What is Liminal Space? | 4 Key Features of Liminality (2019)

what is liminal space? Define liminality.

Liminal space is an in-between space. It is the space when you are ‘on the verge’ of something new: you are between ‘what was’ and ‘what will be’. You are waiting and not knowing about what will come. 

You can use the term literally to explain spaces between two others. An example is a waiting room in a dentist’s office, feeling anxious about what the dentist will say. 

It can also be an in-between state of mind (‘liminality’) such as when you’re half asleep, half awake, or when you’re waiting for an important phone call.

You often experience liminality in transformative moments in your life.

Examples include:

  • After a breakup.
  • Just before starting a new job.
  • When finishing high school but you’ve not yet started the next chapter in your life.

These are moments of uncertainty, but that also are ripe with possibility.

Liminality is often uncomfortable and disorienting. It is characterized by uncertainty because you don’t know what’s about to come when you cross the threshold into the new space beyond.

Definition: What is Liminal Space and Liminality?

Liminal space is an in-between space. It can be defined as a space that is:

  • A threshold between two spaces
  • A transitional space
  • A transformative space
  • A space where you don’t know what is coming, but where many things are possible in the near future

“Liminal” is Latin for “threshold”. A threshold is a door or gap between two spaces. 

So, the origins (etymology) of the term is literally that a liminal space is a threshold between two other spaces.

4 Key Features of Liminal Spaces

To sum up our definition of liminal space, it’s useful to list its 4 key features:

  1. It is an in-between space
  2. It can be a literal space between two others
  3. It can also be an abstract space between two states of mind
  4. It is a space full of contradictory emotions. It is full of possibility, potential and renewal as we await what is to come. However, it also often feels uncomfortable and disorienting when we don’t know what is coming beyond the threshold

4 Types of Liminality (by Arnold van Gennep)

Arnold van Gennep invented the term ‘liminality’ in his novel Rites of Passage in 1908. Van Gennep identifies four key types of liminality:

  • Changes in Social Status: This includes initiation ceremonies where someone who as an outsider from a group becomes an official insider. For example, this might take place when someone is given citizenship to a nation.
  • Physical Movements: This takes place when someone moves house, their workplace is relocated, they move overseas, etc.
  • Changes in Situations: This could include getting a divorce, starting a new job, graduating from college, inheriting money, discovering you have cancer, etc.
  • Passing of Time: We have many celebrations to mark the passing of time, such as important birthdays, New Years Eve, harvest festivals, etc.

Advantages of Liminal Spaces

1. Excitement

Liminal spaces are spaces where change can occur. It can therefore be full of excitement and opportunity. New and good things could be coming, just around the corner. Richar Rohr explains that it is “a good space where genuine newness can begin.”

2. A fresh start

People also often say liminal spaces give us a fresh start. We can put aside the things we didn’t like from a past situation and start afresh with a new positive outlook.

3. Creativity and innovation

Because liminal spaces bring up strong emotions, a lot of creativity occurs during times of liminality. Songs, artworks and books are created to represent the strong emotions that liminality brings up. An example is the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas.

Disadvantages of Liminal Spaces

1. Discomfort

Liminal spaces can be scary and uncomfortable. When we don’t know what’s coming, we’ll often feel anxious and sick in the stomach. Physical liminal spaces can also be empty and spooky, such as empty stairwells.

2. Feeling unprepared

Another disadvantage of liminality is that we often feel unprepared for it. When we are waiting for a diagnosis from a doctor, we might not want to face the reality. When we’re graduating university, we might feel like it’s too soon to start a job because we feel unprepared.

3. Need for support

Due to this discomfort and uncertainty, many people seek help during times of transition. They could seek out professional help or look for the unconditional love and support of their family, loved ones and community during this time.

Related Post: The importance of Emotions in Education

4. Fear

Many times liminal spaces make us afraid. This is especially true when it seems like there are many cons of passing through the threshold to the next chapter of life and not many pros.

Examples of Liminal Spaces

1. Initiation Ceremonies and Rites of Passage

A right of passage might include a walkabout in Australian Aboriginal society, a game hunt, loss of virginity, or something else important to a society to signify coming-of-age.

An initiation ceremony is a similar type of liminality. Ceremonies such as Bah Mitzvahs, Quincineras, other important coming-of-age birthdays, and Weddings represent liminal moments.

These are moments when your society recognizes you as crossing a threshold and occupying a new identity after the ceremony. You will now have new rights and responsibilities and be seen differently by others. This may be exciting because it opens up new possibilities, but can be scary because you don’t know whether it will be good or bad for you.

2. Places of Exile (forced or voluntary)

When we’re sent into exile, we are placed in a sort of waiting zone where we sit around to find out what will happen to us next.

There are many possibilities in this liminal space. Napoleon Bonaparte gives a great example of this. When he was first exiled from France, he was only gone for a few years before returning to rule France again. But soon enough he was sent into exile again. This time, he never returned and died in his exile.

3. Stairwells, Hallways and Elevators

Passages between physical spaces are great literal examples of liminal spaces. A stairwell is an empty, quiet space (even eerie, sometimes) which we use when passing from one place to the next.

These sorts of liminal spaces are used in often unintended ways. I find this very interesting. As a professor, I see students using liminal spaces as subversive spaces. They smoke cigarettes there, hide from campus security, etc.

4. Break rooms

Break rooms, cafeterias and lunch areas are liminal spaces. These spaces are where we sit between our earlier tasks in our work or school day and our upcoming tasks.

I remember as a student spending a lot of time waiting around between classes. I did busy work like homework or prep for the next class. If I had to present information the next class I may be nervous or apprehensive because I was waiting in anticipation in between classes.

