Mary Douglas

May 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Times had two featured obituaries yesterday, and both were for social scientists: Eugen Weber, a historian who wrote several books on France; and anthropologist Mary Douglas.

I know very little of Eugen Weber’s work. I remember reading his essay “Who Sang the Marseillaise?” many years ago, and how surprised I was to learn that the unification of France, politically and linguistically, was such a recent transformation. But that’s about it.

Mary Douglas was another matter altogether. I heard her speak once, when I was in graduate school. She was giving a brown-bag-lunch kind of talk, very informal. I had never even heard of her, but my girlfriend at the time, Melissa, had studied with Douglas as an undergrad in England, and she encouraged me to go with her.

There were maybe two dozen people in the seminar room. Douglas stood at one end of the long table; Melissa and I sat against the opposite wall. I remember absolutely nothing of what Douglas said. In fact, I remember only one thing. At some point, Melissa leaned close to me and whispered, “She’s my ego-ideal.” And even this small detail I remember only because she used the British pronunciation, “eggo,” so for a moment I wasn’t sure what she had said.

It was nearly a decade later that I finally read Purity and Danger, and it was a revelation. I was teaching the deviance course in those years, and I saw how Douglas’s ideas about the “unclean” could be easily applied to the “deviant.”

“Dirt is matter out of place,” she wrote. Places that are dirty, places that need to be cleaned, have things in them that do not belong. These things do not fit with our rules for how that place should be arranged. Dirt— literal dirt (soil, earth)— is not “dirty” when it’s in the flower pot. Similarly, animals that are “unclean” (to use the Biblical term) are those that do not fit our categories for “food.” We have a food taboo on dog meat, but dogs are not “unclean” as pets.

It was all about boundaries. A culture must construct categories, cognitive boundaries for perceiving the world and giving it meaning. Obviously, things which fall on the wrong side of the boundary will be considered deviant. But no system of categories will be perfect; some things will not quite fit into any of the categories. These anomalies, as Douglas called them, would also be deviant. They challenge the boundaries not by attacking and crossing them, but by making them fuzzy, imprecise, and even inaccurate.

Douglas’s ideas about purity and categories provided the larger framework for other ideas I was interested in. Suddenly, these diverse pieces began to fit together — Kai Erikson’s ideas about deviance as a boundary-marker (Wayward Puritans), ideas from small-group sociology about boundary-awareness in groups and individuals (Philip Slater’s Microcosm), rites of passage and the taboo-power of people who are crossing boundaries, even ideas from Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I was disappointed to find out many years later that Douglas was politically conservative and critical of the environmental movement. Nothing else of hers that I read had the same impact as Purity and Danger.

Melissa went back to London, married a political radical, and made documentary films, often with a feminist bent. As I read the obit for Douglas, I wonder how long she remained Melissa’s eggo-ideal.

1 comment:

SARA said...

Enjoyed reading this post. Thank you - brought back memories.

Nothing unusual about children putting everything/anything in their mouth - I was no exception-as a child I was always eating "dirt", literally!Kept mother busy*smile*

As a nursing student we'd been studying Erik Erikson-During winter reading week,one of our profs took a couple of us State side to hear a lecture by Kai Erikson -This prof was such an amazing lady and would always go that "extra mile" for her students. If I recall, the talk was about war and it's effects..wish I would have listened more.