Liminality - Rites of Passage - Arnold Van Gennep

Arnold Van Gennep

Van Gennep, who invented the term liminality, published in 1908 his Rites de Passage, a work that is essential to the development of the concept of liminality in the context of rituals in small-scale societies. Van Gennep began his book by identifying the various categories of rites. He distinguished between those that result in a change of status for an individual or social group, and those that signify transitions in the passage of time. In doing so, he placed a particular emphasis on rites of passage, and claimed that “such rituals marking, helping, or celebrating individual or collective passages through the cycle of life or of nature exist in every culture, and share a specific three-fold sequential structure”.

This three-fold structure, as established by van Gennep, is made up of the following components:

  • preliminal rites (or rites of separation): This stage involves a metaphorical “death”, as the initiand is forced to leave something behind by breaking with previous practices and routines.
  • liminal rites (or transition rites): This involves “the creation of a tabula rasa, through the removal of previously taken-for-granted forms and limits”. Two characteristics are essential to these rites. First, the rite “must follow a strictly prescribed sequence, where everybody knows what to do and how”. Second, everything must be done “under the authority of a master of ceremonies”. The destructive nature of this rite allows for considerable changes to be made to the identity of the initiand. This middle stage (when the transition takes place) “implies an actual passing through the threshold that marks the boundary between two phases, and the term ‘liminality’ was introduced in order to characterize this passage.”
  • postliminal rites (or rites of incorporation): During this stage, the initiand is re-incorporated into society with a new identity, as a “new” being.

Turner confirmed his nomenclature for 'the three phases of passage from one culturally defined state or status to another...preliminal, liminal, and postliminal'.

Van Gennep considered rites of initiation to be the most typical rite. To gain a better understanding of “tripartite structure” of liminal situations, one can look at a specific rite of initiation: the initiation of “youngsters into adulthood,” which Turner considered the most typical rite. In such rites of passage, the experience is highly structured. The first phase (the rite of separation) requires the child to go through a separation from his family; this involves his/her “death” as a child, as childhood is effectively left behind. In the second stage, initiands (between childhood and adulthood) must pass a “test” to prove they are ready for adulthood. If they succeed, the third stage (incorporation) involves a celebration of the “new birth” of the adult and a welcoming of that being back into society.

By constructing this three-part sequence, van Gennep identified a pattern he believed was inherent in all ritual passages. By suggesting that such a sequence is universal (meaning that “all societies use rites to demarcate transitions”), van Gennep made an important claim (one that not many anthropologists make, as they generally tend to demonstrate cultural diversity while shying away from universality).

An anthropological ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status.; and in 'the first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual...from an earlier fixed point in the social structure. Their status thus becomes liminal. In such a liminal situation, “the initiands live outside their normal environment and are brought to question their self and the existing social order through a series of rituals that often involve acts of pain: the initiands come to feel nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured”. In this sense, liminal periods are “destructive” as well as “constructive”, meaning that “the formative experiences during liminality will prepare the initiand (and his/her cohort) to occupy a new social role or status, made public during the reintegration rituals”.

Read more about this topic:  Liminality, Rites of Passage

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