Original Articles

Transitional and perpetual liminality: An identity practice perspective

DOI: 10.1080/23323256.2011.11500005
Author(s): Sierk YbemaVU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Nie BeechUniversity of St. Andrews,, Nick EllisDurham University,


In this article we combine a focus on ‘liminality’ with an analysis of social actors' discursive practices of identity position taking. An exploration of in-depth organisational studies shorn the relevance of ‘liminality’ as a conceptual focus for describing individuals' identity accounts in two different social contexts: (i) actors who experience going through a transformational change from one ‘identity position’ to another, and (ii) actors' sense of being in-between two identity positions for a prolonged period of time. The liminal experience of actors in the first situation might be referred to as transitional betweennes s (liminality as pertaining to a relatively time-constrained phase in-between two identity positions); the second as perpetual betweenness (liminality as an ongoing state of affairs, balancing on the notional boundaries in-between two or more social categories). An analysis of actors' self-positioning points out that transitional ‘liminars’ abandon ‘old’ identities and construct ‘new’ identities when talking about themselves. Perpetual liminars, on the other hand, do not so much rely on temporal talk to describe their identities, ascribing oldness and newness to their various ‘selves’, but instead respond to conflicting loyalties and obligations by constantly switching from one identity to the other in their relational (self-other) talk, oscillating between ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘same’ and ‘other’, and between an inclusive and exclusive ‘us’. More generally, we show how bringing together the concepts of liminality and identity may help to generate a grounded understanding of how social actors manoeuvre through socially complex, dynamic and demanding situations.

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