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    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

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Friday, April 3, 2020

What anthropology teaches us about coping with transitions

By Shameen Prashantham 

One of the unanticipated happenings in the early stages of my professional life as a business school academic was that I ended up reading several books and articles by social anthropologists about ritual in general and rites of passage in particular. This occurred in my very first academic job as a postdoctoral researcher, working on a project about how organizations develop strategy through periodic events or episodes such as away-days and workshops, which can take on a ritualistic character – hence my introduction to the writings of anthropologists like Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. Having previously studied economics and international business, this was all very new to me. But, as often happens when one is well out of one’s comfort zone, my eyes were opened to new insights. For example, a fascinating concept that social anthropologists talk about is liminality.

Liminality describes the “betwixt-and-between” condition that is experienced during a transition when one is no longer in the original state but hasn’t quite reached the new one. This was originally seen in rites of passage involving the transition of boys to men (initiation rites) which could last for several weeks. Three insights can be gleaned about liminality. First, liminality has a double-edged nature in that the novelty of the situation can be both cognitively confounding and liberating at the same time. That is, there is scope to try new things and yet it can also be a disorienting phase. Second, liminal transition is often accompanied by sources of scaffolding or support through self-reflection, peer-learning and guidance from elders (experts). Third, actors vary in their maturity and thus ability to cope with the rigors of transitional challenges; for instance, not all initiands are physically ready for their social transition.

As I read about liminality, I began to perceive potential to apply these ideas to other transitions that we engage in. Specifically, I could see parallels with another research area of mine – the internationalization of new ventures. While going international can help new ventures grow, it poses a considerable burden since these firms must learn new capabilities under severe resource constraints to succeed in international markets. Thus we have a tension: internationalization increases the odds of growing rapidly but lowers the odds of survival for new ventures. Where I could see the notion of liminality being usefully applied was in reflecting more about the transition that these firms make during the internationalization process, which involves making sense of new environments and improvising in the face of unexpected setbacks, as they seek to grow and survive.

In a recent paper co-authored with Steve Floyd in Journal of Business Venturing, I have conceptualized how new ventures navigate liminality as they internationalize. Applying the insights regarding liminality noted above, we highlight three main ideas. First, both a vulnerability and an opportunity are simultaneously heightened during transitions: If a new venture’s entrepreneur is overwhelmed by distorted thinking during this liminal period, he or she may panic and take fatal missteps, including overreaching into high-cost new markets with insufficient resources. On the other hand, if the confusion inherent in this process can be contained and the potential creativity of this stage harnessed, then new capabilities can be built. Thus liminality theory helps to distinguish between measured and reckless improvisation. Second, utilizing scaffolding is an important way of avoiding liminality’s negative effects by facilitating reflective learning, peer learning and consultative learning in conjunction with mentors. A practical manifestation of such support is the use of business incubators. Where these are not available, entrepreneurs may avail of mentors and peers through other means such as advisory boards or education. Third, entrepreneurial personality influences entrepreneurs’ propensity for using such scaffolding: those that are confident (but not overconfident) in their abilities are more likely to use scaffolding.

Overall, our conceptualization highlights the value of “transitioning capability” – which is the ability to harness the creativity of liminality while avoiding its confounding potential – when one is making a transition to new milestones or destinations with limited resources. This is true of much of entrepreneurship. It even has application in publishing academic research. Indeed, this paper has had quite a liminal journey: although an early version presented at a conference in 2013 was nominated for an award, it was subsequently rejected at three journals before finally getting published in 2019. In a completely different realm, Brexit, as I follow the news I can’t help thinking politicians could do a better job at navigating liminality. And on a more philosophical – and poignant note – life itself is liminal. The article is dedicated to Nicole Bourque, an anthropologist at Glasgow University who left us too soon. Reminding us that life is transitory and to cherish each moment may be the most valuable insight that a liminality perspective offers.

Shameen Prashantham is Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at China Europe International Business School. His research primarily focuses on what he calls “dancing with gorillas” – partnering between large corporations and startups. Learn more about his interests on his faculty page.

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