Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Mark P. Whitaker


In this dissertation, I investigate the characteristics and quality of liminality among the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India, and the United States. I argue that the quality of their liminality defines this exile community’s ability to maneuver and voice their influence to geo-political community of states that surround them, all while within their liminal condition. The Tibetan exile people live as stateless foreigners in India but have a better standard of living and better opportunities to acquire transnational resources than their surrounding host community. In the U.S., Tibetan diaspora people live as asylum-seekers and naturalized Tibetan-Americans but have established a popular political campaign (which enjoys the support of considerably many Americans) addressing the plight of Tibetans imposed by China. I argue that the Tibetan diaspora have achieved this unique social and political success as a marginalized community by adopting a cultural practice that I call “flexible liminality.” Flexible liminality is a Tibetan cultural practice that helps transient people adjust to any situation, people, and geo-politics circumstance.

Flexible liminality relies on two factors: first, political interest from various nation-states; second, a group’s ability to adjust their cultural practices to match external influences. In the case of the Tibetan exile community, it is important to note that they are excluded by multiple nation-states (China, India, the Western countries) in different ways simultaneously. Therefore, the world collective of Tibetan refugees are not fixed in one state of liminality but experience a variety of liminalities in relation to different nation-states. Second, the Tibetan exile community has adjusted their cultural practices to assimilate with host communities in whichever countries their exile-hood has landed them. Since Tibetans cannot acquire Indian citizenship, the Tibetan exile community uses India as a space to promote their political activism against China, and form better relationship with Western foreigners. In Dharamsala, the Tibetan community has organized institutions that guides Tibetan individuals to form relationships with foreign tourists, and acquire skills (i.e. language, behavior, education, philosophy) that would help them assimilate better when resettling in Western host countries. In both, Dharamsala and the U.S., the Tibetan diaspora have a cultivated cultural practice to advocate Tibetan political plight against China, and to communicate Tibetan religio-socio traditions with the foreign host community. As a result, Tibetans are able to achieve political popularity, and to socially draw empathy from foreign communities that aids in producing a space for Tibetan cultural preservation in exile.

The case study on Tibetan exile community sheds a new light on the study of marginality/liminality. This dissertation showcases that there can be a spectrum for the quality of liminality that goes from flexible at one end to inflexible at the other end. Not all exile groups have the same condition of liminality, being an exile community can be beneficial or crippling somewhere in the spectrum. Tibetan exile community has achieved a flexible end of liminality in exile but there are other exile groups who may not have the same maneuvering ability as the Tibetan exile community. This theory of flexible liminality can be used to better understand the lives of exiles by characterizing and measuring the quality of their liminality.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

University of Kentucky Gatton College’s A.P.J. Kalam India Studies Research Program

University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology's Susan Abbott-Jamieson Award