Knowledge and The New Liminality
As change and disruption grow increasingly ubiquitous, the concept of liminality or a space of “betwixt and between” is becoming an important topic for many out there, but particularly for those of us who think a lot about organizations and the people in them. I’ve written about liminality previously, and I increasingly feel that it is one the most important themes in leadership today.
So I was quite happy this past week when I found two recent pieces of writing that have affirmed my initial thoughts on the matter while also challenging me to consider liminality on an even deeper level.
Liminality: A Space of Self Discovery
In Pamela Weintraub’s rich and insightful piece, at the oh-so-fine online magazine Nautilus, the author points to 21st century cultural and employment trends to support her call for a broader consideration of how liminality is impacting all our lives.
In At Home in the Liminal World Weintraub nicely parallels indigenous practices that saw liminality as a turbulent transition space with current trends–specifically professionals’ growing tendency toward multiple careers and loose attachments to community and culture.
While some may take her piece as just more evidence of cultural breakdown, Weinstraub makes a compelling case that something more vital, and even constructive may be at play.
Liminal transitions, she observes, have traditionally taken the form of rites of passage that result in profound self-discovery. In addition, as cultural anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep has written, this turbulent period of awakening can strip everything from the individual but in return leave them with a deeply expanded capacity for serving the larger social order.
Not Your Father’s Liminal Turbulence
This notion of being stripped bare can give us more than a moment of pause. (Particularly, if we’re the ones experiencing the loss!) But Weintraub makes point that our relationship to liminality appears to have undergone a radical and even more disruptive change.
In contrast to the historical accounts by Van Gennep and others who viewed liminality as a break from otherwise stable norms, Weintraub asserts that liminality itself—along with all its attendant disruption—is now the norm. (Interestingly, I made a similar point about liminality being the new, fixed state of post-industrial leadership. It seems we’ve entered an era where are few stable norms; but more on that another time…)
The key point here—and Weintraub alludes to this–is that if liminality and its accompanying disruption is now the norm, then we must somehow cultivate purpose and practices for making constructive sense of a lived experience that feels increasingly fragmented and uncertain.
Action, Knowledge, and Uncertainty
This week over at The Cognitive Edge Network, the ever-enlightening Dave Snowden had a posting that spoke to the challenges of developing responsive action amidst conditions of high uncertainty. (Snowden is quite the polymath and his pragmatic approach to helping groups and organizations work with narrative, knowledge and complexity, is well worth following.)
Snowden’s post on peer to peer knowledge flow, while not addressing liminality per se, takes on the related challenge of formulating action when confronting conditions where knowledge is fragmented or otherwise out of sync current conditions.
I got particularly excited by his reference to Fauconnier and Turner’s recent work The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities. These gentlemen were new to me and their theory of conceptual blending appears to largely unlock the long-standing mystery of how humans generate creative thought and formulate action under conditions of uncertainty.
Conceptual Blending and Pervasive Liminality
According to Fauconnier and Turner, humans form original ideas by subconsciously weaving fragments of stored ideas and memories with awareness drawn from real time observation.
While a bit abstract, this notion of conceptual blending seems important for learning professionals and others keen on constructing tools and techniques to help organizations meet the challenges of liminality.
Taken as a whole, this is a lot of information to share in one posting, but these ideas are fascinating and have a tremendous potential for helping to address the challenges of disruption and “full time” liminality. For now, I wanted to share the basic concepts, get the conversation going and, hopefully, develop things even further.
So for now—on the eve of Christmas and a week away from one of our most popular liminal transitions, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and the best luck with all you discover in your own blending space of the betwixt and between.