Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo – Mary Douglas (1966)


“A sharp, comparative analysis of symbolic boundary maintenance across times and cultures, Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger intervened in the anthropology of religion and ritual, as well as in the theoretical development of the field as a whole. It is a key text in symbolic anthropology, an approach that, in viewing symbols as the building blocks of socio-religious worlds, sought to analyze the ways symbolic constructions either generated order or disorder. Innovative for its time, Douglas follows E. E. Evans-Pritchard ethnographic account of The Nuer when she claims that we cannot understand ideas of purity or pollution—that is, hygiene—in isolation. Solid anthropological knowledge comes from an analysis that attends to the ways systems relate to one another and form the structural ‘backbone’ of a society. And so, Purity and Danger embarks on an historical ethnographic analysis of hygienic rituals, locating them as critical parts to classificatory systems that revolve around perceptions of ‘dirt.’ Douglas advances her theory of ‘dirt’ as conceptual ‘matter out of place.’ … Dirt, then, emerges as a meaningful social residue—its eradication both an act of world-making and symbolic maintenance. Émile Durkheim’s influence on Douglas is keenly felt at the heart of her argument: notions of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure, are both relationally constituted and relative to a particular system of classification (or culture, in the Boasian tradition of anthropology). Symbolic practice emerges in these relations and is designed to both police and defile boundaries. Concepts of pollution and taboo have very little to do with biology; instead, they aim to circumvent (and occasionally correct) ambiguities and anomalies in a cultural system (46-49). As such, pollution, taboo, and ‘dirt’ are occasionally endowed with ineffable qualities and inextricably rooted in phenomenology as they ‘protect’ a society from perceived danger. Purity and Danger, then, is ultimately a phenomenological and structuralist exercise. If we set aside our conviction that Western notions of cleanliness are all about bacteria and pathogens, one is left not just with a simply religious notion of ‘purity’ but rather with the old definition of ‘matter out of place.’ …”
Our (Dis)Orderly World: Thinking with Purity and Danger in the 21st Century
W – Purity and Danger, W – Mary Douglas
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