Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo
I have anthropology envy.
Spend any time around here and you’ll quickly realize that while I jump all over the map my foundation lies in the social sciences. So much so that I have a couple of cross-disciplinary degrees. The discipline I gave short shrift to was anthropology and yet it’s the one most relevant to my professional life.
And so I keep reading, wondering why I avoided a subject area with such a great vocabulary. Oh, sure, the sexy maths are used by the political scientists and sociologists but the vocabulary is less than stirring. Pluralism? Iron triangle? Anomic? That last one is about as sexy as it gets.
Meanwhile the physical anthropologists run around the desert and jungle like Indiana Jones. And the cultural anthropology crowd has this great vocabulary. Etic and emic. Tabu. Autochtonous. Even the names of the great scholars sing. In a list of cool names Franz Boas, Claude Lévi Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski are going to nose out Robert Dahl, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber every time.
And then along came Mary. There’s something about Mary.
Mary would be Mary Douglas, a British social scientist and if it sounds like I’m hedging I am. In Britain and the Commonwealth there’s this thing called social anthropology that we don’t have in the US. So you can encounter Departments of Sociology at US schools with British-educated faculty whose degrees are in anthropology. I’m pretty sure that describes Mary Douglas who was still alive when I discovered her work a decade or so ago.
That first encounter was with a book she co-authored with Baron Isherwood entitled The World of Goods. Subtitled ‘Toward an Anthropology of Consumption’ it radically changed the way I thought about the whole subject. Read that book and even an ardent adherent of Karl Marx will come away with a more nuanced view of the subject. (I keep threatening to build a list called ‘Marketing Books You Should Have Read but Never Will.’ If I do, that book will be on it.) Since then I read her when I can and her work has been reviewed here before.
The present volume, I must say, was deeply academic. By that I mean it’s extremely focused on a narrow subject area. From what I can gather it’s viewed as a major contribution on the matter at hand. I just don’t have the background to appreciate that in any meaningful way.
The matter at hand, by the way, is dirt. By the time you’re done with this book you’ll be a veritable Roget on the subject. Impurity, defilement, pollution and on and on.
Douglas’ scholarship is formidable. She begins, in the Introduction, with the observation that in the 19th century there was a fascination with a major difference between the religious systems of ‘primitive’ peoples and the ‘great’ religions. And that difference was the predominance of rules, prohibitions, interdicts and outright bans on practices that might have an unclean outcome. Think about the rules of Kosher or Halal food handling rules and you’ll get the picture.
The book takes us on a wide survey of cultures and history. The overall thrust, laid out early on, is simple:
“Primitive rules of uncleanness pay attention to the material circumstances of an act and judge it good or bad accordingly…Christian rules of holiness, by contrast, disregard the material circumstances and judge according to the motives and disposition of the agent. ”
( p. 11*)
There you have the essence of anthropology: demonstrating how another culture is not wrong or odd or curious but rather is understandable by our own means of understanding things.
And so Douglas demonstrates,working through myriad examples, including an entire chapter on the material most likely to be familiar to the average reader, Leviticus. I once had a 6-toed kibbutznik explain to me that all of Leviticus was a rational response to a world with no understanding of germ theory. Douglas makes short shrift of that argument. Sometimes, she says, something is forbidden just because it’s forbidden and obeying that rule is what makes us, us. The simplicity of that explanation speaks for itself.
Douglas provides ample evidence to support the idea that regardless of culture, the sacred and the unclean are never confounded. And really (no surprise here) the reason for that is that dirt is very close to, even a metaphorical synonym for, death. I can hear the anti-Freudians sharpening their swords but honestly, death is not ambiguous and you could argue that coming to terms with it is the primary driver of human history. But that’s another post for another day.
This is not the book for everyone. It may only be a book for people interested in anthropology or religion. If those things interest you at all, you ought to take the time to meet Mary Douglas and read this book.
* One should always be suspicious of a quote pulled from too early or late in a source. It’s the oldest trick in the ‘See-I-really-read-it’ book. In this case the thesis was set out crisply early on and, I assure you, is developed over the next 170 pages. I saw no need to look for the same idea deeper into the text.
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