Friday, 18 May 2007

Mary Douglas Dies

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The brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas died on May 16 in London, aged (I think) 85. Douglas was a structuralist anthropologist and follower of Durkheim. She wrote a famous analysis of Leviticus and helped invent the Cultural Theory of Risk. I remember her best for the brilliant 'Purity and Danger’, where she argued that things like Kosher laws weren't simply functional (about separately different kinds of food without refrigeration) but were about the maintenance of boundaries which helped to structure different societies. She emphasised how systems of value like this helped to hold at bay the terror of ambiguity in human society.

I must admit that I haven’t read nearly as much of her work as I should have, but one sentence of hers, which may not even be an accurate quote, has informed what I think ever since I heard it. This is the notion that 'dirt' is "matter out of place". Once you understand what this means, there is no such thing objectively as rubbish, what matters is the value any given society gives to any thing, it makes all the difference, and makes you realise that studying the way in which humans categorise stuff is such a god way to understand what is common about humanity.

I've been thinking a lot about Mary Douglas recently because she gave a lecture in London recently- the Young Foundation promoted it - which I wanted to go to but couldn't. However the YF kindly sent me the CD of it and I’ve been listening to it and trying to figure out how to feature it in New Humanist. In this lecture she develops her arguments about different kinds of groups I societies, those we call cults, but she prefers the word 'enclave', because it is less normative. She talks fascinatingly about how small groups create internal cohesion by creating conflict with the outside world - putting a 'wall of virtue around themselves' (helps to explain why folks like the Westboro Church don't seem to mind demonstrating in public and being widely reviled- it helps strengthen the bond between the members and keeps the young 'un from straying), about the trouble which comes when the charismatic leaders (which are very normal) dies, and about the black and white thinking which is encouraged by these groups. Throughout the lecture she is cautious about not being to judgmental (she credits Richard Sennett with alerting her to the notion of "the joy of sects") and cautions that if we think sects are all bad we are using exactly the kind of narrow binary thinking that we don’t like about the sects.

We will publish a portion of the lecture in the next New Humanist as a tribute to someone who, though she was a Catholic I think, was clearly and fundamentally a humanist in that she was fascinated by human behaviour.