Mary Douglas R.I.P.
British anthropologist Mary Douglas died at the age of 86 last week. The Guardian (London) obituary is excellent. The Times (London) is a touch snippy. Commonweal readers will remember Paul Baumann’s superb profile of Douglas of a few years ago. Put simply Douglas was one of most influential Catholic intelllectuals of the postwar era, and along with Clifford Geertz perhaps the most influential social anthropologist from any background.
The obituaries nicely summarize Douglas’s achievement but I’d add that her focus on ritual, hierarchy and community — preoccupying concerns for her generation of Catholics, perhaps all generations of Catholics — allowed her to move seamlessly from the Lele in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Irish Catholic tribalisms. Her influential study, Natural Symbols, included a fierce defense of the ban on eating meat on Fridays, and she later declared herself agnostic on the question of women’s ordination given her belief in the importance of gender in constructing a symbolic (and social) system. At the same time she thought the refusal of church leaders to give women positions of real power within the institution appalling.
All in all a remarkable career.