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Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography
Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography
Richard Fardon
Routledge, 1999
336 pp., 52.95

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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 and hierarchy oversaw a complex system of rewards and punishments. The goal was the formation of an inner state, a particular character that would enable the student to serve the organic model of society and Church that Catholic social teaching presents.

While others may have resented this rigid order, Mary thrived under it. By the beginning of World War II she was at Oxford studying politics, philosophy, and economics. During the later years of the war, she worked in the colonial office—the experience which, by her own account, made her into an anthropologist. She returned to Oxford to study anthropology under E.E. Evans-Pritchard, one of the most influential British anthropologists of the time, and an adult convert to Catholicism. Several other anthropologists of Catholic confession were at Oxford at the time, unusual in a discipline often hostile to Christianity, but Fardon argues that the diversity of the group precluded the development of a Catholic "school" of anthropology.

After fieldwork in the Belgian Congo among the Lele, Douglas returned to Oxford to write up her dissertation, an analysis of Lele life in terms of how its lack of hierarchy and authority produced a low level of wealth, numerous witchcraft allegations, and schisms. Later, in her many books, she would expand the theme into a general theory of the interplay between social organization and culture. She was to make her name, however, among nonanthropologists with the publication in 1966 of Purity and Danger, now translated into more than a dozen languages.

Fardon takes a second look at this pioneering work, whose interpretation of the dietary laws of Leviticus in terms of anomalous categories won special acclaim. An overlooked theme of the book, he argues, is Douglas' careful attention to similarities as well as differences between tribal religions and Western religions, between the primitive and the modern, between them and us. Douglas ultimately wants to break down the dichotomy between the two by showing how notions of purity and defilement are present in all cultures, and are simply expressed in different, culturally relative ways.

While Purity and Danger remains her best-known book, its successor, Natural Symbols (1970), has also been extremely influential. Here she introduced an original method of social analysis, originally dubbed "grid and group" and later, "cultural theory," which could be utilized to study cultures and social organizations comparatively. This theory would be the framework of many of her later forays into issues of risk and the environment, consumption, and political analysis in general.

The book certainly was her most controversial, partially because it was inspired by the turmoil of the 1960s. Its strongest message is a defense of ritual, then under ferocious attack by radical students and church reformers alike. She was skeptical of the reforms of Vatican II, which had finished shortly before she began working on the book in 1966. While she was writing, the student revolts of the later 1960s played out, intensifying her frustration with the general direction of Western society.

Ritual undergirds social life, according to Douglas, and removing it risks disaster. She regretted the "Protestantization" of the Catholic Church, driven by what she regarded as a false dichotomy between inner convictions and outward form. She attacked reforming Dutch bishops for whom "the mystery of the Eucharist is too dazzlingly magical for their impoverished symbolic perception." As Fardon nicely summarizes Douglas, such critics of ritual "do not realize that it is the outer show that brings about the inner state."

As might be expected, theologians generally reviewed the book more positively than anthropologists. One prominent anthropologist, Edmund Leach, accused Douglas in The New York Review of Books of giving up on the "attainment of empirical truth" and "adapting her learning to the service of Roman Catholic propaganda." The sociologist David Martin, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, could not help but admire how she "managed to dish the Reformation, liberalism, capitalism, and the revolting students all at one blow." Others noted the inconsistent definitions of symbols and rituals. (Admitting it was written somewhat in haste, Douglas reissued the book three years later with a new introduction and substantial revision. Fardon meticulously compares the editions, noting the changes in an attempt to see how her thought developed.)

Fardon then proceeds to track Douglas' application of her cultural theory to areas such as consumption and risk. In The World of Goods (coauthored with Baron Isherwood, 1978), a book that came to be seen, along with Pierre Bourdieu's study of taste, as founding the trend toward the study of consumption, Douglas attacks mainstream economics and its bias toward a one-dimensional theory of utility. In contrast, Douglas focuses on the social relations and symbolic communication that purchases of goods allow.

Her next book, coauthored with the noted political scientist Aaron Wildavsky after her move from University College London to Northwestern University in 1977, discussed the relationship between conceptions of Risk and Culture (1982). Like Natural Symbols, it was destined to upset various interests, especially the more alarmist environmental groups. Douglas' cultural theory is harnessed to explain how the sectarian nature of these groups produces distorted perceptions of risk.

Douglas ties notions of risk and religion even closer in Risk and Blame (1992). Drawing on her wide knowledge of different cultures, she shows how they uphold radically different conceptions of risk. In the peculiar case of the United States, according to Douglas, risk is not conceived to be a natural part of life, as it is viewed in most societies. Rather, risk is something we put on ourselves by our behavior, or increasingly, others put on us. As a result, American society is notoriously litigious: risk functions to pin blame on people and institutions, as witchcraft does elsewhere.

