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Mary Tew Douglas

Mary Tew Douglas

Mary Tew Douglas (born 1921) was a British anthropologist and social thinker of international fame.

Mary Tew Douglas was born in San Remo, Italy, to Phyllis Twomey and Gilbert Charles Tew, and was the eldest of two daughters. She was educated as a Catholic at the Sacred Heart Convent, Roehampton, in England, and she was keenly interested in religion all her life. As an anthropologist she kept on with her faith. At Oxford (where she did a B.A. degree in 1943) she fell under the influence of the famous social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who was also interested in comparative religion; he died a Catholic. Douglas wrote a biography of her mentor in 1980.

She interrupted her graduate study at Oxford to be a volunteer in World War II in the British Colonial Office working on penal reform. Afterwards she earned a Bachelor of Science in 1948 in anthropology and went to Africa, to the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), to study the folkways of a tribe, the Lele of the Kasai, for her Ph.D. under Professor Evans-Pritchard (1951). Also in 1951, Mary Tew married the economist James A. T. Douglas. They had one daughter and two sons. She lived in London and was associated with University College, London, from that time onwards (lecturer in anthropology, 1951-1962; reader, 1963-1970; professor, 1971 until her retirement in 1978). She was the 1994 Bernal prize recipient.

Subsequently she went to the United States. Douglas was in New York City at the Russell Sage Foundation as director of research on human culture from 1977 to 1981; in Chicago at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, as Avalon Foundation professor in anthropology and religion, 1981-1985; and at Princeton University as visiting professor of religion and anthropology beginning in 1985. She maintained her residence in London.

Doctoral Dissertation

Her doctoral dissertation, published as The Lele of the Kasai in 1963, studied the Lele tribe "as they cooked, divided food, talked about illness, babies and proper care of the body" and examined how taboos operated within tribal society and the way in which polygamous male elders of the tribe manipulated raffia cloth debts in order to restrict the access of younger men to Lele women. This field investigation led Douglas on to other studies in what she called "social accountability" and "classification schemes" of human relations, applied equally to "primitive" societies (pre-industrial, pre-modern) and to modern industrial society. She wrote books on a variety of subjects including pollution, the consumer society, and religion.

The anthropology of Douglas was derived partly from the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). Douglas rejected his determinism, but accepted what Durkheim realized: the social basis for human thought. She used the Durkheimian method of drawing on "primitive" cultures to illuminate problems in modern society. For Douglas, rituals dramatize moral order in the human universe. "Culture" is rooted in daily social relations: the most mundane and concrete things of daily life. From childhood on, the drama of life is constructed: the self concept; the linguistic code, which the individual learns as a child; the individual as a moral actor; the collective nature of human existence. Comparative studies have to be made of such things as dirt and pollution, food and meals, the biological body, speech, jokes, and material possessions. The biological body is a perfect metaphor or symbol for the social body or the tribe or nation.

Douglas' view of "culture" was of it being created afresh each day. Hers was a world of ordinary symbols, rituals, and activities, all of which dramatized the "construction of social life." Everyday life was itself the focus of interest. Every mundane activity carried ritual and ceremonial significance. Symbolic order reflected social order as she looked at the ritual dramatization of social patterns.

Pollution and Taboo

Douglas was perhaps noted for her writings on pollution and taboo. Dirt in "primitive" (as in modern) society is relative to location: dirty shoes are dirty on the table, not dirty on the floor; cooking utensils are dirty in the bedroom; earth is dirty on chairs. Pollution behavior is the reaction of our cherished classifications: dirt takes us straight to the field of symbolism, to symbols of purity. In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) she stated that modern notions express basically the same idea as "primitive" notions of pollution: "Our practices are solidly based on hygiene; theirs are symbolic; we kill germs; they ward off spirits."

It was Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo and Natural Symbols (1970), the two early books, that had such an impact on the emerging sociology of scientific knowledge.

Four related themes were presented in that early work. First, she invited attention to culture, to knowledge of nature, and specifically to cosmological and taxonomic notions, as embedded within systems of accountability. Culture is maintained and it is modified as people use it: it is a tool in everyday social action. There is no fundamental "problem" of "the relationship between culture and social action" because culture is the means by which social action is accomplished, by which members say "good" and "bad" about each other's actions, and by which they recognize them as actions of a certain sort. Second, knowledge, including natural knowledge, is treated as constitutively social. As we bring up our children, and as we talk to each other, so we build, maintain, and modify the categories of perception, thought, and language: "The colonisation of each other's minds is the price we pay for thought." For Douglas, anything but a fully general social epistemology followed from a misunderstanding of the sort of thing knowledge was.

