Migration, Ritual Passage and Liminality: Some Theoretical Considerations

In struggling to conceptualize the new Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa in terms of migration, diaspora, transnationalism, translocality or sojourning, the concept of liminality has been a strong inspiration. The nonconformist anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1909) was convinced that the rites de passage that every individual in all forms of society undergoes when entering a new life phase (adolescence, adulthood, apprenticeship, marriage, pregnancy, etc.) follow the same tripartite sequence, beginning with separation (rites de separation), leading into a phase of transition (rites de marge) and ending in reintegration (rites d’aggregation). He emphasized the spatial character of this sequential process.

Almost completely ignored and forgotten by the scientific community for half a century, Van Gennep’s work was rediscovered by the anthropologist Victor Turner when Rites de Passage was first published in English in 1960. Turner was most interested in the second, liminal phase of the rites de passage, in which those who have parted from society are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention” (1969: 80f). In this transitional phase, individuals do not belong to the society that they were previously part of and they are not yet reincorporated into it. For Turner, liminality is a limbo, a phase or space characterized by seclusion, tests and hardships, ambiguity and possibilities, uncertainty, the absence of structure and the experience of community (communitas). This latter aspect of unstructured communitas has drawn much criticism. Referring to pilgrimage in Turner’s work, Eade and Swallow (1991) argue that unlike the imagined communitas, liminality is far from unstructured and may even accentuate prior distinctions between individuals as much as it dissolves differences.

One primary characteristic of liminality (as defined by Van Gennep and Turner) is that there is a way into it as well as a way out (Thomassen 2009: 21). In ritual passages, “members of the society are themselves aware of the liminal state: they know that they will leave it sooner or later” (21). But Turner suggested that “a liminal state may become ‘fixed’, referring to a situation in which the suspended character of social life takes on a more permanent character” (Thomassen 2009: 15). This idea of permanent liminality has been elaborated extensively by the sociologist Arpad Szakolczai. Within the context of ritual passages, a key feature of liminality is the final stage ofreintegration, in which the initiand is recognized as a part of the social order and welcomed into that order with a new role, “stamped by the formative experience” (Thomassen 2009: 22). Without this reintegration process, liminality becomes permanent and can also become very dangerous. Szakolczai acknowledges that “liminality becomes a permanent condition when any of the three phases in this sequence becomes frozen, as if a film stopped at a particular frame” (2000: 220).

A number of researchers have taken the concept of liminality beyond tribal rites of passage or Christian pilgrimage and applied it to secular contexts and contemporary situations, such as traveling, studying abroad and labor migration. In these secular contexts ofspatial mobility, quite a few authors also found indicators that liminal entities can be permanently caught in the in-between space. Various minority groups can be considered liminal. Thomassen (2009: 19) argues that undocumented immigrants (present but not “official”) and stateless people can be regarded as liminal because they are “betwixt and between home and host, part of society, but sometimes never fully integrated.”. In migration studies, this is applied mainly to migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers and “illegal” or undocumented migrants: “for some migrants the passage is never complete ... these migrants remain trapped in a liminal phase, as unincorporated outsiders” (Hastings and Wilson 1999: 10).

If we remember the brief initial impressions of temporariness and transience of the Chinese trading cluster in Accra, the traders can also be seen, ultimately, as torn between two (or more) places or trapped in a state “which is betwixt-and-between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order and registering structural status” (Turner 1977: 465). What happened to cause the entrepreneurial sojourns of these Chinese traders to end up in this frozen liminality? Is liminality the clue to understanding the lack of ethnic identifications, institutionalization and community-building among the Chinese trading migrants in Ghana?

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