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Liminality, a term borrowed from cultural anthropology, refers to various states of passage through which designated members of a culture travel at specified times of transition. For the duration of passage, such people are “betwixt and between,” suspended between the old roles they leave behind and the yet-to-be-shouldered demands of a new identity.
Occupying no fixed position, they are considered dangerous, and special precautions are taken to segregate them from ordinary social life. Deputized guides are provided to expedite the transition process and serve as mentors.
The Experience Of Liminality
In traditional societies, initiation rites exemplify ceremonies of liminality. But many cultures make similar provisions for other critical transition periods, such as entering marriage, assuming leadership, taking religious vows, apprenticing in a profession. Even in their modern embodiments, a number of distinctive features are apparent. Such passages are usually undertaken in secret or ritually segregated settings, entail taxing ordeals, and are supervised by expert guides. During this time, the usual social markers of distinction are erased — a “leveling” process that, along with the experience of shared suffering, encourages intense and enduring bonds of solidarity among initiates. But no matter how rigorous the ordeal or sublime the camaraderie experienced en route, the expectation is that the initiate will return to ordinary life and take on new responsibilities.
In a more extended sense, the distinctive blend of peril and privilege that liminality offers may apply to people who voluntarily remove themselves from the sway of convention for a time. Pilgrimages, religious revivals, secular festivals, even wilderness treks and corporate retreats: Participants in all of these briefly suspend responsibility and court uncertainty; all do so with the expectation of a return to normality. Crises, too, may usher in liminal periods. Consider the suspension of routine that follows natural disasters (epidemics, floods), civil disturbances (wars or revolutions), or private misfortunes (a death in the family). Finally, sociologists remind us that the experience of illness may be exploited (consciously or not) for its liberating potential in relieving the afflicted person from the demands of ordinary life.
All such states share a few core elements: suspension of the rule of the commonplace; mixing with unfamiliar others in strange settings and often mobile circumstances; and a heightened sense of uncertainty, of things being unfinished. It is this last property of indeterminacy—the fact that the process sometimes takes place without experienced guides in poorly marked and badly mapped territory—that makes liminality relevant to students of homelessness.
On occasion liminality stalls, the return fails to take place as projected, and the transitional period becomes extended. Should this persist, the built-in expectation of a return (on the part of both voyager and awaiting community) can weaken, eventually giving way to a routinization of the displacement itself. A kind of forgetfulness sets in: The tug of broken ties and foregone appointments weakens and the becalmed voyager finds a substitute normalcy beckoning. This was precisely the concern of critics who warned of the “demoralizing” effects of municipal lodging houses on the newly unemployed of the Progressive Era and, later, of researchers who charted the hazards of “shelterization” in the congregate relief warehouses of the Great Depression. In each case, the worry was that what had begun as a moratorium on business as usual had been transformed into a way of life in its own right. Nor were these unprecedented concerns.
In the momentous dislocations of the late Middle Ages, for example, various outlaw groups were able to contrive a livelihood out of the rigors of social ostracism. In the process, what began as haphazard makeshifts were transformed into durable institutions. The Franciscans and other mendicant orders trace their origins in this fashion: Begun as protest movements against the extravagances of the established church, they were eventually institutionalized (and co-opted) as part of its official embrace of the doctrine of poverty. More colorful still, the bands of “wandering scholars” who traversed the circuit of monasteries in the fourteenth century managed to turn liturgical mischief into an unruly livelihood, performing ribald parodies of ecclesiastic hymns in exchanges for a night’s lodging and meal (Waddell 1961/1927). (Eventually, an unamused church hierarchy cracked down on the practice.) Gypsies over the ages have survived on the edges and in the interstices of settled life.
When displacement is routinized, but the sense of being suspended betwixt and between endures, liminality becomes a social and cultural limbo. Traditionally, that term refers to the celestial holding mechanism invented by Catholic theologians as a necessary adjunct to the doctrine of redemption. (Limbo was reserved for those souls born too early in history—righteous pagans—or dying too early in life—anabaptized infants—to be held accountable to the test of confessing Christ as savior.) Unlike stalled liminality that manages to invent a socially acceptable alternative destination, limbo describes a state of suspended resolution, an anomalous way station for those with nowhere else to go. Downsized corporate executives embody a “living contradiction” of the American promise: talented managers out of work. Unless comparable positions open up in the market or in public employ, their predicament may persist without ever being resolved—they remain in “limbo.”
Liminality intersects with homelessness when the dislocations occur at critical transitions, like the move of single mothers to set up independent households. But liminality also opens two other possibilities. First, it can give birth to new livelihoods. What begins as a way station en route to established roles can be institutionalized, in the process becoming part of the abeyance process proper. This institutionalization may happen directly, as with the normalization of the extended unemployment of the high school adolescent; or at one remove, as with the burgeoning not-for-profit shelter and service industry established to manage homelessness as a durable social problem. Second, although liminal passage is usually undertaken for specific reasons, in known territory, with every expectation of return, that cultural process may be upset and the markers dislodged. When that happens, the stage is set for forced improvisation. In America in the late twentieth century, life-course transitions in general have become more individualized, less bound to strategic family decisions, less subject to custom’s scripting.
As liminality become riskier and more easily derailed, its casualties may find their way into the ranks of the officially homeless.
- Jusserand, J. J. (1920). English wayfaring as a way of life in the Middle Ages, rev. ed. London: Ernest Benn.
- Modell, J. (1989). Into one’s own: From youth to adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Ringenbach, P. T. (1973). Tramps and reformers, 1873-1916. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, fields, and metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Turner, V. (1985). On the edge of the bush. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Waddell, H. (1961). The wandering scholars. New York: Doubleday. ( Originally published 1927)
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