Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas
A Report by Victoria Caplan
Background on Mary Douglas and Purity and Danger
Biographical Information – mostly taken from Mary Douglas:
an Intellectual Biography by Richard Fardon. Routledge: 1999.
from the University of Pennsylvania's Almanac,
v. 46, no. 27, April 4, 2000. On her reception of an honorary degree.
Purity and Danger
(née Tew) b. 1921.
Attended the Sacred Heart Convent from 1933 until 1939
Attended Oxford from 1939 until 1942 and then joined the Colonial Office.
In 1947 returned to Oxford. Studied with M.N.
Srinivas and Evans-Pritchard
1949 fieldwork among the Lele in the then Belgian Congo.
1951 married James Douglas. Her children were born in 1951, 1954, and 1956.
1953 Thesis taught at the University College London, where
she stayed through the 1970’s. Worked in the US throughout the 1980s and
part of the 90's
"“Political power is usually held precariously and primitive rulers are
no exception” - p. 3 - Fundamental to most of her later thoughts
on the nature of organizations and societies.
Published in 1966. I used a 2001 reprint)
It is mostly a work on comparative religion.
At the time known as an Africanist.
Her biographer believes that her sense of marginality, as a woman and a
Roman Catholic at Oxford and in London helped create many of her beliefs
about organizations, societies, and cultures.
“Dirt is essentially disorder… it exists in the eye of the beholder…
In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying, we are not governed
by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment,
making it conform to an idea. (p. 2). [my emphasis]
“Rituals of purity and impurity create unity of experience” (p. 2) - Durkheim
“Pollution ideas work in the life of a society at two levels, one largely
instrumental, one expressive” (p. 3)
"Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to dis-order,
form to formlessness, life to death. (p. 6)
Rules about eating and not eating certain foods, touching or not touching
certain people (castes) or people at certain times (during menstruation,
mourning, etc.) have nothing to do with “primitive”
ideas of hygiene.
Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is
to be maintained - it is something that breaches classifications, is anomalous
or amibiguos. That is the reason for the different pollution laws
Magic, Ritual, and Religion
Discusses and argues other anthropologists and scholars thoeries religion
Eliade's definition of religion as a "belief in spritual beings" does not
"Comparative religion has inherited an ancient sectarian quarrel about
the value of formal ritual” - p. 18
Argues against evolutionary thinking. She especially has contempt for Frazer's
"evolutionsim that implies
Primitive - Magic
Less primitive – Religion
Fully Modern - Science
“All in all, Frazer’s influence has been a baneful one. He took from Robertson
Smith’s that scholar’s most peripheral teaching and perpetuated an ill-conceived
division between religion and magic.” p. 28
“Money is only an extreme and specialized form of ritual” – p. 70
“ It is a mistake to think there can be religion which is all interior,
with no rules, no litugy, no external signs…. Social rituals create a reality,
which would be nothing without them. It is not too much to say that ritual
is more to society than words are to thought” – p. 63
Ritual is creative… “...creates harmonious worlds with ranked and ordered
populations playing their appointed part” p. 73
Ways to protect ritual from skepticism - p. 180
Suppose an enemy within or without the community is undermining it.
Make ritual efficacy depends on difficult conditions.
Have a cult of paradox that despises worldly success, or shows the unity
of life and death (Lent – rubbing ashes on your face, Cult
of the Pangolin)
Them and Us
Unconvincingly argues that scholars can use the word primitive. “What is
the objection to saying that a personal, anthropocentric world-view characterizes
a particular culture?” – p. 93 What she means by "primitive" is what
we would now call "pre-modern".
Puzzlesover why, “primitive cultures are pollution prone and ours is not”.
– p. 74. She resolves it over the next 20 plus years when she decides
or realizes that “our” society is too. See Risk and Culture (1982)
and Risk and Blame (1992).
Modern civilization - “Obviously the demand for special expertise and the
education for providing it create cultural environments in which certain
kind of thinking can flourish and others cannot. Differential thought patterns
goes along with differentiated social conditions” –p. 79 Here we can see
the sprout of an idea that will grow into How Institutions Think
(1986) and Thought Styles (1996).
Another difference between “them” and “us” is that we navel gaze about
our institutions and culture. Giddens?
“I am suggesting that in treating each death as the outcome of an individual
act of treachery and human malice the Lele are evading its metaphysical
implications.”-p. 174. Later in Risk and Blame she does discuss
how in modern societies, people are beginning to be like the Lele, there
is no such thing as “accidental death” – it must be someone’s fault.
Ways Pollution Behaviors Work
Disorder is dangerous and powerful.Cultures try to tame it or use it as
a creative ground from which order can re-emerge through ritual.
Bringing pollution is not like witchcraft or sorcery; it is not vested
in humans, but can be released by human action.
4 kinds of social pollution:
Danger pressing on external boundaries (Ch. 7) - Body as metaphor for society
Danger from transgressing internal lines of a system (Ch. 8) - Pollution
behavior bolsters ethical or moral strictures
Danger in the margins of the lines (Ch. 9) - Sexual Pollution
Danger from internal contradiction (Ch. 10) - Rites of cohesion or Renewal
Sometimes pollution is used for rituals of renewal because...
Problem with Purity = Strict purity highly uncomfortable or leads into
contradiction or hypocrisy.
Enjoy purity at second hand – nominate the king, the priest, the virgin
to be pure for everyone else.
Practice deceit – example of the adult men of the Chagga tribe who pretend
after their initiation that their anuses are blocked for life
Since a life of strict purity is highly uncomfortable or leads into contradiction
or hypocrisy –n so the use of polluted things or behavior in rites of renewal
re-affirms the life force .
Example of a Life Affirming Ritual that uses something that would usually
be regarded as polluting
Cult of the Pangolin
“The Lele pangolin cult is only one example of which many more could be
cited, of cults which invite their initiates to turn round and confront
the categories on which their culture has been built up and to recognize
them for the fictive, man-made, arbitrary creations they are.” p. 171
The pangolin, like Christ (as perceived by Christians) is perceived by
the Lele to be a willing sacrifice. p. 170.
"Pollution symbols are necessary
as the use of black in any depiction whatsoever. Therefore we find corruption
enshrined in sacred places and times”
to Tory's MPhil Page
last revised 8 July 2002
(C) Victoria F. Caplan