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  • Writer's pictureSanne Witkamp


Liminality is a term that derives from anthropology. It describes the stage or phase of transition. The 'old' has been abandoned, the 'new' has not yet been formed. It's the phase 'inbetween'. This intermediate phase is present with every (major) change of roles, situations, systems and organizations. And it turns out to be valuable and instructive one - provided you give it enough space, time and attention. During changes and transformations within companies and organizations, this phase is often forgotten - or preferably skipped. It unfortunately doesn't work that way in culture and between people. Moreover, liminality is an ultimate opportunity for growth and lived change - provided you use the phase well and understand what actually happens 'inbetween'.

Arnold van Gennep, who introduced the term liminality, published his Rites de Passage in 1909, a work that explores and develops the concept of liminality within the context of rituals in small-scale societies. Van Gennep started his book by distinguishing the different categories of rituals. He distinguished between rituals that result in a change of status for an individual or social group and those that signify transitions over time. In doing so, he placed a particular emphasis on rites of passage, claiming that such rituals that mark, aid, or celebrate individual or collective transitions exist in every culture and contain three stages. To gain a good understanding of the liminal phase, also in the context of change and transformation within organizations, I like to explain the anthropological concept.

change in three phases

1. preliminal phase or 'SEPARATIon'

These introductory rites (or separation rituals) support the farewell to the old, or literally the separation. This stage involves a metaphorical "death" as the initiate is forced to leave something behind by breaking away from previous practices and routines. Think of the start of a hazing or the traditional bachelor party before the wedding day.

2. liminal phase or 'inbetween'

Rites of passage have two main features. First, the rite must follow a strictly prescribed order, where everyone knows what to do and how. Second, everything must be done under the authority of a master of ceremonies.

Significant changes can be made to the identity of the initiate at this stage (with accompanying rituals). This middle phase (when the transition occurs) means an actual crossing of the threshold that marks the boundary between two phases. The term liminality was introduced to characterize this passage.

3. postliminal phase or 'incorporation'

The postliminal rites (or incorporation rites) celebrate the reincorporation of the initiate into society. The initiate now has a new identity.

These three phases associated with transition and change occur in all kinds of rituals worldwide. They are universally present: everywhere people give context and story to change.

rites of passage

Van Gennep distinguishes four categories of transitions or rites of passage.

1. Status

The transition from one status to another, these are initiation ceremonies where an outsider is brought into the group. For example marriages, promotions, hazing. This category includes all marriage and initiation ceremonies that take someone from the status of an outsider to an insider.

2. Location

The transition from one location to another. Moving to another city or environment, traveling the world.

3. Situation

The transition from one situation to another: entering college, starting a new job, and graduating from high school or university.

4. Time

Transitions over time, such as: New Year's celebrations, Dies celebrations and birthdays.

change creates discomfort

The essence of rites of passage is the liminal intermediate phase. That in-between stage represents transformation and is extremely uncomfortable at the same time. The first phase ensures that the old is broken down or left behind. Detachment brings us to the liminal situation. There is literally no ground under your feet. The old is no longer accessible. In initiation rituals, people are stripped of their identity in the preliminal phase or separation phase. In rituals in which boys go through the transition from child to man, for example. They don't belong anywhere anymore. They feel nameless, spatially and temporarily dislocated - there is no footing or social structure. In this sense, liminal periods are both "destructive" and "constructive." The formative experiences during the liminal phase will prepare the 'initiate' to assume a new social role or status, which will be made public during reintegration.

Anthropologist Victor Turner first came into contact with Van Gennep's work in 1963. In 1967 he published his book The Forest of Symbols, which contained an essay entitled Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage. Turner became aware that liminality served not only to identify the importance of intervening periods, but also to understand human responses to liminal experiences. The chaotic, disruptive and uncertain meanwhile also offers new perspectives. He argues that this phase can be used to investigate what the central values and motivations of a group are - precisely because the structure is suspended. However, for the people who are in a liminal experience together, it does provide opportunities to make good use of this phase. He calls this communal experience of group liminality communitas.

liminality in organizations

Pain, panic, fear and discomfort. We prefer to skip the liminal phase, speed it up and be over it. Yet you cannot essentially transform, change and be ready for something new if you do not live through this phase. No matter how annoying and difficult. Change takes place in three steps (separation, liminality, reintegration or incorporation) and not in two (from old to new).

To get through this phase successfully, it is important to:

  • Really make room for this phase in the agenda and take time for important dialogues.

  • Two leaders are needed in this phase: in addition to the functional leader (director or line manager), a ceremonial leader is needed. The latter (often an external facilitator) can provide the 'holding space' for the group going through the phase.

  • Do not shorten this phase, but make the most of it. It is an instructive interim, in which new (cultural) formation takes place.

  • Realize that it is a phase. A real opportunity to deeply transform and develop lasting change. Make it a nice journey and enjoy the not-knowing and the uncertain. The liminal phase mainly offers growth and development.


Van Gennep, Arnold (1977). The rites of passage. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Turner, Victor (1969). Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage.The Forest of Symbols, Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.


Culture always exists between people. People are constantly on the move and cause change themselves. Every change has an impact. Culture is a temporary landing place in the midst of changes and systems. The culture provides tools and information about the meaning that people and teams collectively give to things and events. Analyzing and understanding culture is necessary to initiate positive change. Insight and clarity as the basis for change.

Would you like to know more about organizational culture, liminality and change? I'll be happy to help you.


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