OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Stephanie Taylor

The Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot

Visible to anyone in the world

A new paper by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic and the special difficulties that it poses for thinking about the future. Here, David Kaposi presents an abridged version of the paper. He begins by considering the Queen's recent address to the nation:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed - and that success will belong to every one of us… We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. (5th April, 2020)

Queen Elizabeth II here shows that it requires no special expertise, social psychological or philosophical, to conceptualise this phase of global pandemic and ‘lockdown’ as a period of suspended normality. Surely an essential characteristic of such a state of suspension is that it will end, that we will overcome? Following the lockdown, ‘we will meet again’. But how do we think about this period of suspended life? Here the event is simply positioned in-between a stable past (A) and a stable future (B). This suspension may be global in scope, and last longer than hoped, but nevertheless – to use a metaphor that has recently proliferated – we are invited to think of the suspension as an instance in which life has pressedpause. The suspension will pass and a ‘new normal’ will return. The suspension is thus figured merely as an element in an ordinary narrative sequence (or in the narrative sequence of the ordinary). 

Yet, in attempting to reassure us by assimilating the current period into a larger narrative sequence in which ‘we’ll meet again’, the Queen’s speech cannot help ‘raising’ the more disturbing spectre of what it is reassuring us against – the possibility of ‘us not meeting again’, either because ‘we’ are dead, or because ‘we' are not we anymore. The current events actually have the power to transform us beyond recognition. Together, the two seeming solidities explicitly invoked by the Queen serve as the frame for this unstable chasm that threatens the now. They draw attention away from the chasm as if ‘we’ must notlook down into it.

In our paper, we argue, the words of the Monarch notwithstanding, that we do need to look down into the chasm. It is important to grant the phase of transition the dignity of its own reality, because to create our future it is essential that we engage with what happens in the transitional chasm itself: the unsettling force of this in-between, the suspension of the norms that hitherto had constituted us. To this end, our paper proposes that we should recognise the worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown as liminal events. 

Understood in this way, the pause cannot be equated with something familiar like the pausing of a song we have been listening to. Instead, we need to understand how it can be that the song that plays after the pause may be different from what was playing before. And furthermore, we may find that the song we thought was playing before the pause may turn out to have been an entirely different one.  We need to understand how a liminal event inaugurates a period of radical uncertainty which can disrupt and re-order expectations of the future, re-configure memories of the past, and thereby transform the very seat of reality: the present.

And what are the human capacities required to deal with such radical uncertainty? Uncertainty and paradox (where our lives no longer conform to the past nor yet to the future) engender a phase of anxiety: we shift from rumination and no engagement with action, to attempts to escape into unthought solutions. Our paper argues that, on the contrary, what is required to shift from paradox to pattern change is a zone where thought meets reality, and where action is imaginative and thought is creative.

What was unsayable at the time the Queen spoke (and our paper was originally written) was that the lockdown, to point to just one obvious aspect, will not simply go away now that it has entered our lives. Naturally, the first weeks were dominated by the idea that the lockdownwill one day be lifted – yet this expectation already strikes us today as coming from a different world. On one level, we now know that distancing measures will be revoked, then re-introduced, maybe here and maybe there. The blanket ‘all or nothing’ approach will be replaced by a new rhythm and precision. Yet this will not simply be a matter of political measures. A previously more or less unknown entity has now entered our political, social and personal realities and is interacting with them in ways we have even not begun to understand. What it makes of us will depend upon what we will make of it. And this will require the blend of ideals and practicality that underpin creative thought and imaginative action. 

The original paper Virus ante portas:  the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot' by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi will be published here(https://diecisiete.org/ Full publication details will be available on ORO, the Open University research depository

You can read about David Kaposi's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

You can read about Paul Stenner's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ps7476

Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

The importance of art and film for psychology

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 30 Mar 2020, 22:38

A new publication from the School of Psychology and Counselling challenges psychologists to take art and film seriously, especially during times of crisis when people go through 'liminal experiences'. 

The article is the result of a collaboration between Professor Paul Stenner from the Open University and Professor Tania Zittoun from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The online first version has just appeared in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. 

