Douglas, Mary 1921-2007 (Mary Tew Douglas)

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Douglas, Mary 1921-2007 (Mary Tew Douglas)


See index for CA sketch: Born 1921, in San Remo, Italy; died of complications from cancer, May 16, 2007, in London, England. Anthropologist, educator, and author. An innovator in her field, Douglas used anthropological arguments to comment on unexpected aspects of human society, such as environmentalism, kosher diets, and literature. In her early years, she was educated at London's Sacred Heart Convent before attending Oxford, where she was inspired by her teacher, anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard. At Oxford she earned a B.A. in 1943, an M.A. in 1947, a B.Sc. in 1948, and finally a Ph.D. in 1951. She conducted field work on the Lele tribe in the Belgian Congo, then lectured at University College, London. Douglas became a full professor of social anthropology in 1971, but moved to the United States in 1977 to become director of research on culture at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City. During the early 1980s, she was Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities at Northwestern University, and from 1985 to 1988 she was a visiting professor at Princeton. Over the years, Douglas published more than a dozen innovative texts commenting on culture, social action, and communication. Among her theses were that communication between people is the basis of expanding knowledge and that societal differences between "primitive" and modern, high-tech civilizations were minimal. Thus, she managed to draw parallels between such modern developments as the environmental movement with primitive religious cults, and she commented that the belief in magic was just as effective a societal norm as the ethical beliefs that became accepted after the Enlightenment. Traditions and rituals in religion, she wrote in other books, help bind groups together and form their identity, such as the banning of pork from kosher diets for Jews and the restriction on eating meat on Fridays for Catholics. When the latter tradition was recently waived by the Roman Catholic Church, Douglas, a Catholic, felt the decision dealt a blow to the spiritual-identity of Catholics everywhere. Douglas also commented on literature, finding new ways to interpret Scripture and, in her 2007 book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, finding patterns in literary traditions as distinct as Zoroastrian poetry and Chinese novels. Among Douglas's other titles are Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; revised edition, 1969), Cultural Bias (1978), How Institutions Think (1986), Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology (1999), and Jacob's Tears (2004). She was also the editor of a number of scholarly editions, and her last book is an edited collection of her father's essays, which was scheduled to be published sometime after her death.



Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2007, Section 4, p. 6.

New York Times, May 22, 2007, p. C23.

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Douglas, Mary 1921-2007 (Mary Tew Douglas)

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