Using liminality to look at student/staff interactions

I am writing this as part of trying to work out whether I can use the concept of ‘liminality’ to explore/analyse the characteristics, potentialities, roles and relationships related to student and staff working in partnership in education. As part of getting to grips with useful concepts, I came across the work by Catherine Cronin, who is doing some really interesting thinking about digital identity and interactions between students and staff using the notion of ‘third space’. I have exchanged some links/resources and thoughts with Catherine in a sort of on-going conversations about how these concepts of ‘liminality’ and ‘third space’ might be similar or different etc. This blog post is meant to be part of this conversation, which Catherine is documenting in her post A conversation about Third Space, Third Place and Liminality.

Why liminality?

I developed a project where students worked  as teaching and learning consultants and they did this work in partnership with staff. I have written a number of posts about this project elsewhere. In an initial post I began using the idea of liminal to develop my understanding of what was going on in the student/staff interaction:

“…there is structure in the student consultancy scheme in relation to how students and staff opt in and get recruited but there is also a much less structured negotiated space where students and staff have opportunities to engage in conversations about teaching and learning in a collaborative way. The students have been keen to expand and perhaps even step out of their normal student roles in order to engage with a staff perspective and this seems to have been the case for a number of staff who participated as well. I am reminded of the work by Alison Cook-Sather in which she suggests that undergraduates working as pedagogical consultants are in liminal positions, in-between being a student or being a member of staff….I would argue that perhaps both student and staff are able to occupy a liminal position that offers different insights and produces a different kind of student/staff relationship.”

(Students as producer and thoughts on the benefits of process and liminality, blogpost from 2 July 2013) – sorry about the self-referencing

In analysing what happened in the consultation process, in terms of developing a space for conversation and collaboration, I argued that it was a liminal space. Liminal in the sense that it was characterised by uncertainty about the roles that students and staff had in this space which enabled them to step outside normal roles and the traditional learner-teacher relationship. The project findings also indicated that the relationship that developed was an equal one where staff and students recognised the experiences (and expertise?) of each other as useful.

Where does the concept of liminality come from?

The short answer is from Anthropology and van Gennep’s study of rituals as ‘rites de passage’. For more background see Liminality.

The concept of liminality relates to the middle phase in any ritual and deals with passing from one social status to another. Van Gennep identified three phases:

  1. Separation
  2. Transition
  3. Incorporation

So the ritual participant is taken out of their social role, the structures they are in (separation), enter into a phase of transition (a sort of social limbo, which is characterised by lack of social status, structures only to then be returned to society and back into the social structures (incorporation).

Structure-Anti-Structure-Structure

In the 1960s, Victor Turner picked up Van Gennep’s ideas and he was specifically interested in what happened in the liminal phase:

“The novices are, in fact, temporarily undefined, beyond the normative social structure. This weakens them, since they have no rights over others. But is also liberates them from structural obligations…Liminality…may also include subversive and ludic (or playful) events. In other words, in liminality people “play” with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarise them. Novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar elements.” (Turner 1992, 27).

In his 1969 book The Ritual Process, Turner coined the term ‘anti-structure’ to “describe the transitional topsy-turveydom of the liminal phase of ritual” (Whitehead 2004, 4). So the three phases can be characterised as participants moving from a place in a social structure, into a space of anti-structure to then be reintegrated into the the social structure.

“Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (Turner 1982, 97)

Although traditionally the participants, when they are in the liminal phase are generally not powerful, the phase has connotations of danger because in this undetermined, betwixt and between state, the structures and social roles are not fixed as they are temporarily ‘outside’ these. This is where the potential for using the idea of ‘liminal space’ as somewhere power relations are less fixed and there can be negotiation or innovation of traditional structures, e.g. learner/teacher roles.

What are the problems with using liminality?

  • In the liminal state neophytes are seen as weak, powerless following the authority of ‘elders’ – this is possibly problematic when looking at interactions between participants working together who are from different positions?
  • Refers to a transitional phase – how can we use it when  there is no transition taking place?
  • They are positioned as outside society/structure – possibly not useful when we are looking at collaboration ‘within structures’ to some extent.
  • Development described is linear – but does it have to be?

Why is liminality useful?

  • Liminality is characterised by participants stepping outside normal roles and strictures
  • It is characterised by lack of structure (anti-structure)
  • It is a levelling space (neophytes are equal)
  • The liminal state is characterised by being ‘in between’ and indeterminate which is useful for looking at student and staff collaboration and partnership where roles and responsibility are negotiated
  • Liminal has the potential for challenging traditional roles and develop innovative reinterpretations of familiar roles/relationships etc.

I think that you can use the idea of interactions (or space where interactions take place) as being characterised by ‘liminality’ without necessarily having the other two phases as I am not analysing rituals or transitions. Also ‘liminality’ is not particularly tied to physical space.

Potential for transformation

I think liminality does have potential in relation to the idea of student/staff partnership where it helps explain the developmental benefits of spaces that enable ‘separation’ from previous roles/responsibilities. Of course you are not completely stepping away but ‘stepping out’ for a limited time and there is potential for this to offer you new or different perspectives.

“Liminality is a world of contingency where events and ideas, and “reality” itself, can be carried in different directions.” (Thomassen 2009, 5)

In the end I would argue it is the potential for transformation that makes the concept of liminality interesting.

More reading on liminality:

Cook-Sather, A. & Alter, Z. (2011). What Is and What Can Be: How a Liminal Position Can Change Learning and Teaching in Higher EducationAnthropology and Education Quarterly, 42(1), 37-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1492.2010.01109.x

Cook-Sather, A. (2013). Student-faculty partnership in explorations of pedagogical practice: a threshold concept in academic development. International Journal for Academic Development, 1-13. doi: 10.1080/1360144X.2013.805694

Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and anti-structure (London: Penguin)

Turner, V.  (1982). Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. The Forest of Symbols – Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Chapter IV, 93-111. (6th ed.). Cornell University Press. First published 1967.

Turner, V. (1992). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications, New York.

Szakolcza, A. (2009). Liminality and Experience: Structuring transitory situations and transformative events. International Political Anthropology, 2 (1), 141-172. Retrieved from http://www.politicalanthropology.org/ipa-journal.html

Thomassen, B. (2009). The Uses and Meanings of Liminality. International Political Anthropology, 2 (1), 5-27. Retrieved from http://www.politicalanthropology.org/ipa-journal.html

Whitehead, C. (2004). Religious experience and the theory of anti-structure. Retrieved from: http://www.socialmirrors.org/cms/images/downloads/RE_and_antistructure.pdf

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About kshjensen

Anthropologist. Ethnographic research and user experience. I craft, bake, like real ale and stacking stones.
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4 Responses to Using liminality to look at student/staff interactions

  1. Pingback: A conversation about Third Space, Third Place, and Liminality | catherinecronin

  2. Pingback: Identity and teaching and learning spaces | kshjensen – always learning

  3. Pingback: Exploring in-between spaces | kshjensen – always learning

  4. Pingback: Finding the open in the in-between: changing culture and space in higher education | Tactile

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