21 May 2007

Mary Douglas is dead

I found out on Friday, but didn't get around blogging about this. At least we'll have the cold comfort of commemorating her and other anthropologists here.

The Guardian has a thoughtful obituary:

Dame Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, was the most widely read British social anthropologist of her generation. If she had to be recalled for a single achievement, it would be as the anthropologist who took the techniques of a particularly vibrant period of research into non-western societies and applied them to her own, western milieu. Within her lifetime, this was so far accepted within British anthropology as to become almost lost to view. Posterity should restore most of the credit to her, and remember her as an innovative social theorist and for her contributions particularly to the anthropological analysis of cosmology, consumption and the analysis of risk perception.

In 1966, Douglas published her most celebrated work, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. This book is best remembered for its stylish demonstration of the ways in which all schemes of classification produce anomalies: whether the pangolin for the Lele, or the God incarnate of Catholic theology. Some of this classificatory "matter out of place" - from humble house dust in her Highgate house to the abominations of Leviticus for the Hebrews - was polluting, but other breaches of routine classification had the capacity to renew the world symbolically.

The Times duly notes her passing:

Dame Mary Douglas was one of the outstanding British social anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century. Her books, Purity and Danger (1966) and Natural Symbols (1970), were seminal for anthropologists and were widely appreciated in other disciplines.

Starting as an Africanist, she branched out to cover contemporary Western society, addressing such topics as risk analysis and environmentalism, and food and consumption. Old Testament religion was another interest, first in her famous discussion of the "abominations of Leviticus", in Purity and Danger, and latterly in studies of Numbers and Leviticus.

Daniel Miller remembers her as an intellectual giant on whose shoulders we stand:

Even when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge it seemed almost impossible not to devote at least one essay to the application of Purity and Danger to almost any genre of objects that one chose. When you told people you were hoping to become an anthropologist it was the most common point of recognition. 'Oh an anthropologist, you mean like Purity and Danger.'

For good reason; this was a book that simply changed the way people saw their world and made sense of every day distinctions that we observed but failed to understand. In my case the most important impact came with The World of Goods. Along with Bourdieu’s Distinction these were the two books that ensured that it was in some ways astonishingly anthropology, the discipline least associated with modern industrial society, that actually invented the modern study of consumption which was the path I took into material culture studies. Furthermore she established the essential grounds for those studies of consumption - the critique of economic assumptions as to why we desire goods and the critique of the consequences of those economic assumptions, for such fundamental issues as to what we mean by poverty.

Mary Douglas is still taught even now at undergraduate level. I haven't really made that Bourdieu connection before, but now I know why her essays never bored me. It is, in the end, a way of seeing the world and all its apparent arbitrariness as a bounded text that comes with its symbolic code: sense, purpose, and message to communicate.

And that's why I treat IS as a literary text - there's no other way.

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