5. Waiting rooms

Waiting rooms are a great example of liminal space. They are literally rooms for ‘waiting’ before you cross that threshold to see the doctor, dentist or go in for that job interview.

You can often feel the tension in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office.

People are nervous because they don’t know what the doctor will find out. They might also feel unwell and uncomfortable that their bodies are about to be prodded at by a doctor.

Similarly there is tension in waiting rooms when waiting for a job interview.

6. Hotel Lobbies

Hotel lobbies are full of people waiting for transport, or their hotel rooms to be cleaned for them, etc. These liminal spaces are often the moments between one part of a travel adventure and the next. They mark what Arnold van Gennep would classify as a moment of physical liminality.

7. Airports

Airports are another great example of moment of physical liminality. People are preparing for adventures abroad, waiting anxiously for loved ones to arrive home, and making sad goodbyes to friends they are leaving behind. Alain de Botton wrote a great book on the liminality of airports – see: A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary.

Examples of Liminality as a State of Mind

Times of liminality occur regularly in our lives. The are the times between chapters in our story. It is the time when a ‘new chapter in our life story’ begins.

1. The Teenage Years

Teenagers are not quite children, not quite adults. they are in a space of liminality where they are figuring things out. They are experimenting with new identities, slowly gaining new rights and responsibilities, and making decisions about what they want to do with their lives after high school.

2. Transitioning to Adulthood

When people leave school, they often don’t know what to do with themselves. Some people go on to university, others take gap years, and others do trades.

Postmodern theorists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens say that this moment of liminality is getting harder to navigate. In the past working class people generally knew the sort of job they would go into after school. They would follow their dad into a trade or mom into parenting. But now, the world is full of possibilities. This is both exciting and scary because you have to figure things out for yourself!

3. A Gap Year

The most meaningful time of liminality in my life was my gap year when I traveled Europe. This was a time when I was awestruck by the world. It was pregnant with possibility. I was exploring new things, unsure of where my life would end up, and excited by the future. 

Many amazing books about traveling explore themes of liminality, where travelers ‘get lost to find themselves’. I’ve provided some examples in the section on liminality in literature below.

4. Dozing off to Sleep

Have you ever felt that state where you’re not quite awake, not quite asleep? You might be decompressing from a tough day or thinking about what tomorrow has to hold. In this moment of liminality, you might be anxious, excited, or just frustrated that your mind won’t let you sleep!

5. After a Breakup or Divorce

Often times we feel a sense of loss after a breakup. We have to come to terms with losing someone close to us. But we also have to come to terms with our new identity. The idea of being alone in the world can be overwhelmingly scary, but it can also be exciting as we enter a new chapter with new opportunities that were not previously open to us.

6. When your Children Leave Home

We often hear of people feeling loneliness when their children leave home. They may have loved having their family close by at all times.

Other “empty nesters” may be excited at the idea of being able to renovate or start traveling.

That moment after a child has left home and you’re standing in an empty house for the first time is a perfect example of a liminal space. 

7. After a Parent Dies

This is one of the saddest examples of liminality. When a parent dies, we usually feel a great sense of loss that something that has always been in our life is now gone forever. Loss is a common feeling in this sort of liminality. 

8. Between Jobs

Many people take a few weeks off between Jobs. This period of time is a moment of liminality when people can take on an identity separate to their work identities. They may go on a holiday or stay home to read books and enjoy some tranquility before the hustle of the new job begins.

Examples of Liminality in Movies, Books and Poetry

1. The Lion King (Movie)

After Simba’s father dies, he runs away from home to live with Simon and Pumba in exile. Here, Simba lives in a state of liminality: he is stuck here during his adolescence, afraid to return to his tribe. 

The audience is also well aware that Simon will not stay in exile forever. We are left waiting to see what will happen to Simba after he eventually leaves this moment of liminality to return to his tribe and challenge his uncle, Scar.

2. The Terminal (Movie)

Steven Spielberg’s movie The Terminal follows the life of Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) when he gets stuck in JFK Airport in New York. Viktor is denied entry to the United States but is also unable to return home due to a military coup that took place in his home country during his flight.

The story is loosely based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri who was stuck in Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris for 18 years.

This is a perfect example of a liminal space: the character is stuck between ‘what was’ (his life back home) and ‘what will be’ after he is eventually provided a country to live within. It is full of possibility (which nation will accept him, if any?) and uncertainty.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Book)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky explores teenage angst and coming-of-age. The characters in the book learn about adult sexuality, what life will be like in adulthood, and what will come of their lives once they finish high school. 

Living temporarily in their high school moment of liminality, the book paints a vision of great anxiety, moments of great highs and lows, and above all questions of how one might live in the adult world that is bearing down on all adolescents.

4. The Beach (Book)

Alex Garland’s novel, The Beach, looks at a secret community in Thailand of travelers who have put life on hold to suspend themselves within a space of liminality.

The bulk of the book (and the movie adaption with Leonardo Di Caprio) is suspenseful with questions of how this liminality will end. The characters know that they can’t live in their Peter Pan world forever, but they also don’t know how to move on to the next phase in their lives.

Being stuck in this moment of liminality eventually drives everyone on the island mad, which opens up the question: is liminality by definition inpermanent? I think so.

5. Do not go Gently into that Good Night (Poem)

This famous poem tells the story of a dying man facing the upcoming prospects of death. He is in a space where death is close and his life has come to a close.

In dealing with the grief of losing his own life, the man chooses to make the most of every day in this liminal space and resist passing through the threshold into death.

Final Thoughts

There are both pros and cons of liminality. While it offers new beginnings, we may also feel a sense of loss for what has passed. It may also bring mixed emotions of excitement and fear. 

There are examples of liminality all around us. Books, movies, songs and poems are written about the feeling of liminality and its impacts on our lives.

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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