Liminality. Two inevitabilities and one prediction.

Liminality at the Dentist. I’ve a (possibly strange) observation to make. I quite like sitting in the Dentist’s waiting room.

The Doctors Surgery waiting room isn’t bad either, as are the foyers and reception areas of some big municipal buildings, Newport Civic Centre is a good one. It doesn’t work in the waiting area of the Vets though. Big railway stations yes; bus stops not so much.

Something unusual seems to happen to me sitting in certain places, particularly a visit to the Dentist. No mater what has happened before I arrive, I always feel a bit detached and disorientated in the waiting room. Almost like I’m outside of myself, just observing what’s going on. Time seems to slow down and the hassles of everyday life don’t seem so relevant. It also occasionally happens in a waiting room before something important like a big meeting or an exam.

This of course might just be one of my weird personality traits. Alternatively it might also be my reaction to liminality. I’m still working it out.

Neither one thing or the other. The word liminality comes from the Latin limen, meaning ‘threshold’. The general idea is that its a space where you are in between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. At the threshold. These old and new states can be places, roles or even states of mind. Anthropologists describe liminality as things like ‘rites of passage’ where people move between different states like from being a child to an adult. Often rituals or initiation ceremonies are involved.

I’m guessing that the idea of a bit of ‘tribal dancing’ and body painting might be springing to mind at the moment… But you don’t have to go that far. If you’ve ever started a new job and gone through the corporate induction process just pause and think for a moment. How ‘liminal’ was it? Did you exist in an ‘in-between’ space, neither the old or new, before you transitioned into the new job? Were rituals like a tour of the building part of it? I can relate to that. Other examples of liminality include weddings (in-between being single to married), going away to university (in between living with the family to living apart) etc etc.

One example that sticks most strongly with me was going to play for a new rugby team. Despite lots of welcoming people it took a while and some initiation practices (like going on tour) to feel comfortable in the new space. Of course, we never spoke of liminality. Ever.

There’s a a whole world of interesting things on liminality to explore. I’d recommend starting with the Wikipedia article (here). You can skip straight to section 5.5 on Liminal Spaces if you fancy. All sorts of places like crossroads, bridges, marshes,  hallways, airports, and streets get a mention, but not Dentists’ waiting rooms. Maybe I am a bit weird.

First inevitability – Welsh Folklore.

Image: Lleu rising from a liminal space as an Eagle. From Welsh Folklore, The Mabinogi. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lleu.jpg

Inevitably, Welsh Folklore nailed liminality and liminal spaces long before anyone had written an academic thesis about it or anthropologists had studied remote jungle tribes.

Do have quick look at the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who’s rather convoluted story is told in the Mabinogion. To save you some of the mind bending twists and turns all you need to know is that Lleu was difficult to kill. He could not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made.

That ‘in-between’ space of neither one thing or the other, qualifies as a pretty good example of liminality to me.

If you are wondering how Lleu was eventually killed, try this:

  • At dusk (neither day or night – the perfect liminal time)
  • Wrapped in a net (presumably without clothes, interesting – I wouldn’t have got that one)
  • With with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat (really? who wrote this stuff)
  • With a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at mass (at least that makes sense).

After Lleu was killed he transformed into an Eagle (now the picture makes sense). But not for long, and it all works out fine when he gets the throne of Gywnedd. With all these strange happenings in our Folklore I don’t think it should come as a surprise that lots of people in Wales are fairly comfortable with the concept and practice of liminality. Which leads me on to my second inevitability.

Second Inevitability, The Cynefin Framework. Of course there was going to be a link between Cynefin and liminality.

Image: Identity as an emergent property of role, through ritual and liminality. By LucaOrlassino Source: https://cynefin.io/wiki/File:Identity_as_emergent_property_of_role.png

The best thing I can suggest you do here is have a look at Liminality on the Cynefin wiki.

The main point I want to make is about the issue of boundaries and the transitions between them. Boundaries exist all over the place and are linked to liminality. As you cross the boundary you are neither in the old or the new.

There is a boundary between a new job and an old job. People are generally helped with the transition through the liminal space with the induction process, a ritual. There are also boundaries and liminal spaces between old and new ways of doing all sorts of things, like change. The graphic above from Luca Orlassino on the Cynefin wiki is a good illustration of what is going on.

If you’ve developed a different / better / more efficient way of doing something there will be a boundary between the old and the new ways of doing things, and a liminal space in between. How people cross that space will be different. If there are support mechanisms (rituals like training) it’s likely to be easier than having to find your own way.

I think it could be useful to think about change and change initiatives in the context of liminality and liminal spaces.

One final thing. A colleague who’d studied Anthropology once described things, like works’ social events, where roles are reversed and the bosses perform tasks like serving the workers a meals, as liminal spaces. Things are disrupted and ‘everything is reversed’. These are common in history and across societies, but the point they were making is that once things settle into a new space, it’s quite often exactly like it was before. Nothing has changed. Stepping into a liminal space didn’t lead to a transition into something new, it actually helped to cement the old way of doing things. It’s not a one way process.

Something to think about. As I mentioned earlier, I wonder how many corporate change initiatives seriously consider liminality?

One Prediction. So, here’s my prediction. I think the time has come when the corporate change machines will start to wake up to the relevance of liminality. The next 12 months will see a rise in the use of the language around liminality and some application. That’s fine, but my big worry is that it will become ‘industrialised’ and sold as a product like so many good things before it. Another example of Stage #8 of the Lifecycle of a Sliver Bullet, Standardisation and Superficial Copying, which I’ve written about before.

I’ve not made any predictions before, but it is that strange liminal time between the end of the old and the beginning of a new year, so why not.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Liminality has been known and understood for millennia. The threshold between the old and the new. The place where we transition between the two states. It’s in our Folklore and tribal rituals.
  2. Things like a corporate induction when you get a new job is essentially a ritual to help you transition across the liminal space of the old (job) to the new (job). Some rituals are better than others.
  3. Recognising that all change probably involves some liminality and transition might be helpful if you want your change to work.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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