In 1909, the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep published a book called “The Rites of Passage.” In it, he explored the rituals that cultures use to transition people from one stage of life to the next. Birth, puberty, graduation, religious initiation, marriage, pregnancy, promotions, the seasons—we’re always on the threshold of one phase or another. How do communities shepherd individuals from the pre- to the post-?
Van Gennep argued that certain universal principles underlie rites of passage across cultures and eras. First, there’s the “pre-liminal” phase, in which “rites of separation” detach individuals from their earlier thoughts, feelings, and perspectives: the Old You dies. Next comes the “liminal” phase, a volatile interregnum that’s simultaneously disorienting and ambiguous, destructive and constructive, during which “rites of transition” open up the possibility of a new and different future. Finally, in the “post-liminal” phase, the “rites of incorporation” allow one to reënter society somehow changed. A New You is inaugurated. “Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn,” van Gennep wrote. “It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.”
Van Gennep’s observations were a landmark in the nascent field of anthropology. “Elements of ceremonial behavior were no longer the relics of former superstitious eras,” the anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf later wrote, but “keys to a universal logic of human social life.” In the century since, scholars have applied van Gennep’s framework not just to individuals but to societies in times of turmoil and transformation. Famines, wars, political revolutions, economic downturns, civil-rights movements—societies, too, move from one way of life to another, often experiencing intense periods of renunciation, restructuring, and rebirth. [Continue reading…]