Tania Zittoun is well known for her work on how people use 'symbolic resources' - such as films and novels - to help them through difficult times of transition, and the paper integrates her approach with Paul Stenner's recent work on liminal experiences. These are experiences during which transformative events can leave those going through them in an 'in-between' phase in which they are no longer what they were (in the past) but not yet what they may become (in the future). In such situations people are, in short, suspended between worlds. These experiences can vary from being limited to the individual (e.g. loosing a job at a crucial moment, suffering an intimate bereavement) to society level phenomena (as many from the UK experienced during the height of uncertainty around Brexit), and they can even be global - as shown by the disruptive and transformative effect of the current corona-virus pandemic.    

The new paper, however, does not simply argue that film and other symbolic resources can be helpful to people going through important changes. It also shows that films and art-works more generally can contain valuable insights for all who are interested in psychology

Stenner and Zittoun approach these two related issues in an innovative way through a socio-cultural analysis of a major film: Inception (directed by Christopher Nolan). Their analysis shows how the film stimulates and draws upon imagination just at the moment that it is most needed, due to the way in which transformative experiences can erode the difference between reality and appearance. A person's capacity to imagine a new future is most needed precisely when their future is cast into doubt, and their capacity to re-imagine the past is most needed when a gulf seems to separate what they were from what they now are. But how can psychology - which tends to start with an assumed distinction between objective fact and subjective fancy - cope with these high levels of contingency and uncertainty that are so characteristic of liminal occasions?  

The article shows how Nolan's movie - and art more generally - works dynamically with tensions between fact and fiction, taking these as part of experience, and - if all goes well - providing a space for re-imagining collective and individual existence. Art alone is, of course, not enough: but it can play a vital role. In other recent publications and talks, Professor Stenner has shown how comparable findings extend also to novels (like the Magic Mountain) and plays (like Hamlet), and Professor Zittoun has written extensively on the nature of the imagination.


Stenner, P and Zittoun, T (2020) On taking a leap of faith. Art, Imagination and liminal experiences. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. March, online first.

Stenner, P. and Greco, M. (2018). On The Magic Mountain: The novel as liminal affective technology. International Political Anthropology, 11(1): 43-60.

 Zittoun, T and Gillespie, A. (2016). Imagination in human and cultural development. London: Routledge.

You can read more details about the paper here: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fteo0000148

 An interview with Paul Stenner from The Psychologist in which he talks about the concept of 'liminal hotspots' can be accessed here: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-31/march-2018/incitement-become-different-can-be-both-thrilling-and-terrifying

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

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.




Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

Visible to anyone in the world

In a series on the research of senior academics in the School of Psychology and Counselling, this week's blog presents some recent publications and other activities of Paul Stenner, Professor of Social Psychology.

This August, Paul Stenner (Professor of Social Psychology, OU) gave the ‘Innovations in Psychology Lecture’ at Aalborg University, Denmark. The ‘Innovations’ lecture series takes over from the former Niels Bohr Lectures in which leading researchers in the field of Cultural Psychology are invited to present their research. The lecture is subsequently published in an edited volume along with a number of commentaries from invited experts. The theme of this year’s event was ‘theorizing liminality: between art and life’, and Paul Stenner talked about the liminal sources of cultural experience. Liminal experience, Paul Stenner argues, is essentially about becoming. It is experience of a significant transformation, from the perspective of those going through that experience, as it is happening. The innovative idea proposed in the lecture is that various forms of cultural experience, including reading novels, watching movies, enjoying sports and participating in religious events, share a common liminal source. Put differently, they are a means for guiding people through a passage from one world to another: a passage in which they may undergo a transformation. From this perspective, cultural artefacts show up as fundamental to human psychology and society, and liminal experience shows up as a crucial factor in human evolution, in personal development through the lifespan, and in social change over historical time. Further details about the event, including access to the lecture itself, are available here:


For psychologists who are readers of German, Paul Stenner has also just published a book chapter on liminality and emotional experience in a German volume on cultural psychology entitled Kulturpsychologie in interdisziplinärer Perspektive: Hans-Kilian-Vorlesungen zur sozial-und kulturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie und integrativen Anthropologie (Psychosozial Verlag, 2019). This book gathers together all the recent invited lectures given as part of the Hans Kilian Lecture Series in Cultural Psychology organised at Bocchum University in Germany. The volume also contains chapters by Mary and Ken Gergen, Jaan Valsiner, David Bloor and others, who also gave Hans Kilian lectures. Details can be found here: https://www.psychosozial-verlag.de/2275

