Review: Paul Stenner, Liminality and Experience

Review of Paul Stenner, Liminality and Experience: A Transdisciplinary Approach to the Psychosocial (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 297 pages, £74.96 

Reviewed by Robbie Duschinsky and Samantha Reisz

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Liminality and Experience develops an approach to thinking that can illuminate the future of psychosocial approaches on producing effects of in/stability. A central concern of Liminality and Experience is the recognition the self is formed and sustained in a wider context of social forces and structures, though is not reducible to that context. Stenner argues that the processes that sustain, enable, and compose our lives are never fully stable and some instability is required for their sustenance and continuation. Liminal experience can be entered through any discrepancy of expectations and can be exited in multiple ways. What is critical to Stenner are the diversity of resources available for symbolising and making sense of such encounters. Stenner theorises as potential mechanisms for producing the affects that facilitate effective fabulation. This fascinating book offers exciting concepts and provides applicable resources to think about our experiences, their conditions, and consequences.

Paul Stenner is a leading figure in the field of critical psychology, currently serving as President of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology, and as President of the Association for Process Thought. Liminality and Experience is a genuinely remarkable, transdisciplinary accomplishment. Rather than a ‘top down’ theory, Liminality and Experience instead develops an approach to thinking, one which can shed light where the social and psychological are bound together in producing effects of stability and/or instability. In demonstrating its claims, Liminality and Experience takes a big canvass, meaningfully encompassing revelry and loneliness, dogs and humans, physical matter and life, consciousness and symbolic communication. It also ranges widely through the ideas of process thinkers such as Winnicott and G.H. Mead (Chap. 1), Bergson and Deleuze (Chap. 2), Langer (Chap. 3), Foucault and William James (Chap. 4), Schutz (Chap. 5) and Whitehead (Chap. 6).

The book is published as part of Palgrave’s ‘Studies in the Psychosocial’ series. Psychosocial research has been a growing area over the past ten years. Though varied, studies in this tradition tend to be marked by a concern to bring together psychological and sociological approaches, on the basis of a recognition that the self is formed within a wider context of social forces and structures, but is not reducible to this context. This predicament is the central concern of Stenner’s book. Influenced by Szakolczai (2000), Stenner argues that, though the concept of the liminal was first applied in understanding rites of passage, this is only a small part of the concept’s applicability. The forms of process that sustain, enable, and compose our lives are never fully stable, and indeed require some instability for their sustenance and continuation. Stenner terms this ‘ontological liminality’. Encounters with this instability form a sensitive threshold or hotspot for psychosocial structures. Of course these encounters are often avoided. We can defer them in time, and dodge or sequester them in space. Though such techniques for dodging liminality have been Stenner’s concern elsewhere (e.g. Greco & Stenner 2017), his particular focus in Liminality and Experience is on what happens when liminality is, indeed, encountered.

Stenner’s attention to the valence of psychosocial instability for experience is very welcome, as this is a profoundly urgent issue today, with relevance to scholarship across the social and political sciences. We live in a society and economy that are routinely described as requiring a state of permanent change for ourselves and our institutions. We are enjoined to self-manage and self-maximise within a terrain of instability, change, precarity, uncertainty, and restructuring; we are stuck in transition, always in potential conflict with ourselves in seeking to be adequately ready for what may come. Stenner is interested in the possibilities and dangers of junctures of transition, as well as in the nature of our experience of these junctures. Drawing on earlier work (Brown & Stenner, 2009), Liminality and Experience highlights four distinguishable aspects of human experience. Stenner deploys this set of distinctions to counter tendencies in psychology towards cognitive and/or biological reductionism, tendencies in sociology towards social or discursive reductionism, and tendencies in philosophy towards reification and shallowness in thinking about the role of the world in shaping subjectivity. One mode of experience is perception, or the ‘presentational immediacy’ of our encounter with the world. This is the domain of sense. Countering traditions in philosophy, psychology, and sociology that assume our experience is fed solely by the senses, Stenner describes a second mode of experience which comprises the energies granted by the immediate past, lines of movement, and potential movement based in how the past has affected or been affected by us. A third mode of experience is the conceptual, our thoughts about the world, memory, and imagination. And a fourth mode is the discursive, experience as organised through language. In this way, Stenner situates his account as contrary to certain forms of social science scholarship that methodologically reduce what we sense, expect, and think to the discursive, which he sees as only one of four modalities of experience. Whilst bound up together, Stenner argues persuasively that analysis of one of these modes alone is likely to provide an adequate account of the other three. Liminal experiences occur when these modes of experience enter into disjuncture, puncturing ordinary life, and its attempts to smooth together the modes of experience for pragmatic purposes.

