Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger (1966)

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The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest. Comments are offered separately.

Douglas makes extreme demands on the attentive reader, so it is possible that from time to time the summary here drifts into interpretation. If you consider that Douglas's original is misrepresented at any point, send an email. [See the note below.]


No other book has anything approaching the importance of Purity and Danger for your present writer, who first read it on its initial appearance in paperback. However, I find the work extremely difficult to summarise. From paragraph level upwards, rather than develop an argument, Douglas seems to proceed by free association, with occasional attempts to offer some bearings. John Donne springs to mind:

On a huge hill, Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will Reach her, about must, and about must goe; [The Progresse of the Soule].

In mitigation, we may suppose that Douglas had in mind as her readership the tiny, close-knit world of the professional anthropologists of London, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, people who knew her personally and who were already very familiar with her views and style of presentation from academic papers and face to face discussions. For such a readership, it may well have been sufficient for Douglas merely to throw off sparks.

That a purely specialist readership was envisaged is suggested by such trivial pointers as Douglas not providing the slightest background information on the anthropological authorities she referred to or on the tribes they discussed. Thus only professional anthropologists and their students could be expected to know who was the Lienhardt discussed in chapter 4 and who were the Dinka, whose religion he had analysed.

Presumably, it never occurred to Douglas that her academic work would achieve a wide general readership as a paperback and go on to become a sort of minor classic.

December 2006: Now that I have worked on Purity and Danger, Chapter 5, for this site, I take a less charitable view of the book. [Back to main text.]

(c) John C Durham, 2004 - 2006