ANTHROPOLOGY WITH A DIFFERENCE : Mary Douglas at 80

By Baumann, Paul | Commonweal, August 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

ANTHROPOLOGY WITH A DIFFERENCE : Mary Douglas at 80


Baumann, Paul, Commonweal


In its issue of October 6, 1995, the Times Literary Supplement printed a list of the "hundred books which have most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War." Works by Ludwig Wittgenstein, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus, Erik Erikson, and Primo Levi were among the expected selections, along with Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

Only four books written by women were included, the most academic being Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger stood alongside Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great Cities. Still in print after nearly forty years, Douglas's essay deals with such esoteric topics as the logic and thematic coherence of the dietary laws in the book of Leviticus and the seemingly macabre ritual murder of elderly "spearmasters" among the Dinka of East Africa. These, along with other fascinating examples, were used to demonstrate the correspondence between social experience and religious beliefs and symbols. What appears to be irrational superstition among so-called primitive peoples, Douglas argued, can in fact be explained by examining how a culture's system of classifications mirrors its social institutions.

Richard Fardon, anthropologist and Douglas biographer (Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography, 1999), describes Purity and Danger as an "embarrassment of riches." That phrase applies to almost all of the eighty-year-old Douglas's work. Her vivid, pugnacious writing style and vast, eclectic store of knowledge have been displayed in more than fifteen books and numerous essays and reviews. Her interests have ranged far and wide: how contemporary societies assess environmental risks; the way consumer behavior communicates social concerns; the relationship between ritual and jokes; the rational basis of witchcraft accusations; the etiquette of eating and drinking; even the debate about ordaining women (see "A Modest Proposal," Commonweal, June 14, 1996), and the quest for the historical Jesus.

I first encountered Douglas's work in 1980 in a class on ritual taught by the liturgist Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., at Yale Divinity School. We read Douglas's Natural Symbols (1970), which expressed deep skepticism about Vatican II's reforms and took "reforming bishops and radical theologians" to task for "their doctrinal latitude, their critical dissolving of categories and attack on intellectual and administrative distinctions." Douglas argued that too many of the council's reforms were carried out with little appreciation for what makes rituals and symbols meaningful, and with even less understanding of how attitudes toward religious conformity depend on a person's social location. It was Douglas's contention, for instance, that the abolition of Friday abstinence from meat did away with a vital symbol of Catholic identity and solidarity. To those who argued that abstinence was more spiritually authentic if it was a personal decision, not a group discipline, Douglas pointed out that dispensing with such shared symbols would not make self-denying acts more likely or more intelligible, but quite the opposite.

Finishing the book, I found myself a newly minted skeptic about the "rationalistic" reform of the liturgy. Natural Symbols had convinced me that my grandfather's bead-counting, literal-minded piety--he had only an eighth-grade education--was not the mere superstition my prosperous middle-class world judged it to be. Douglas's passionate defense of ritual reawakened in me an appreciation of the connection between beauty and truth in religion and other human activities.

Internal Catholic disputes are only a small part of Douglas's interests.

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