A conversation about Third Space, Third Place, and Liminality

by catherinecronin

Photo: CC BY-SA Skyggefotografen (Flickr)

At the Networked Learning Conference 2014 in April, I began an interesting conversation with a Twitter-friend, Kathrine Jensen (@kshjensen). I presented a paper at the conference on my ongoing research in the area of networked learning and digital identity, focusing on student-staff interactions in open online spaces. I cited Kris Gutiérrez’s conceptualisation of the Third Space as a useful framework for exploring the interaction of students and staff in networked publics, particularly in considering issues such as identity and power relations. Kathrine gave me some useful feedback and noted that she was using the concept of liminality in her work exploring student-staff collaboration.

This week we reignited our discussion via email and Twitter — comparing notes on Third Space, Third Place, and liminality — and quickly agreed that we should open the conversation more widely, as others had joined in on Twitter and expressed interest. Below is our conversation — please add your thoughts and ideas, links to your work, and/or any references which you have found helpful in this area. Kathrine has also shared her thoughts in a blog post Using liminality to look at student/staff interactions. We look forward to continuing the conversation :)

Kathrine Jensen:

Hi Catherine… We had a quick chat at the Networked Learning Conference about ‘Third Space’ and I am keen to develop my knowledge in terms of this as a potential useful theoretical approach to thinking about ‘partnership’ etc. I know that you are using Kris Gutiérrez as reference for the concept of Third Space and I believe you referenced this paper: Developing a Sociocritical Literacy in the Third Space.

As you may remember I was using the concept of ‘liminal space’ to explore the characteristics of the relationship between students and staff working in partnership and stepping out of their ‘normal’ role [paper forthcoming]. But I also just came across this article using the idea of ‘Third Place’: Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as ‘Third Places‘ (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006), in which they refer to Ray Oldenburg’s (1999) eight characteristics of ‘‘Third Places’’ – this looks quite useful.

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I would be interested in hearing how you think the various concepts differ or are useful in terms of what you are doing.

Catherine Cronin:

Hi Kathrine… These 3 concepts — Liminality, Third Space, and Third Place — are all on my radar in thinking about digital identity and interactions between students and staff. Fascinating altogether!

Firstly, the Third Place concept. It seems to have been used by quite a few researchers/writers as a metaphor for computer-mediated communication and online interaction (as early as 1993 by Howard Rheingold, of course!). Rheingold, in his book The Virtual Community, was quite optimistic:

 Oldenburg explicitly put a name and conceptual framework on that phenomenon that every virtual communitarian knows instinctively, the power of informal public life… It might not be the same kind of place that Oldenburg had in mind, but so many of his descriptions of third places could also describe the WELL. Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall. Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment to one another. In either case, we need to find out soon. (p. 26).

However, up to the mid-2000s, all of these articles pre-date the massive take-up of Facebook, Twitter, and social networking sites in general. For example, the first article I read which linked Oldenburg’s concept to networked publics was a 2006 article by Soukup; he was quite cautionary about the links between the Third Place concept and CMC — but his reference points were multi-user domains (MUDs) rather than SNSs.

The Steinkuehler & Williams article you shared is interesting — focused on gaming and quite positive about the relevance of the Third Place concept. Another recent article in this vein is Rethinking Third Places: Contemporary Design with Technology by Memarovic, et al (2013). They revisit Oldenberg’s dimensions, but explore how today physical Third Places also have a virtual element:

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Their findings are slightly different (and more temperate) than Steinkuehler & Williams, but I think this has to do with the context, i.e. combination of physical & virtual Third Places vs. online games as Third Places. So, while it is interesting, and I will reference it, at present I’m not sure that the Third Place concept is significant in my analysis of student-staff interactions in open online spaces.

