Anthropology with a Difference

Mary Douglas at 80

In its issue of October 6, 1995, the Times Literary Supplement printed a list of the "hundred books which have most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War." Works by Ludwig Wittgenstein, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus, Erik Erikson, and Primo Levi were among the expected selections, along with Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

Only four books written by women were included, the most academic being Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger stood alongside Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great Cities. Still in print after nearly forty years, Douglas’s essay deals with such esoteric topics as the logic and thematic coherence of the dietary laws in the book of Leviticus and the seemingly macabre ritual murder of elderly "spearmasters" among the Dinka of East Africa. These, along with other fascinating examples, were used to demonstrate the correspondence between social experience and religious beliefs and symbols. What appears to be irrational superstition among so-called primitive peoples, Douglas argued, can in fact be explained by examining how a culture’s...

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About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.