Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Mary Douglas: Understanding Social Thought and Conflict

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Mary Douglas: Understanding Social Thought and Conflict

Article excerpt

Perri 6 and Paul Richards. Mary Douglas: Understanding Social Thought and Conflict. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017. xiv + 241 pages. Paperback, $34.95.

Perri 6, a Professor of Public Management in the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London, and Paul Richards, a former Professor of Anthropology at University College London, have collaborated across disciplines to articulate Mary Douglas's grand theory of human organization based on the collected works of her lifetime. Dividing her work life into three periods, the authors chronologically explore how each stage in the development of her ultimate theory built upon earlier work to result in a neo-Durkheimian institutional theory that can account for the role of ritual in shaping and attenuating conflict. The authors feel that this work is timely in that Douglas's schema offers "a way out of the difficulties attending both postmodernist and rationalist optimizing approaches" (p16) in which they see the current social sciences mired. In the process, they attempt to rehabilitate her reputation from the damage done by her 1982 collaboration with Aaron Wildavsky (Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers) and her shifts between disciplines.

As an anthropologist, I was familiar with Douglas's early work grounded in the ethnographic work among the Lele of Africa (formerly Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and her best known monograph based on that fieldwork, Purity & Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). I was pleased to see how she continued to develop her theories of institutions and religions beyond the anthropological cannon and to learn that her work remains popular with political scientists, organizational theorists, and economists. Even her later work on the Hebrew Bible expanded upon how institutions can shape thought among their adherents and explored the implications of how social organization foments and addresses conflict. Central to all of Douglas's theoretical investigations is the belief that all social organizations can be defined somewhere on the axes of social regulation and social integration, leading to four distinct types: hierarchical, isolate, enclave, and individualistic. The symbology of the people within these institutions reflect the concerns of the institutions and ritual, both formal and informal, is used to maintain categories that are useful in supporting a worldview. For Douglas, coming of intellectual age against the backdrop of the demise of structural-functionalism, it was important to maintain that the causal relationship between institution (structure) and culture (ideas) remained focused on how institutional forms shaped culture or thoughts, not the other way around. Her concern with cross-cultural and cross-epoch comparison led her away from an anthropological audience, though all of her work remains grounded in the traditions of the discipline. …

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