Third, beliefs and representations become knowledge—a collective good—by successfully making the transition from the indivudal to the communal, the private to the public. The achievement of credibility is a practical problem attached to all beliefs: no belief or representation shines by its own lights, carries its crediblity with it. "Credibility," she says, "depends so much on the consensus of a moral community that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that a given community lays on for itself the sum of the physical conditions which it experiences."

Finally in the years between Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols, she developed a set of techniques for the systematic comparative study of "cultural bias." "The Great Divide" between the "modern" and the "scientific," on the one hand, and the "primitive" and "magical," on the other, was rejected. "We" are forms of "them." There is a finite range of predicaments faced and principles available for the maintenance of order. A specific form of these predicaments and principles might be as well devised by Sepik River tribes, by the Big Men of Conservative Party Central Office, or by a community of high-energy phsycists. Cultural diversity has finite forms, and, because these forms do not map onto exisiting Great Divide theories, the comparative study of cultural bias has the capacity to join up the conversations of those who study the "primitive" and those who study the "modern": anthropologists and students of modern science.

But when Douglas attempted to write about the contemporary environmental protection movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Risk and Culture, written with Aaron Wildavsky (1982), she was less sure of the material. Half the book is an attack on the beliefs of the environmentalists. She portrayed the antinuclear and environmental movements as freakish, quasireligious cults. She did not uncover anything about the actual physical environment, or nuclear plants, or off-shore oil-drilling, or industrial pollution of rivers and lakes. Douglas was best when she was talking about the Lele and pollution and food taboos.

The World of Goods

The World of Goods: An Anthropological Theory of Consumption, written with Baron Isherwood (1979), is partly an attempt to explore the social context of modern consumer society. Goods are social markers and a means of communicating. Individuals attain and keep power in society by acts of consumption, which ritually reaffirm their status. The Douglas argument is very generalized and takes us not much further than the old (and much more informative) notion of Thorstein Veblen of "conspicuous consumption" in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Modern culture is supposedly a secular world, in which science replaces religion and ritual. Douglas as a scholar delved into comparative religion. She disagreed with the idea that religion and science could not coexist. There would be no demise of religion in the world, whatever science discovers, because religion originates in human social relations. Modernity changes the shape of society; but there are still human social relations and religion will survive. Douglas was of the opinion that so long as there is collective life, there will be religion, ritual, myths, ceremonies, and rites.

Modernity has three allegedly negative effects on the survival of religion: Douglas dismissed all three. Science is supposed to reduce the explanatory power of religion; for Douglas, religion and science pose no tension with each other—their explanations apply to different kinds of problems. Modern life is undergoing bureaucratization, and this reduces the sense of the unknown and sacred; but Douglas thought that bureaucracy existed in the Vatican in the 15th century, and so did religion. And modern life has little direct experience of nature; but Mary Douglas felt that the discoveries of modern science itself created a new sense of awe and religion. Thus, religion does not disappear in modern society, it just reappears in new forms.

Looking back on her life as a young anthropologist in Africa in Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (1976), she commented: "The central task of anthropology was to explore the effects of the social dimensions on behaviour. The task was grand, but the methods were humble … We had to stay with a remote tribe, patiently let events unfold and let people reveal the categories of their thought." From a fundamental Durkheimian belief in the role of ritual and symbol in the construction of social life and social relations, Douglas explained the rituals of meals and food, cleaning and tidying, material possessions, speech, and numerous other concrete things of daily life—in modern as well as "primitive" society.

Further Reading

In addition to the many books mentioned in the text, Mary Douglas wrote Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (1970), Rules and Meanings: The Anthropology of Everyday Knowledge (1973), Edward Evans-Pritchard (1980), In the Active Voice (London: 1982), Essays in the Sociology of Perception (London: 1982), and How Institutions Think (1986).

Discussions of her work can be found in Adam Kuper, Anthropologists and Anthropology: The British School, 1922-1972 (London: 1973); The Social Science Encyclopedia, edited by A. Kuper and J. Kuper (London: 1985); Women Anthropologists (1988); and Robert Wuthnow et al., editors, Cultural Analysis: The Work of Peter L. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen Habermas (1984). □

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Douglas, Mary

Douglas, Mary (anthropologist): see SACRED AND PROFANE.

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