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Is Theresa May leading the UK into a liminal hot spot?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:00

This week's blog is from Professor Paul Stenner, a member of the DD317 production team. He introduces a new social psychological concept which may offer some insights to the current Prime Minister.

On the 17th January this year Theresa May gave a long-awaited speech about how her government plan to manage Brexit. She announced 12 upbeat objectives, but she also said that these are to be realized in what she called a ‘phased approach’, which will mean a more or less lengthy period of interim arrangements that we will be obliged to work with until, for example, a new legal framework for financial services is established. In the middle of the speech she made the following interesting remark about her interim phase:

‘By this I do not mean that we will seek some form of unlimited transitional status in which we find ourselves stuck forever in some kind of permanent political purgatory. That would not be good for Britain.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-brexit-speech-latest-no-long-lasting-transitional-deal-eu-european-union-trade-deals-a7531286.html

This is a good example of one of the many ways in which Theresa May has tried to reassure the public by presenting herself as a strong and stable leader, committed to pursuing the interests of the country as a whole. For the same reason she stated quite emphatically on several occasions that she would not call a ‘snap’ election because of its likely de-stabilizing effects. When she broke her word on this in April, and left the country just 6 weeks to prepare for the election on June 8th, this was because she felt certain she would secure a landslide victory for the Conservatives. Instead she lost her majority along with much of her credibility. More importantly, however, she has increased the likelihood that the Brexit negotiations will approximate her scenario of ‘permanent political purgatory’.      

In fact, this scenario that Theresa May called ‘unlimited transitional status’ is not just a rhetorical gesture that works to scare people into supporting government policies. It is actually quite a good description of a very real phenomenon that can play itself out at numerous levels and scales, from micro level interpersonal dynamics, through institutions, all the way to the macro level of large-scale historical events.

The expression I’ve coined to get at this social psychological idea is the ‘liminal hotspot’. The value of the concept of liminal hotspots is that it illuminates common features in settings that might otherwise appear unconnected. Johanna Motzkau, Monica Greco and myself recently edited a Special Issue of Theory and Psychology on the topic of liminal hotspots (published in April, 2017). In the Special Issue, the concept is applied to a variety of situations including cyber-bullying, social work with young drug users, romantic relationships and even the Kiev uprising of 2013/14.

In anthropology, the word liminal is used to name the middle phase of what Arnold van Gennep called a ‘rite of passage’.  Gennep showed that rites of passage have three phases: first the ‘rites of separation’ which separate people from their previous role and identity niche, and third the ‘rites of incoporation’ where the new status is ceremonially conferred and recognized. The liminal phase is the second or middle phase: a phase of transition. It is an unusual phase in which the normal rules and expectations that limit what people can feel, say and do are temporarily suspended. Victor Turner called this a ‘betwixt and between’ phase because people going through a liminal transition are no longer what they were, but not yet what they will become. Liminal transitions can be of enormous social psychological importance because they are situations in which people become something different, and hence begin to acquire new forms of subjectivity and know-how appropriate to new roles and social identities. But this transitional phase is also a limited phase in the sense that it ends with some sort of re-entry into social and psychological business-as-usual. We are interested in what happens when the transitional status is, to use Theresa May’s word, ‘unlimited’.

The sociologist Arpad Szakolczai – who has an article in our Special Issue - has shown that the concept of liminality has particular relevance in today’s unpredictable world, where it often tends to become permanent. Building on this work, we argue that rather than being purely a stage of transition, it is possible to get 'stuck' in liminality. Indeed, in many societies, a temporary phase of transition from one stable circle of activity to another is becoming less and less likely, and liminality is the norm.

What we call ‘liminal hotspots’ can be glossed as occasions in which people feel caught in a transition that has become permanent and uncertainty and tension acquire enduring qualities.

Might Theresa May be leading our country into just such a liminal hotspot?

More about liminal hotspots can be found in a recent interview I gave with Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist Read the full interview.

You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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