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Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography
Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography
Richard Fardon
Routledge, 1999
336 pp., $68.95

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Michael Jindra


Human Rites Activist

Reading Mary Douglas: The radical cultural theory of a Catholic anthropologist

It has been the most passionate affirmation of Mary Douglas's writings that the taken-for-granted beliefs, ideas and emotions of a period, place or person never be considered aside from the social circumstances which gave rise to them and then sustained them.

Thus begins Richard Fardon's intellectual biography of the still-active British anthropologist and social theorist Mary Douglas, one of the more interesting and eclectic figures in academia over the last 40 years. Her writings have ranged widely from the theoretical to the political and religious, crossing disciplinary boundaries with ease. She's received attention in both the social sciences and humanities, in areas such as sociology, religious studies, psychology, political science, and economics.

Fardon uses his opening to explain that he will interpret Douglas' writings through her own theoretical lens. Douglas has remained a practicing Catholic throughout her life, and Fardon's biography traces the development of her social theories back to her upbringing in a convent school, with its strong emphasis on hierarchy and ritual. From this perspective, Mary Douglas has been an outsider in academia, with its near-unquestioned preference for egalitarianism and freedom from tradition. Indeed, this outsider status has allowed her to use the tools of anthropology to see through the accepted conventions and assumptions of academia itself.

Born in 1921 to parents on the staff of the British Civil Service in India, Mary suffered the loss of her mother at age 12, and the death of a grandparent who had largely raised her while her parents were in Asia. She was then sent to the Sacred Heart Convent School near London. Fardon delves into the history and life of this school and its focus on an "ultramontane," or Romanized, social environment where everyday behavior was "minutely governed." Behaviors from eating to bathing followed strict procedures. The day was punctuated with prayers, confessions, and devotions. A strict authority ...

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