Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Rituals that symbolize and bring about a transition in social status. The concept is strongly associated with the French folklorist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), who was among the first to document it as an analytical category in 1908.

Gennep used the phrase very loosely and provided a plethora of examples of acts that bring about a transition within calendrical cycles, across spatial boundaries, and/or from one social status to another. Examples of rites of passage in contemporary American society might include baptisms, pilgrimages to Graceland, graduation ceremonies, marriage, and funerals. Through Gennep's efforts, rites of passage have been recognized as a unique and important category of ritual, especially in the work of anthropologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglas.

A central theme of Gennep's work is the identification of a threefold sequence that he believed characterizes rites of passage in every culture: separation (preliminal), transition (liminal), and reintegration (postliminal). Gennep borrowed the term liminal from the Latin word limen meaning a boundary or threshold (1908:21). An individual undergoing a rite of passage is first separated from his or her old identity and surroundings. At that point, the individual is outside of the social structure. He or she is betwixt and between social categories and expectations. Finally, the individual is reintegrated in a new group or given a new social status.

Mary Douglas and Victor Turner have focused their studies on the liminal stage of rites of passage. Douglas (1966), for example, has argued that all social transition is perceived as dangerous. Because their status is temporarily undefined, persons experiencing transition have no place in society. Turner and his students took this argument one step further by suggesting that the liminal period represents the possibility of an unstructured, egalitarian social world termed communitas (1967), which, for Turner, is the building block of utopian fiction, experimental communes, and millenarian movements.

Stephen D. Glazier


M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966)

A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960 [1908])

V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967).

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