A social structure of communitas forms: one based on common humanity and equality rather than recognized hierarchy. For example, during a pilgrimage, members of an upper class and members of a lower class might mix and talk as equals, when in normal life they would likely never talk at all or their conversation might be limited to giving orders.
Anthropologists are currently in debate over whether the liminal stage of rituals has an absence of structure (anti-structure) or "hyper-structure", or whether both are possible. In anthropology, liminality can also represent an experience that places one in unfamiliar surrounds, not so much as ambiguous as new (ambiguity is different from new in the aspect that a situation, or commonly, a plight, can make the definition of "ambiguous"/"ambiguity" have a multiply finite definition, albeit the unknown, the obscure, or the remotely familiar. Familiar in the sense that you visit a new neighborhood but not a new country).
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