In Rebecca Solnit’s exploration of the ways human communities come together in the midst of disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, she tells the story of the great Halifax explosion of 1917. Halifax was a major shipping port that supplied the European front in WW I. A ship carrying an incredible amount of explosives caught fire in the harbor and exploded with the largest human-made blast known before the atomic bomb. Every building within a mile was destroyed. 1500 people were killed, 9000 injured and over 40 were blinded. It was an utter catastrophe.
One of the key sources for the story was the Anglican Priest-Sociologist Samuel Henry Prince. His church sheltered the homeless following the Halifax disaster. That was only a few years after he helped to search for and bury the victims of the Titanic.
Perhaps it was his direct experience with those disasters that sent him on his next quest. Only sixteen months later he was enrolled in a doctoral sociology program in Columbia University in New York. His 1920 dissertation was entitled Catastrophe and Social Change. Its premise is that a disaster begets dramatic social and political change. His study explored the nature of that change.
Though Prince never used the word “liminality” that is exactly what he described. Here are his assertions about what takes place during an involuntary, non-repeating, collective experience of disruption in a disaster:
The word ‘crisis’ is of Greek origin, meaning a point of culmination and separation, an instant when change one way or another is impending … Life becomes like molten metal. It enters a state of flux from which it must reset upon a principle, a creed, or purpose. It is shaken perhaps violently out of rut and routine. Old customs crumble, and instability rules.
He described how disasters accelerate change that was already underway or needed, breaking the hold of whatever has been preventing it from unfolding. A disaster shakes the foundations of the ordinary, propels the entire community out of the structure of the known, across a threshold and into liminal space. It is there that the reformation takes place as the unnecessary and obsolete are discarded and new wisdom is discovered.
The most stunning revelation to emerge from disaster studies and liminality is the phenomenon of “communitas” – the coined word of Victor Turner – that describes the unusual sense of bonded community that forms between people who share the same adversity. The sense of “tribe” becomes foremost and the common good the greatest priority. Even class distinctions are overridden as people draw together for survival and mutual support to face a menace that threatens the existence of all. Communitas may exist for a finite period of time, but its effects are known and felt long after the events have passed from urgency into memory.