Have you ever sat in an Airport lounge about to board a plane and realised that you could be anyone, going anywhere, to do anything in that moment? This is an experience that got me thinking about being ‘in limbo’ and the terrific sense of possibilities that this limbo state allows or permits.
The following extract comes from a covert observation I conducted as an exercise for an assignment some years ago. It allowed me to think about liminal spaces and childhood.
“I was sitting waiting to board my plane at an airport when I heard a rhythm pattern obviously being made by more than one ‘instrument’ coming towards me down the open walkway which was beside me. It prompted me to remember my observation assignment and I happened to have a notebook and pen to hand so decided on the spur of the moment to observe what seemed to me to be an unexpected and interesting occurrence.
The observation lasted forty five minutes until my flight was called for boarding. I wrote freely as I watched and noted interactions or events of interest. I did not add my own comments or thoughts at this time – it was purely descriptive. Spradley (1980) suggests that descriptive observations are ineffective yet I found it was what occurred naturally. Mulhall (2003) argues that however hard we try to be objective an unconscious analysis of events is still taking place. Two days later I reflected on my field-notes. These reflections led to more abstract thinking about the location in particular and the effect it might have on behaviour.
What initiated the observation at that particular moment was the sound of the rattling sweetie tins and the rhythm that was being co-created by the 3 sisters who came into view by which time I had my notebook and pen ready to write: “3 girls (sisters) 5, 9,12-ish are shaking sweetie tins and making a rhythm as they walk together.”
Once I saw it was children making the rhythm pattern I decided to observe children in the walkway and this led me to my initial thought; do children use the walkway differently to adults?
In the 45 minute observation I saw nine ‘events’ involving children. In five of these ‘events’ the children were acting in a ‘different’ way to adults.
Describing actions as being ‘different’ is a social-construction, it carries with it notions of what society deems appropriate adult behaviour and likewise appropriate child behaviour.
“A small boy comes off the plane (at my gate) he stands in front of me with his back to me and looks as though he’s pulling up both sides of his underpants through his trousers!”
“Girl (about 9 years) as she enters the gangway does a small ‘breakdance’ and sings a little tune as she crosses to the shop.”
“2 boys (about 7 – 9 years) walking with their parents – pushing against each other using the space, filling the walkway.” Taken from field notes 12.6.11
All these activities were acceptable to us because they were carried out by children. There were many cultures assembled in this space and several languages being spoken. However the acceptance of child-like behaviour seemed universal to all of us. It was a northern European airport so that may have determined, to some extent, the demographics of the population. It seems that certain behaviours are acceptable when performed by children in a public setting but would be unacceptable if performed by adults.
Who has decided this? How has it come to be this way? At what stage do we stop being children?
The observation also included ‘events’ of staff activity. In a three-minute period there were seven separate ‘events’ involving staff.
“Stock trolleys are rolled up and unloaded, staff use shopping trolleys to transport stock.”
“Man goes past on a pedal scooter-thing, (to get from one end of the shopping mall to the other speedily)…another woman walks past pushing a trolley of dishwasher crates.” Taken from fieldnotes 12.6.11
All staff had a demeanour which showed that the space was known and comfortable to them. It was not ‘special’- it was a workplace. Their body language was relaxed, comfortable and efficient.
Reflexive Thoughts: Taken from Reflection Notes 15.6.11
Questions arising from these data:
- Do different groups use this space differently?
- Is there something about the space being in an airport that affects the way people use it?
My reflections focused on staff and passengers; “we were two groups in the airport mall. Staff – not going anywhere and Travellers – coming or going somewhere.”
…This was an opportunity to watch people in an ‘in-between space’ for some – and a work space, firmly rooted for others” In the margin I wrote “Liminality? Use of the spaces on the edge.”
I also spent time thinking about my role as the researcher; “I was a travelling participant observer – Firmly in the liminal camp…aware of the feelings I had about leaving a place and returning to another one. I had a sense of being ‘between’ a slight sense of disconnection to my normal life. I could be anyone, going anywhere. No one knew me. The feeling I have is one of freedom and liberation knowing that this time is limited and passing.
Arnold Van Gennep describes a time when countries were surrounded by strips of neutral ground. These zones gathered a ‘sacredness’ about them and when passing through a neutral zone from one country to another a traveller finds him/herself “physically and magico-religiously in a special place…this symbolic and spatial area of transition…” Van Gennep (1960, p. 18)
Turner (2009) describes three phases to rites de passage or transition; Separation, margin (limen: or threshold) and aggregation. The separation phase includes symbolic behavior of detachment from a fixed point in the social structure with its set of cultural conditions. During the next intervening ‘liminal’ period the characteristics of the ‘liminal’ subject are ambiguous. In the final phase the passage is completed. The individual returns to a stable state again with rights and obligations as before. These rights and obligations have clearly defined customary norms and ethical standards of social position.
It occurred to me that elements of Van Gennep’s and Turner’s description of transitions were present in my state of consciousness at that time and may have been for other passengers. Does this inner state affect how we act in the social world?” end of extract
I’d like to suggest that Music plays a part in creating a liminal environment…Structured sounds can help separate us from the everyday. To cross into a group music-making space can perhaps feel like crossing over a strip of neutral ground into another ‘country’ or ‘world’ with different cultural practices and traditions. I have noticed both parents and young children behave differently in a group music-making session to other parent-child group activities (Pitt, 2014). There is a sense of liberation and freedom that music, perhaps through its structured ordering of time, permits and enables. In the group music-making ‘world’ it is possible to move away from what is expected of a ‘parent’ or ‘child’ into a space where these roles become more ambiguous: playfulness is for all and ritual and symbolism can give rise to creative explosions and expressions that the ‘normal world’ wouldn’t allow.
There can be a sense of separation from everyday routines and expectations as you cross over into the music group that is liberating and free-ing. A little like being ‘in limbo’, as I experienced at the airport: I could be anyone, going anywhere, about to do anything…and this seems to be true for the music group: You can take on a different persona, inhabit a social world that is different from your everyday and therefore do differently. When the group finishes you can safely return to your expected role of parent, of child, of family support worker of early years practitioner. This altered ambiguous space is held or contained by the music, which orders and organises the time spent together in the group so that the group experiences a sense of ‘flow’ together as the music excites, or calms or provokes. You journey along and reach the end of the session having experienced something in place and time that cements the group as a whole. You can be changed through the group process of ‘flow’ – the musical experience can enhance the sense of belonging.
For me it is a truly liminal space which seems to represent some of the qualities that Van Gennep (1960, p.18) describes as “… a special place… [a] symbolic and spatial area of transition…”
Mulhall, A. (2003). In the field:notes on observation in qualitative research. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 41(3), 306-313.
Pitt, J. (2014) An exploratory study of the role of music with participants in children’s centres. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Roehampton
Spradley, J. (1980) Participant observation.” Wadsworth, Belmont, USA.
Turner, V. (2009). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick, USA: Aldine Transaction.
Van Gennep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.