Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas

This widely influential 1966 book by Mary Douglas (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/may/18/guardianobituaries.obituaries) should be on the shelves of anyone interested in cultural theory or anthropology.

The line of inquiry in Purity and Danger traces the meaning of ‘dirt’ in different contexts. What is regarded as dirt in a given society is any matter considered out of place. Douglas clarifies 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, Douglas challenges Western ideas of pollution, making clear how cultural context and social history is decisive.

As an example of this approach, Douglas first proposed that the kosher laws were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of the Hebrew’s commitment to Yahweh. Instead, Douglas argues that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those that did not seem to fall neatly into any category. For example, the place of pigs in the natural order was ambiguous because they share 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 this 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’. For instance, the Hebrews were only allowed to eat animals that were also allowed to be sacrificed: animals that depend on herdsmen. Douglas concluded from this that animals that are abominable to eat are not in fact impure, but rather that ‘it is abominable to harm them’. She claims that later interpreters (even later Biblical authors) had misunderstood this.

Check if this classic of mid 20th century cultural anthropology is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

202 pages in Routledge

Originally published 1966

ISBN 978-0415291057

Mary Douglas

Professor Mary Douglas

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