Qualitative Methods, Social and behavioural

"This incitement to 'become different' can be both thrilling and terrifying"

Our editor Jon Sutton meets social psychologist Professor Paul Stenner (Open University).

06 June 2017

Talk to me about circles.
The German poet Rilke, who was a bit of genius, wrote ‘I live my life in ever widening circles’. I think we all ‘move in circles’… within circles of friends and acquaintances, and between cycles of activity and routine that more or less repeat, like having breakfast, travelling to work, writing a report, trying to persuade our kids to do their homework. Circulation is not just a shape but a movement: like when a spinning top gets its stability from its circular movement. Life is quite well described as a series of interconnected circles of activity or practice.

I can identify with that… ever-decreasing circles…
Well, no, actually. Rilke wrote about a life of ever-widening circles: he was conveying a kind of optimism about such ‘worlds’, our spheres of activity which are bound together into one big circle that gives our life as a whole a kind of unity, a ‘world’ of experience. He was suggesting that as we get older, the limits of our ‘world’ come to expand, qualitatively as well as quantitatively. If all goes well, as we grow, we are able to affect more things around us, and to be affected by more things around us. But there are always limits. Rilke ends his poem by saying ‘I may not complete this last one [i.e. last circle], but I give myself to it’. I like that attitude. So, although I appreciate that these circles might sound a bit abstract, for me they return us to a very concrete way of thinking about human life and psychology: a way of thinking that starts with embodied social practices.

If someone is suspended, in limbo, between these circles, these transitions, that's when your idea of ‘liminal hotspots’ comes into play?
Yes. I developed this liminal hotspot idea along with Monica Greco, Johanna Motzkau, Megan Clinch and a whole bunch of other great people. The concept of liminality is about movement between circles. If the idea of a circle draws our attention to the more or less stable, recurrent things, then the idea of liminality draws our attention to the movements and activities between circles and to the points at which a circle changes and becomes something else. We need both of these concepts: the positions and the transitions, or the stations and the relations.

In anthroplogy, for example, the ‘liminal phase’, is the middle phase of a rite of passage. People in a rite of passage are between worlds. Young women going through an initiation ceremony, for instance, are no longer girls but not yet women. After the ceremony they will move into the circles of activity typical of young adults, but during the liminal phase those social norms and expectations are suspended. Formal rites of passage may be much less common nowadays, but we still go through changes as we develop and as we move from sphere to sphere.

So you feel it’s still a relevant concept?
Very much so. Sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman and, more recently, Árpád Szakolczai have made strong arguments about the contemporary relevance of liminality. As a concept in anthropology, it had been limited to small scale, so-called ‘tribal’ societies, and people like Victor Turner tended to stress only the positive side of liminal experience. If you apply the concept to today’s global and post-modern societies you see that, in lots of places, it is becoming less likely that there will be a temporary phase of transition from one stable circle of activity to another. Instead, the societal expectation is that a certain experience of liminality will be the norm rather than the exception.

Give me an example.
The changing nature of work. The expectation of a ‘job for life’ is being replaced by multiple, temporary, phases of quasi-employment, for those lucky enough to be employed at all. But also, if you listen to the rhetoric of diverse politicians from Blair to Obama to May to Trump, or to the bosses of our corporations, you will hear the assumption that only those capable of proactively responding to an ever-changing and unpredictable world can expect to survive into the future. Instability, change, uncertainty and ambivalence are now the default assumptions, and in all sorts of spheres people are encouraged to flexibly ‘self-manage’ their careers, health and wellbeing and to become ‘active’ citizens and ‘active agers’.

The flipside of this is the message not to rely on the old institutions and this is accompanied by a certain societal deconstruction of old categories which are increasingly perceived to be redundant. To give another example, the new discourses and practices of active ageing go hand-in-hand with a rejection of the value and validity of dividing the life-course up into clear categories like ‘childhood’, ‘adolescence’, ‘adulthood’ and ‘retirement’. ‘Active ageing’ is not a discourse aimed at the ‘old’ – it is a discourse that implies getting rid of those societal categorisations and institutional practices that construct the very notion of the ‘old’, now seen as too massive and arbitrary a category.

That feels like a positive message, but possibly one that places quite a burden on the individual?
Liminality, as the word suggests, relates to the removal of such limits, and this incitement to ‘become different’ can be both thrilling and terrifying as it plays itself out in multiple spheres of life. The assumption of the army of ‘change agents’ that has multiplied in recent years is that these ‘limits’ are basically obstacles, the removal of which is our only hope of survival. But this removal of what are seen as arbitrary limits creates paradoxes and other so-called ‘wicked problems’, especially if it is not clear what we should ‘become’. ‘Becoming’ can then become a rather troubled experience, and this has psychological implications. The basic idea of a liminal hotspot is the idea that it is possible to get stuck in transition. This is a paradox, but it is a paradox that I think marks people’s lives more and more: permanent liminality. 