This brings me to Third Spaces. The salience of this concept (as developed by Gutiérrez 2008 and Gutiérrez, et al, 1999) for my own research remains. The reason is twofold. Firstly, Gutiérrez’s conceptualisation relates specifically to learning and literacy practices in the context of schools/classrooms, rather than gaming or social spaces. Secondly, the Third Space concept addresses power relations and identity, both of which are central to interactions between students and staff in networked publics. Gutiérrez grounds her work in what she calls a “sociocritical literacy”. I’m still getting to grips with this concept, but it is powerful and holds much promise for analysing student-staff interactions across various contexts. Whereas academic literacy is often narrowly conceived along a vertical dimension (incompetence to competence), learning in the Third Space “attends to both vertical and horizontal forms of learning”, including expertise which develops “within and across an individual’s practice” (Gutiérrez, 2008, p. 149).

Students bring with them to higher education a particular set of digital and network practices and literacies, developed and applicable within various contexts. As HE staff and institutions, rather than (a) assuming that students have particular digital literacies (i.e. are “digital natives”), or (b) denying the digital and network skills — and networks — which students use for informal learning (e.g. by requiring that all online pedagogical interactions take place in bounded online spaces such as LMSs), we can consider other approaches. A Third Space approach would invite students and staff to share their practices, skills, networks, etc., and then to collaborate in identifying appropriate spaces and tools for learning, and for chronicling their learning.

Finally, I am seeking to engage with the concept of liminality, and look forward to reading your latest paper. As I understand it, liminality is an in-between state, between the pre-liminal and post-liminal states. I see how this applies to students, in general, who are learning to do as well as learning to be. Your work is fascinating, chronicling learning and personal growth for both the student and staff participants. I see how the concept of liminality applies in the case of this project. In terms of liminality as a concept relevant to online interactions between students and staff, I note a very interesting 2008 article by Ray Land and Siân Bayne: Social technologies in higher education: Authorship, subjectivity and temporality, in which they note the blurring of boundaries between social/informal and formal spaces, and between public and private spaces. I must wrestle with the concept a bit more, however. Is it possible to identify a post-liminal state when considering interactions between students and staff in online spaces? The process is individual, but is an unfolding — depending, of course, on the level of engagement of the individuals involved.

…to be continued.

Apologies: I’ve tried to find openly accessible article sources, where possible, but I’m not sure that every article cited above is openly available. A full list of references is below.


Gutiérrez, Kris (2008) Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space. Reading Research Quarterly 43(2), 148-164.

Gutiérrez, Kris, D. Baquedano, P. López, & C. Tejada (1999) Rethinking diversity: Hybridity and hybrid language practices in the Third Space. Mind, Culture, and Activity 6(4).

Land, Ray, & Siân Bayne (2008) Social technologies in higher education: Authorship, subjectivity and temporality. Networked Learning Conference 2008.

Memarovic, Nemanja, et al. (2013) Rethinking Third Places: Contemporary Design With Technology. The Journal Of Community Informatics, Spec. Issue on Urban Planning and Community Informatics.

Oldenburg, Ray (1989, 1999) The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Marlowe & Company.

Rheingold, Howard (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. MIT Press.

Soukup, Charles (2006) Computer-mediated communication as a virtual third place: Building Oldenburg’s great good places on the world wide web. New Media and Society 8, 421.

Steinkuehler, Constance A., & Dimitri Williams (2006) Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as ‘Third Places’. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11(4), 885-909.

Photo: CC BY-SA Skyggefotografen


>> Postscript: 26-July-2014

Many thanks to Mary Ann Reilly for creating and sharing this wonderful resource: Third Space – Curated Bibliography. The bibliography contains links to work by Homi Bhabha, Margaret Cook, Kris Gutiérrez, Edward Soja, Reijo Kupiainen, and more.

>> Postscript: 14-SEPT-2015

There was some discussion of Third Space and Third Place in our VConnecting hangout at the ALT Conference last week (link to hangout recording). I shared this blog post and subsequently learned that several of the links were broken. These have now been fixed!