Stenner draws an analytical distinction between different forms of such disjuncture, dividing such encounters into spontaneous liminal experiences (events that befall us) and devised liminal experiences (artfully contrived experience). Both kinds of experience are regarded by Stenner as leading to a sense of disturbance, despite their differences, as we no longer have a smooth sense of how to proceed. Stenner terms such disturbance as a ‘this-is-not experience’, since it disrupts the expectations fed by the four modes of experience. He draws from Bergson and Deleuze the concept of ‘fabulation’ to describe the passage from disturbing event to creative intuition, and the potential regrouping of resources for what might be done next. With Shelleyian flourish, Stenner’s examples tend to dramatize this scene of disruption and intuition as the passage from the depths of surprised concern to the heights of inspiration. Stenner characterises this as the movement from ‘uh oh!’ to ‘ah ha!’ His account lends itself to thinking about discussions across the social sciences of the relationship between adversity and transformation, such as revolution in politics, identity politics and solidarity in political sociology, quest narratives in health sociology, and post-traumatic growth in psychology. But Stenner’s argument does not rest on its predominant examples. His approach illuminates other forms of ‘disruption’ with rather different narrative forms, where modes of experience conflict. For instance, at points in Liminality and Experience, Stenner also tackles discrepancies with incremental aspects, such as the experience of physical aging. He also considers pleasant or replenishing experiences of discrepancy between modes of experience, such as daydreaming or play, which need not imply a worried sense of ‘uh oh!’ Likewise, though Stenner’s predominant cases of fabulation imply cultural innovation, he is clear that there are important forms of fabulation that do not lead to this result, and instead become uncontrolled rage, cynicism, complacency, or paralysis.

Depending on context, we can enter into a liminal experience by any discrepancy either within or from our expectations, and we can exit it in a number of ways. What is critical, for Stenner, are the resources available for symbolising and making sense of such encounters. These resources can be highly diverse. Outside of office hours, Stenner is the lead singer of a Brighton-based rock band and personally interested in the capacity of music to symbolise our feelings and articulate them in an expressive form through rises and falls, tones and timbres, rhythms and refrains. In earlier work, Stenner explored the way that physical and biological properties of gardens can contribute material patterns that afford ways of symbolising and destabilising our position within the human world (Stenner et al., 2012). Another set of resources that interest Stenner are the ‘biological infrastructures’ of embodied liminal experience, such as human illness and the construction of health subcultures. However, in Liminality and Experience, his particular focus is on the resources provided by visual art for disruption and for fabulation, and visual art figures prominently as an object for thought across the book. Stenner treats such art forms as a feeling that has been symbolically transformed by the conditions of artistic production, making it available as a prompt for feeling. This may include familiar feelings, though depending on the consumer, resources of the art form, and context of use, exposure to cultural forms may permit forms of feeling, and hence of thinking, otherwise out towards the edge of familiarity or even availability.

Though Stenner is critical of tendencies in contemporary social science to overload the concept of ‘affect’, which can cause confusion, he praises how attention to affect and feeling has trained attention on the domain of the not-yet-formed within transpersonal experience, beyond immediate conscious awareness or immediate discursive availability. Cultural forms, such as the arts, are theorised by Stenner as potential ‘liminal affective technologies’. By ‘liminal affective technologies’, he means mechanisms for producing the affects that facilitate effective fabulation. The application of this new concept is perhaps the most exciting offer of an already-fascinating book. In a contemporary context in which permanent change has become the rule – where sense, expectation, thought, and discourse are unlikely to align well in orienting behaviour – technologies and tools that stimulate the feelings we need for effective and creative response have risen to prominence. These include the music that motivates us to exercise or calms us on the way to work, directing discrepant senses back into familiar, needed routine. The daydreams that permit reprieve, channelling discrepancies into the fabulation of playful thinking. The painkillers that hold the physical and mental fallout at bay, and keep discrepancies from becoming disruptive. The conversations with friends that help bring together what we sense and what we think, offering lines of identification, renewed courage, and a world that feels more intelligible and tractable. And the books, like Liminality and Experience especially, that stimulate curiosity and provide clear and applicable resources to think differently about our experiences, their conditions, and consequences.


Brown, S, & Stenner, P (2009) Psychology Without Foundations: History, Philosophy and Psychosocial Theory. London, UK: Sage

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.

Szakolczai, Á (2000) Reflexive Historical Sociology. London, UK: Routledge


Dr Robbie Duschinsky is University Lecturer in Social Sciences at Cambridge University, and Head of the Applied Social Sciences Group within the Primary Care Unit.
Dr. Samantha Reisz is a Wellcome Trust Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar at Cambridge University, working with Dr. Duschinsky’s Applied Social Science Group.