Let me try to put the notion of a liminal hotspot in a nutshell through one more example. Large numbers of people – especially those with chronic health conditions or with conditions that are medically unexplained (MUS) – find themselves caught in the uncomfortable position of being held suspended, as it were, between the categories of ‘health’ and ‘illness’. They are both sick and healthy, but we might as well say that they are neither sick nor healthy. This can be formulated as ‘both both/and and neither/nor’ and this is a paradox. But it is a paradox many people have to live, navigate and manage in their daily lives. For us (and Monica Greco’s work has been very important here), this notion of paradox is the first feature of a liminal hotspot, and it is partly about not being able to go through a transition. Those whose symptoms are medically unexplained, for instance, cannot easily make the transition to what used to be called – following Parson’s – the ‘sick role’, because their symptoms do not meet the usual standards for defining illness. This can lead people into disconcerting and chaotic experiences. Those with chronic conditions, on the other hand, cannot transition from ‘ill’ to ‘healthy’ but must find a way of coming to terms with a more ambiguous and troubled status.

If and when these paradoxes lead – as they often do – to situations akin to paralysis, or to situations of tension and conflict that we call ‘polarisation’, then we are dealing with what we call a ‘liminal hotspot’. The value of the concept is that it draws attention to the troubled becoming at play in a situation, and that it illuminates certain common features in settings that might otherwise appear completely unconnected. In our recent Special Issue of Theory and Psychology, for instance, the concept is applied to a variety of situations including cyber-bullying, child-protection work, social work with young drug users, romantic relationships, doctor / patient relationship around thyroid treatment, and even the Kiev uprising of 2013/14.  

Liminal hotspots, wicked problems, troubled becoming… you’re introducing me to all sorts of new terminology. How do you caution against your ideas becoming overly jargonistic, and detached from the real world? I'm wondering what Mick Billig would make of it all…
Mick Billig’s work was a big inspiration for me, and I buy his argument about the need to repopulate psychology with concrete people and situations, and to avoid a spurious jargon which presents what are in fact abstractions (cognitive mechanisms, personality traits, etc) as if they were the real concrete things. But, as Mick would be the first to agree, there are two sides to every story, and two horns to every dilemma. Sometimes the use of unfamiliar words is pure jargon, but sometimes it is necessary to find a new form of words to describe an unfamiliar territory. Ordinary language is a tricky thing and it shapes our concepts and our ways of thinking without us noticing. We think of the mind, for example, as a kind of substance because the word is a noun, and then we qualify that substance with predicates (a fast mind, for instance). This makes communication about the simple things easy and convenient, but it deceives us when it comes to the complexities, and ‘psychology’ is pretty complex. For example, as soon as we want to express the idea that mind is not in fact a substance, but a process, our familiar words and forms of expression fail us.

So I excuse myself the odd foray into unfamiliar language, although I do feel an obligation to bring things back to common sense. But only once that common sense has been challenged a little. In fact I have had this argument with Mick. I like to think that he agreed with me.  

We all like to think that!
Albert Camus said ‘Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself’. Is there plenty of scope in your approach for it to be both, and what’s your assessment of the current health of the discipline in that respect?
That’s a lovely quotation, and I have long maintained that the great writers are amongst the very best psychologists. But you are right, my approach would question Camus’ ‘either / or’ assumption and take a ‘both / and’ stance: Psychology is both action and self-reflection. Camus continues by saying: ‘We continue to shape our personality all our life. To know oneself, one should assert oneself.’ For me, to quote Hamlet (when he found himself in something of a liminal hotspot) ‘ay, there’s the rub’. If only it were so easy to have such a clear knowledge of yourself that you can assert yourself, pull yourself up from your own bootstraps and shape your own personality and destiny. For many people – especially those who for reason of social disadvantage receive more than their fair share of the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ – self-assertion is not so straightforward.

So ‘action’ is easy when things are going your way?
Yes: when you run up against an obstacle, or when things are not what you had assumed them to be, those are the moments during which we tend to be thrown into ‘thinking about oneself’. Those are the points at which our selves, to paraphrase Saint Augustine, become a problem to us. But, of course, Camus is right if what he means is that we cannot stay too long in the liminal phase of self-reflection, but must work out how to go on, how to begin acting again. Camus, in his own way, is warning us not to get stuck in a liminal hotspot. He is, quite rightly, calling us to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles’. But he can only write that because he has managed to get himself unstuck, as it were, and I would hazard that he is the better writer for having escaped ‘the rub’ of a liminal hotspot. So, yes, ‘Psychology is the dialectic of action and thinking about oneself’, and it is inherently social and embodied.

