Book Review: Liminality and the Modern, Living Through the In-Between by BjØrn Thomassen

Book Review by Bradley Williams


With Liminality and the Modern, BjØrn Thomassen has provided an invaluable resource for researchers of all types of ritualistic processes in different social settings. As Thomassen notes, the concept of liminality is under-utilized in anthropology and completely ignored by sociologists. Liminality within anthropology has been most closely associated Victor Turner’s writings on tribal rituals practiced within a Ndembu village in Zambia, where he lived and collected field data. Indeed much of the book is devoted to understanding some of the standard and lesser known works of Turner. Thomassen also discusses the history of the lesser known social theorist, Arnold van Gennep, who unarguably pioneered the concept of liminality, and provided a thickly rich though concise analysis in his book Les Rites de Passage (The Rites of Passage).

The greatest contribution that van Gennep proposed was a universal three part structure characteristic of all ritual processes. All initiates or participants undergoing rituals undergo an initial separation from the bounded norms, social repertoires, and general order represented by their pre-ritual ontology. Secondly, they enter into a liminal state characterized by a supreme normlessness that can produce either positive or negative affects (though this last distinction was only established after the concept of liminality had reached its maturity, which came after Victor Turner’s singularly positive appraisal of liminality had been thoroughly considered). Liminality characterizes all in-between social spaces, where individuals, groups, and even whole societies enter into a disestablishment of social order and individual and collective identity. Finally, the participant undergoes a process of re-integration in which a new social order, orientation or identity is accepted. Much of the first half of the book gives a history of van Gennep’s unfortunate, failed attempts at launching an academic career. The thrust of the history involves van Gennep’s fundamental disagreement with the over-socialized structural functionalism of Emile Durkheim. According to van Gennep, and others who found fault in Durkheim’s theories, Durkheim’s theory could not account for reality because it could not account for individual agency within periods of social transformation or transition.

The account of van Gennep’s attempts at integrating himself into the French academic community is very interesting. Thomassen writes that van Gennep remains the most cited social scientist in the history of French academia to have never been appointed a professor. It’s an intellectual biography that really sheds light on a whole range of famous social theorists, not just van Gennep. The second half of the book attempts to bring the concept of liminality into a twenty-first century context. Taking a lead from Victor Turner, Thomassen infers from the broad conception of liminality in tribal rituals accounted for by Turner, that the concept could and should be applied to all kinds of other social phenomena that adhere to the universal tripartite structure of ritualistic social transformation. As the name of the book implies, much of the second half of the book concerns the application of liminality to our current dominant form of modernity in the West.

Part Two of the book opens with a lengthy discussion of the primacy of the self within the thought of Descartes and the primacy of the state within Hobbes. Thomassen intricately plays the ideas of Descartes and Hobbes off of one another to show how both theorists reacted to an overall sense of unease within Europe. Together these theorists provided the individual and collective conceptions that largely structured the broader modern social context, the underpinnings of our modern celebration of contemporaneity. Thomassen then dedicates a chapter each to the role of the ritual process and liminality in three social phenomena: games and gambling, bungee jumping, and political revolutions. The essay on Gambling draws a comparison between the emergence of casinos in Italy and the “trickster” role played by the infamous Casanova and the modern question of living within a broader risk society. The next chapter proceeds from a discussion of ceremonial precursors to modern bungee jumping to illustrate a particular form of liminality that the author refers to as limivoid. While phenomena such as bungee jumping incorporate the ‘going to the limit’, dangerous aspect of the liminal phase of ritual processes, the final transformative phase found in actual rituals is missing. This makes the “ritual” of bungee jumping merely a form of simulacra or an incomplete ritual. The penultimate chapter on political revolutions was perhaps my favorite discussion in the book. Thomassen incorporates Victor Turner’s meaning-filled descriptions of the liminal atmosphere that permeates large-scale crises to discuss the liminal and transformative aspects of political revolutions. Revolutions, as forms of collective behavior, seem to embody the process-structure of rituals. He identifies some of the emotional aspects of revolutions which account for phenomena such as mass adherence to the whims of charismatic leaders.

The concluding chapter concerns the themes of home and being-at-home as they relate to the transition “out of liminality” for modernity (p 215). In the end, Thomassen posits an understanding of the agency/structure argument that is neither characterized by rational-positivism or social constructivism. Ultimately, van Gennep’s work highlights the detachment that both theories have toward ‘nature’. Rather than trying to ‘tame’ and compartmentalize the irrational sensibilities within the world, social science should seek to understand the natural “rhythms” of the social.

This book is a remarkable contribution to sociology and anthropology. Thomassen offers insights valuable to anyone interested in a sociology that can account for transitional periods within human existence. This book is worth reading and re-reading for its illuminating perspective.


Bradley W. Williams is a graduate student in sociology beginning his PhD studies at George Mason University in 2015.  His research is located within the intersection of sociology and international relations, specializing in the study of religion, social movements, and Islamic peace processes.

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