AskDefine | Define liminal

User Contributed Dictionary



From Latin liminalis, from limen, "threshold", + -alis, adjective ending


  1. Pertaining to a threshold or entrance.
  2. Relating to a beginning or first stage of a process; inceptive; inchoative; marginal; insignificant.


  • 1888: James Sully, Outlines of psychology, p. 114
    Every stimulus must reach a certain intensity before any appreciable sensation results. This point is known as the threshold or liminal intensity.
  • 1999: Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead, p. 209
    Second, spaces such as the threshold of a door are “liminal,” lying between otherwise defined areas without belonging to either of them.


Extensive Definition

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a "liminal state") and in the anthropological theories of ritual by such writers as Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and others. In the anthropological theories, a ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status.
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 where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed - a situation which can lead to new perspectives.
People, places, or things may not complete a transition, or a transition between two states may not be fully possible. Those who remain in a state between two other states may become permanently liminal.


During the liminal stage, normally accepted differences between the participants, such as social class, are often de-emphasized 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 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).

Selected examples

Liminality in rituals

In the simple example of a college graduation ceremony, the liminal phase 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.
It can include the period between when a couple get engaged and their marriage or between death and burial, for which cultures may or may not have set ritual observances. Even sexually liberated cultures would make it strongly taboo for an engaged spouse to have sex with another person during this time, versus the milder taboo of cheating on a lover.
When Western cultures use mistletoe, the plant is placed in a threshold (the "limen"), at the time of the winter solstice. The act that occurs under the mistletoe (the kiss) breaks the boundaries between two people. Because what happens under the mistletoe is occurring in ritual time/space, the people kissing are not breaking taboos imposed under normal circumstances by their marriages to (or relationships with) other people.
When a marriage proposal is initiated there is a liminal stage between the question and the answer during which the social arrangements of both parties involved are subject to transformation and inversion; a sort of "life stage limbo" so to speak in that the affirmation or denial can result in multiple and diverse outcomes.

Liminality in time

Twilight serves as a liminal time, between day and night. The name of the television fiction series The Twilight Zone makes reference to this, describing it as "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition" in one variant of the original series' opening. The name is from an actual zone observable from space in the place where daylight or shadow advances or retreats about the Earth. Noon and, more often, midnight can be considered liminal, the first transitioning between morning and afternoon, the latter between days.
Within the years, liminal times include equinoxes when day and night have equal length, and solstices, when the increase of day or night shifts over to its decrease. Where the Quarter days are held to mark the change in seasons, they also are liminal times.
New Year's Day, whatever its connection or lack of one to the astronomical sky, is a liminal time. Customs such as fortune-telling take advantage of this liminal state. In a number of cultures, actions and events on the first day of the year can determine the year, leading to such beliefs as First-Foot. Many cultures regard it as a time especially prone to hauntings by ghosts -- liminal beings, neither alive nor dead.

Liminality in states of consciousness

Another example of liminality can occur when someone wakes from dream sleep and in a hypnagogic state of mind is unable to distinguish if a vaguely recalled dream actually occurred.

Liminality of beings

In reality illegal immigrants (present but not "official"), stateless people, intersexual or transgender people, bisexual people in most contemporary societies, and those of mixed ethnicity or accused but not yet judged guilty or not guilty, are liminal. Teenagers, being neither children nor adults, are liminal people. The trickster and related archetypes embody many such contradictions as do many popular culture celebrities. The category could also hypothetically and in fiction include cyborgs, hybrids between two species, shapeshifters. One could also consider seals, crabs, shorebirds, frogs, bats, dolphins/whales and other "border animals" to be liminal. It should come as no surprise that these liminal creatures figure prominently in mythology as shapeshifters and spirit guides.
Wounds are liminal in that a wound is in constant flux, either getting better or getting worse. It is a site of healing or infection (or both, simultaneously). Menstruation is a condition in which (like a wound) the boundary between the inside of the body and the outside of the body is broken. Sex is a liminal act.
On an even more cosmic level, we have those judged both living and non-living, such as the human fetus in the abortion debate, those in a Persistent Vegetative State, undead characters and Schrödinger's cat. Plants such as seaweed (between sea and land) and mistletoe (between earth and sky) are not only liminal themselves, but are used in liminal rituals such as healing.

Liminality in places

These can range from borders, to no man's lands and disputed territories, to crossroads to perhaps airports or hotels, which people pass through but do not live in. In mythology and religion or esoteric lore this can include such realms as Purgatory or Da'at which as well as signifying liminality some theologians have denied actually existing, making them, in some cases, doubly liminal. "Between-ness" defines these spaces. For a hotel worker (an insider) or a person passing by with disinterest (a total outsider), the hotel would have a very different connotation. To a traveller staying there, the hotel would function as a liminal zone.
Examples in fiction include the Interzone, the Wood between the Worlds and, as mentioned, The Twilight Zone (1959). In this television series, the Twilight Zone does not appear as an actual literal location, making it both a place and not a place at the same time, and therefore also doubly liminal.
Doors, windows, springs, caves, shores, rivers, volcanic calderas, fords, passes, crossroads, bridges, and marshes are all liminal. Oedipus (an adoptee and therefore liminal) met his father at the crossroads and killed him; the bluesman Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads, where he is said to have sold his soul. Major transformations occur at crossroads and other liminal places, at least partly because liminality -- being so unstable -- can pave the way for access to esoteric knowledge or understanding of both sides. Liminality is sacred, alluring, and dangerous.

Liminality in folklore

There are a number of stories in folklore of those who could only be killed in a liminal space: Lleu, could not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, nor riding or walking, nor clothed or naked (and is attacked at dusk, while wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat). Likewise, in the Mahabharata, Indra promises not to slay Namuci and Vritra with anything wet or dry, nor in the day or in the night, but instead kills them at dusk with foam.

Liminality in ethnographic research

In ethnographic research, the researcher is often in a liminal state when he or she is both participating in the culture and observing the culture. The researcher must consider the self in relation to others and his or her positioning in the culture being studied.
In many cases, greater participation in the group being studied can lead to increased access of cultural information and greater in group understanding of experiences within the culture. However increased participation also blurrs the role of the researcher in data collection and analysis. Often a researcher that engages in fieldwork as a "participant" or "participant-observer" occupies a liminal state where he/she is a part of the culture, but also separated from the culture as a researcher. This liminal state of being betwixt and between is emotional and uncomfortable as the researcher uses self-reflexivity to interpret field observations and interviews.
Some scholars argue that ethnographers are present in their research, occupying a liminal state, regardless of their participant status. Justification for this position is that the researcher as a "human instrument" engages with his/her observations in the process of recording and analyzing the data. A researcher, often unconsciously, selects what to observe, how to record observations and how to interpret observations based on personal reference points and experiences. For example, even in selecting what observations are interesting to record, the researcher must interpret and value the data available. In order to explore the liminal state of the researcher in relation to the culture, self-reflexivity and awareness are important tools to reveal researcher bias and interpretation.

Liminality in popular culture


Turner coined the term liminoid to refer to experiences that have characteristics of liminal experiences but are optional and don't involve a resolution of a personal crisis. A graduation ceremony might be regarded as liminal while a rock concert might be understood to be liminoid. The liminal is part of society, an aspect of social or religious ritual, while the liminoid is a break from society, part of play. Turner stated that liminal experiences are rare and diminished in industrial societies, and are replaced by liminoid experiences.


See also

liminal in Danish: Liminalfase
liminal in German: Liminalität
liminal in French: Liminalité
liminal in Hebrew: לימינליות
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