You asked about the current health of the discipline in this respect. Well, I am optimistic, despite the fact that for too long psychology has tended to degenerate into an instrument for the instrumentalisation of people (to borrow a phrase from Canguilhem). There are some really positive things going on. Take the British Psychological Society conference that recently happened in Brighton, for example. In her keynote, Ros Gill gave a brilliant demonstration of how neo-liberalism can capture our subjectivity, and of why a feminist perspective is so relevant. And Peter Kinderman gave an excellent speech showing real commitment to a more open, eclectic and politically engaged psychology. He even quoted Martin Luther King insisting that there are some things in our world that we should never ‘adjust’ ourselves to. Just so.

Are you in any kind of liminal hotspot yourself?
I’ve been in a few. That’s why the concept has meaning for me. Personal experience is very important. And on a more institutional level, which UK university is not in the midst of the permanent liminality of constant re-structuring towards an end that is never quite specified? Which of us is not constantly enjoined to transform ourselves into something we are not… yet?

But these issues pale into insignificance next to those multitudes facing the seemingly endless transitions of migration, permanently suspended between ‘belonging’ and ‘not belonging’; or those facing the now routinely permanent ‘wars against terror’; or those stuck in the suspension of revolution without sign of resolution. Psychology faces some big issues here, and in tackling these issues it is important to recognise that, in my view, ‘action’ is not everything. Not long before he died, Rene Girard described history as a test that human beings are failing. We are at one of those moments during which it is necessary also to step back and to reflect. More action of the same sort may not help us. If Martin Luther King was a person of action, this is because, as we know from his most famous speech, he was also a dreamer. No action without sleep. No reason without dreams. To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub.

- Paul Stenner works with a transdisciplinary approach to social psychology that crosses several disciplinary boundaries. As well as psychology, he has published widely in significant international journals in the fields of geography, sociology, cybernetics, philosophy, education, social policy, medicine, epidemiology and human rights. His latest book is Liminality and Experience: A Transdisciplinary Approach to the Psychosocial, published by Palgrave in 2018.

- Photo: Mark Elmore

A selected sample of Paul Stenner's work is indicated below, along with a brief description.

The first introduces the new concept of 'liminal hotspots' and illustrates the concept with examples drawn from the field of health:

Greco, M. and Stenner, P  (2017) From paradox to pattern shift: Conceptualising liminal hotspots and their affective dynamics. Theory and Psychology, 27 (2): 147-166.

The second investigates the meaning of self-management for people who suffer from chronic back pain and for professionals who treat it.

Stenner, P. Cross, V. McCrum, C. McGowan, J. Defever, E. Lloyd, P. Poole, R. & Moore, Ann. (2015) Self-management of chronic low back pain: Four viewpoints from people with pain and healthcare providers Health Psychology Open, 2(2):1-11. 

The third makes a case for the value of understanding human emotional experience through the lens of liminality, and illustrates this value through a study of Spanish practices of organ donation. 

Stenner, P. and Moreno, Eduardo (2013). Liminality and affectivity: the case of deceased organ donation. Subjectivity, 6(3) 229–253. 

The fourth provides a critique of the concept of happiness at play in the positive psychology movement, and proposes a critical alternative. 

Greco, M. and Stenner, P. (2013). Happiness and the art of life: diagnosing the psychopolitics of wellbeing. Health, Culture and Society, 5(1): 1-19.

The fifth develops a processual account of the occupation of space and uses this to explore why so many British people enjoy gardening. 

Stenner, P. Church, A. & Bhatti, M. (2012) ‘Human–landscape relations and the occupation of space: experiencing and expressing domestic gardens’. Environment and Planning A 44(7) 1712 – 1727

The sixth is a study of how older people make sense of the concept of active ageing.

Stenner, P., McFarquhar, T. & Bowling, A. (2011) Older People and ‘Active Ageing’: Subjective aspects of ageing actively and becoming old. Journal of Health Psychology, 16(3), pp. 467-477.

An overview of Stenner's distinctive transdisciplinary approach is provided in the following book chapter:

Stenner, P (2015) A transdisciplinary psychosocial approach. In K. Slaney, J Martin and J Sugarman (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology: Methods, Approaches and New Directions for Social Science. New York: Wiley.