Cultural notions of pollution were a major theme of Purity and Danger, and Douglas does not hesitate to see religious emotions lurking underneath the environmental debate. This, of course, hit some sensitive nerves, as it still does when secular political ideologies are shown to have broadly religious underpinnings. As Fardon reports, reviewers were generally supportive of the sociological approach, but they often contested her application of the theory to American examples.

Douglas often seems to be only one or two steps away from a sociological reductionism that results in a form of relativism. If all political perspectives are products of social experience, doesn't this also apply to Douglas' own theories and perspectives? Does her relativist bent mean that we have no real basis for adjudicating conflicts between theories, values, ways of life? She would argue, emphatically, no. In effect, she calls for a reflexive process whereby we temporarily step out of our social location, popping our heads up to see the terrain and how we fit in, and helping us decide if and how we should change. This process, she argues, illuminates the core differences that underlie most contemporary political and social debates, and goes some ways toward resolving them.

Douglas' political preferences were socially conservative, with an emphasis on the social. She detested what she regarded as the "competitive individualist" turn in conservative politics in the Thatcher/Reagan era. Before the Thatcher era, her husband was the research director for Britain's Conservative Party, and he prodded her to apply anthropology to contemporary issues. Her early training in Catholic social teaching was also a likely influence. Douglas' writings in Catholic Church periodicals demonstrate an applied anthropology, from a Christian, specifically Catholic, perspective. She lamented the move away from traditional doctrines of the devil, hell, and angels.

Douglas' contributions to theology have been mainly limited to using anthropological methods to illuminate biblical texts. At an age when most scholars have retired, she took up an intensive study of Old Testament texts, learning Hebrew in the process. The fruits of her labor are two remarkable books: In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (1993) and Leviticus as Literature (1999). But she also has a strong interest in ecclesiology; the role of institutions has always fascinated her.

Throughout her career, Douglas fulminated against the "idealism" of some anthropologists, and among the fathers of social theory, always felt closer to the Jewish Durkheim and his emphasis on classification than to the lapsed Protestant Max Weber and his "ideal-type" analyses of social life under the influence of religious doctrine. True to her Durkheimian roots, she often comes across as a functionalist. Social bodies are her primary concern, and she often evaluates ethical statements for their effects on how institutions act. Whether Douglas is simply performing her role in the hierarchy of the Church or whether she truly evaluates doctrine on a functionalist basis is unclear.

Of course, Protestants have been more influenced by modernist notions of propositional truth than Catholics, and Douglas was brought up in an era when the Church and the Truth were one and the same. (Paradoxically, as others have pointed out, the premodern approach has certain similarities with postmodernist attitudes toward foundations, as also expressed in the writings of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has written appreciatively of Douglas' work.) But Douglas' dismissal of idealism comes at a cost. In some ways, Jewish and Christian thought differs radically from other world and tribal religions—for example, in their understandings of history. Douglas routinely ignores or plays down such differences.

Protestants will likely have qualms with portions of her work, but her real value lies in her understanding of the connections between thought and social life. Too often anthropologists and others have used this perspective to belittle or patronize religious and traditional peoples around the world, but Douglas creatively points out how no one is exempt from the process. The presuppositions of scholars themselves, dominated by a kind of faux objectivism, have often been ignored, at least until recently when postmodern influences have made scholars more aware of their own biases. Douglas, because of her status as a Christian and an outsider in a largely secular discipline, understood the biases of anthropology and social thought in general well before postmodernism began to take hold in the disciplines.

It wouldn't be too hard for scholars to take her analysis, direct it at academia specifically, point out implicit assumptions and biases, and relativize the various academic subcultures (e.g., Marxists, postmodern nihilists, positivists), as some (such as Phillip Johnson and George Marsden) are already doing. Comparisons with John Milbank's own form of "sceptical relativism" in his grand work Theology and Social Theory are also worth pursuing. Both Douglas and Milbank are Anglo-Catholic social conservatives who see religious impulses lurking in many areas of life, but Milbank has gone much further in deconstructing "secular reason" from an explicitly Christian standpoint. Moreover, unlike Douglas, he believes that the very concept of the "social" has been illegitimately constructed by social theorists.

Douglas shows that contributions by a Christian to an academic discipline need not be confined to picking topics that relate to religion, as many think when they hear of the integration of faith and scholarship. While anthropologists are often stumped by their seeming irrelevance in the rest of academia and in society as a whole, a very few, such as Douglas, have been busily applying the insights that a cross-cultural and historical analysis of social life can provide. Through her understanding of social and religious change, her study of the cultural underpinnings of risk (in litigious Western societies that seem to have lost their nerve and attempt to eliminate all of it), and in her work on consumption, she has assiduously tried to get at societal flaws.

Mary Douglas' career is a lesson in the possibilities and problems of academics attempting to reach a wider audience by straying from disciplinary boundaries. We are certainly more knowledgeable about ourselves as a result.

Michael Jindra is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Spring Arbor University.

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