Also newly published is an article by Paul Stenner and the Danish social scientist Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen from the Copenhagen Business School. The paper starts with the observation that managers across many contemporary organisations are nowadays talking more and more about the importance of ‘expecting the unexpected’ and of ‘thinking the impossible’. Alongside this talk we also find a range of techniques and devices which are supposed to encourage and help the workforce to ‘think outside the box’ and to ‘imagine a different future’. Empirically, the paper is based on a study of a range of these management techniques and organisational innovations like ‘future games’ and ‘drama interventions’, which the authors group together as technologies of potentialization. After a detailed analysis of three such potentialization technologies, they propose that these function as immune mechanisms within contemporary welfare states. This involves a careful discussion of the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann, who proposes that society has something equivalent to an ‘immune system’, and that law is a good example of a social immune mechanism. Potentialization, it is suggested, is taking shape as a new way of immunizing society against its own social structures. Intrigued? An early access version of the article appears in the journal Theory, Culture and Society, as referenced below:

Andersen, Niels, Å and Stenner, Paul (2019). Social immune mechanisms: Luhmann and potentialisation technologies. Theory, Culture & Society (Early Access).

Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

Changing our thinking: Process and progress

Visible to anyone in the world

Can we break out of established ways of thinking? Are there new ways to understand ourselves in the world? This week's blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology reports on research from psychologists who belong to the Association for Process Thought (APT). As the name suggests, their research begins by looking not at how the world 'is' but at the ongoing processes (actions, movements, change) that make up our social environment. The blog, by Professor Paul Stenner, reports on some of the research presented at the APT's meeting in June 2018.

At this meeting of the Association of Process Thought, there were presentations which all used the concept of process to open up new ways of understanding three very different but important aspects of contemporary life: religion, intimate relationships, and environmental destruction.

The first presentation, by Martin Savransky (Goldsmiths College, University of London), considered how we might understand experiences that are often dismissed as irrational, including religious experiences. The presentation discussed a book by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann called When God Talks Back, about charismatic evangelists. Rather than focussing on ‘belief’, Luhrmann’s work is consistent with a processual account that concerns the felt reality of religious experience. Through asking her participants how they experience the unseen reality of God, Luhrmann is able to show the relative irrelevance of heady thought in comparison to a slow relationship of feeling, embodied and embedded within practices.  Arguably, this emphasis on process enables a different understanding of religious experience, escaping from the now clichéd and obstructive question of whether God exists.

The second presentation, Process in action: Relational drug use, by Dr Katie Andersen, concerned intimate couple relationships. Again, rather than focussing on what intimacy 'is', the presentation approached intimacy as a set of practices. This opens up possibilities of understanding the significance of movement, space and material objects for relationships. Andersen's research considers how chemical interventions, specifically the use of the drug MDMA, can contribute to the creation of new subjectivities which alter boundaries within the self, between self and other, and between self and world. In a social world where recreational drug use is increasingly prevalent, this possibly contentious research considers how such use might function within contemporary lives.

The third presentation, Bio-semiotics and Integral ecology, was given by Dr John Pickering from the University of Warwick. His concern is the geopolitical reality of our time in which ecological degradation follows the vast and technologically mediated global increase in human numbers, associated with a widening gap between rich and poor, and the ongoing political struggles to control remaining planetary resources, like water. In this context, he suggests, there is a pressing need for new relational and processual modes of thought. He proposes a shift from mechanistic being (mere existence) to organic becoming (productive happening), suggesting that this ushers in a new understanding of the world at all levels, from the workings of the brain and mind, through to the organic interactions animating the minutest portions of life and evolution. His argument is that this kind of radical re-thinking is needed in order to address a problem of such magnitude.

Of course this brief overview of the presentations cannot cover the details of the arguments but it indicates some of the interdisciplinary thinking which is taking forward the field of social psychology.

Our Level 3 module, Advancing social psychology, offers students the opportunity to explore new developments in social psychology, including in their independent study. To learn more about DD317, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 102535