Tag Archives: Liminality

Word for Wednesday: L is for liminality!

We have books everywhere in this house!  We have shelves and bookcases with books especially for our little girl.  But which books are the ones she most wants to look at?  Ours of course!  And yesterday she toddled straight in to the office and pulled my copy of Theorising Childhood off the shelf.  It is a book by Allison James, Chris Jenks and Alan Prout covering the fundamentals of childhood social theory.

I studied the sociology and anthropology of childhood years before having my own child, so that book was looking decidedly dusty! But as I am currently reading Raising Girls: how to help your daughter grow up happy, healthy and strong, by Steve Biddulph, my curiosity was piqued. There was a bit in the chapter on the broad social theory of childhood that really stood out.

The authors observe that children ‘represent a potential challenge to social order by virtue of their constant promise of liminality, which […] maps out the space of the ordered and the normal.  In this case, this is the taken-for-granted, adult world.’

Liminality (noun).

  • the transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the  participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms of conduct or dress (anthropological definition)
  • the condition of being on a threshold or at the beginning of a process
  • of or relating to a sensory threshold
  • barely perceptible
  • of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition

Derivation: Latin limen meaning threshold.  First known use: 1884.

The term liminality was in use amongst psychology professionals in the late 19th Century, but it wasn’t until a social anthropologist called Arnold van Gennep published ‘Rites de Passage’ in 1909 that the term gained a stable definition.  Van Gennep wrote of the different ritualised phases of transition for individuals and society.  He theorised that there were three components: preliminal, liminal, and postliminal.  Also alternatively referred to as separation, the liminal period, and reassimilation.

I’ve listed a number of contemporary definitions which show that over time the meaning of the word liminality has shifted from its purely anthropological sense to a much broader application.  If you’ve read my Word for Wednesday posts before you will know I have a bit of a word-crush for words with shifting meanings!

The authors of Theorising Childhood say that ‘although adults themselves have to be constrained into social order, in true Durkheimian fashion children offer living exemplars of the very margins of that order, of its volatility and, in fact, its fragility. On a momentary basis, children exercise anarchistic tendencies and asociality up to the limits of adult tolerance and often beyond’. I can second that!

Certainly, when I look at my little girl and her kittens rapidly growing up together, each testing the boundaries of what we adults will accept, each growing familiar with the other, I think of liminality in its original form.  A rite of passage for each of them, as she learns how far is too far when manhandling them and pushing them about in her doll’s pram, and they learn a degree of tolerance and patience I never could have dreamed of!  It’s not a word you hear widely used these days (I suspect it never was), but in the context of children and kittens liminality is the perfect fit.

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In the circus tent…a playroom favourite! She loves the kittens but isn’t really sure how happy she is that they are in her tent; they aren’t really sure it’s worth the risk! But both parties really want to be there! They are figuring it out together – liminality in action.