Mary Douglas  

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Dame Mary Douglas (March 25 1921 – 16 May 2007) was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism.

Her area was social anthropology; she was considered a follower of Durkheim and a proponent of structuralist analysis, with a strong interest in comparative religion.

She is best known for Purity and Danger (1966).



She was born as Margaret Mary Tew in San Remo, Italy to Gilbert and Phyllis (née Twomey) Tew. Her father was in the British colonial service. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and Mary and her younger sister, Patricia, were raised in that faith. After their mother's death, the sisters were raised by their maternal grandparents and attended the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton. Mary went on to study at St Anne's College, Oxford from 1939 to 1943; there she was influenced by E. E. Evans-Pritchard.

She worked in the British Colonial Office until 1947, when she returned to Oxford to take up graduate study she had left. She studied with M. N. Srinivas as well as Edward Evans-Pritchard. In 1949, she did field work with the Lele people in what was then the Belgian Congo; this took her to village life in the region between the Kasai River and the Loange River, where the Lele lived on the edge of the previous Kuba Kingdom.

In the early 1950s, she completed her doctorate and married James Douglas. Like her, he was a Catholic and had been born into a colonial family (in Simla, while his father served in the Indian army). They would have three children. She taught at University College, London, where she remained for around 25 years, becoming Professor of Social Anthropology.

Her reputation was established by her book Purity and Danger (1966). She wrote The World of Goods (1978) with an econometrician, Baron Isherwood, which was considered a pioneering work on economic anthropology. She published on such subjects as risk analysis and the environment, consumption and welfare economics, and food and ritual, all increasingly cited outside anthropology circles.

She taught and wrote in the USA for 11 years. After four years (1977–81) as Foundation Research Professor of Cultural Studies at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York, she moved to Northwestern University as Avalon Professor of the Humanities with a remit to link the studies of theology and anthropology, and spent three years at Princeton University. In 1988, she returned to Britain, where she gave the Gifford Lectures in 1989.

In 1989, she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. She became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992, and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the Queen's New Year's Honours List published on 30 December 2006. She died on 16 May 2007 in London, aged 86, from complications of cancer, survived by her three children. Her husband died in 2004.

Contributions to anthropology

Mary Douglas is best known for her interpretation of the book of Leviticus, and for her role in creating the cultural theory of risk.

Douglas' book Purity and Danger is considered a key text in social anthropology.

The line of enquiry in Purity and Danger traces the words and meaning of dirt in different contexts. What is regarded as dirt in a given society is any matter considered out of place (Douglas takes this lead from William James). She attempts to clarify the differences between the sacred, the clean and the unclean in different societies and times. Through a complex and sophisticated reading of ritual, religion and lifestyle she challenges Western ideas of pollution, making clear how the context and social history is essential.

In Purity and Danger, Douglas first proposed that the kosher laws were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of Jews' commitment to God. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those that did not seem to fall neatly into any category. For example, pigs' place in the natural order was ambiguous because they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but did not chew cud.

Later in a 2002 preface to Purity and Danger, Douglas went on to retract her initial explanation of the kosher rules, saying that it had been "a major mistake." Instead, she proposed that "the dietary laws intricately model the body and the altar upon one another" as of land animals, Israelites were only allowed to eat animals that were also allowed to be sacrificed: animals that depend on herdsmen. Thus, Douglas concludes that animals that are abominable to eat are not in fact impure, as the "rational, just, compassionate God of the Bible would [never] have been so inconsistent as to make abominable creatures." Douglas makes it clear in Purity and Danger that she does not endeavour to judge religions as pessimistic or optimistic in their understanding of purity or dirt as positive (dirt affirming) or otherwise.

In Natural Symbols (first published 1970), Douglas introduced the interrelated concepts of "group" (how clearly defined an individual's social position is as inside or outside a bounded social group) and "grid" (how clearly defined an individual's social role is within networks of social privileges, claims and obligations). The group-grid pattern was to be refined and redeployed in laying the foundations of cultural theory.


  • Peoples of the Lake Nyasa Region (1950) as Mary Tew
  • The Lele of the Kasai (1963)
  • Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966)
  • Pollution (1968)
  • Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (1970)
  • Rules and Meanings. The Anthropology of Everyday Knowledge: Selected Readings, edited by Mary Douglas (Penguin Books, 1973).
  • Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (1975)
  • Jokes, in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies (1975); edited by Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson
  • The World of Goods (1979) with Baron Isherwood
  • Evans-Pritchard (Fontana Modern Masters, 1980)
  • Risk and Culture (1980) with Aaron Wildavsky
  • In the Active Voice (1982)
  • How Institutions Think (1986)
  • Missing persons: a critique of the social sciences (1988) with Steven Ney
  • Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1992).
  • In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (1993)
  • Thought styles: Critical essays on good taste (1996)
  • Leviticus as Literature (1999)
  • Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology (2002)
  • Jacob's Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation (2004)
  • Thinking in Circles (2007)


  • Richard Fardon, Mary Douglas: an Intellectual Biography (1999)

See also

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