Anthropologists as liminal thinkers


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During some internet searching today I came across Marianne Cantwell’s TED talk about liminal thinkers. These are people who can have a foot in multiple worlds but quite feel like they ‘fit’ in any single place. “Liminality” is a term that describes ‘a state of inbetween-ness – you’re not quite one thing but not yet another either’. This may be a term familiar to those who have studies anthropology and heard about liminal rites of passage (such as weddings). The author Dave Gray, who has published books on liminal thinking, explains in this Medium post and this podcast with UXpod that part of its roots lie with anthropology, as well as philosophy and psychology. A few definitions Gray offers which I think are the best to explain it are:

Liminal is simply a word that means boundary or threshold and it specifically describes the experience that people feel when they’re on a boundary or a threshold, between one thing and another.

Moments or periods of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and destruction.

Now back to Marianne Cantwell, she uses a metaphor of continents to explain how we are told to think of being one thing, fitting in to one place and aligning ourselves to a particular profession. These ‘continents’ exist near one another, but do not overlap. The career goal for many is to find the continent where you fit, learn the customs and rise up through the ranks. But for liminal thinkers this is a ‘losing game’ because even when a continent can feel exciting and like a good fit, after a while it can become less exciting and less aligned with who you are and the search starts again for a new continent that is more ‘you‘. For those types of people, she suggests building an ‘island’ that exists near your favourite continents that you have a foot in and you bring in aspects of those continents into your own island.

Gray has a definition that is a bit more practical and aligns more with applied anthropology:

Liminal thinking is a term that I use to describe the skill or the ability that one can cultivate for getting better at these moments of transition and actually creating transitions when you might feel stuck finding your way through, out of these stuck points and into a new way of thinking about the world that can lead to much more interesting outcomes for you.

I thought it might be interesting for young anthropologists to think about themselves as liminal thinkers who don’t need to be concerned if they can’t find one continent to fit into. There aren’t many well worn career paths for anthropologists who are looking for ways to apply their qualification outside of academia and I think anthropologists are largely liminal thinkers who need to create their own pathways into industries and professions. Basically they need to build their island. This can be tough, but the great news is that according to Marianne, “we need liminal thinkers more than ever”.


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