Liminality and pandemic

Updated by Alok Prateek 2 min read

I learnt about a concept today, that has long been used by psychologists and social scientists, but maybe not every layman: “liminality”. It is something that helps explain the changes that have swept over the general populace during the pandemic.

The term was first coined by folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 book The Rites of Passage and was developed into a proper concept 50 years later by Victor Turner, an anthropologist who worked in Africa. The dictionary refers to it as the idea that many societies use rituals and symbols to mark moments of transition from one state to another, or the limbo when someone is at the threshold of change. (The word comes from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold”.)

This either involves a stage in the life cycle (becoming an adult), on other occasions, it is connected to the calendar (a new year) or a societal event (national independence). Also, it may be pre-planned or it can be unexpected — if you lose a job, or a loved one for example. In a liminal phase what tends to happen is that people begin new rituals and adopt symbols to indicate that they are removed from their normal life — even if it is quite brief — before they re-enter society in a changed state. Stag nights, New Year’s Eve parties, or army initiations are rituals that are held to indicate a transition of state. Modern education system provides an ample gap between the years that could be called liminal time for some.

The lockdown imposed due to the widespread pandemic is not a planned liminal moment, in the sense of a predictable life-stage or point on the yearly cycle. The lockdown that was imposed due to the pandemic has achieved what liminal rituals often do: distorted what was our “normal” life and turned our assumptions upside down.

If you have taken a look around, the decision of so many men to sport beards reflects a semi-conscious recognition of that — or a desire to signal to ourselves and others that the pandemic era is not normal. The symbolism of the facial hair that we have started to see is that we are in a transition to something else; a howl of protest against the idea that this state might become permanent or “normal”.

This further raises two more points: first, if lockdown completely ends and everyone returns to the office, what rituals will we all embrace to signal that we are moving out of limbo, back into “normality”?

The second being: when we look back at this peculiar liminal time in the future, what will we all have transitioned into? As psychologists often tell, liminality can be frightening, but it can also offer a chance to reflect, reboot, and reshape — if we wish. This is the best time to take something new and make it part of your identity. We can say that liminal space shakes us out of our habits and can be start of something wonderful or truly rotten. Who knows? You never know if the caterpillar going into chrysalis stage will come out as a butterfly or a moth or maybe locust?

We need to ask the right questions more than ever. Liminal time has always been the phase to evolve or to descend to a period of unrest and misery. Ask yourself, where do you want to lead?

1 comment

Alok Prateek on

One of the most insightful piece that I’ve written