Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger (1966) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Chapter 2: Understanding rules of defilement

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Links to Other Chapters:
Purity and Dangerch 1ch 2 |  3 |  ch 4ch 5 |  6 |  7 |  8 |  9 |  ch 10

Extended Comments Pages:
Ndembu Doctor (ch 4)Zande Poison Oracle (ch 5)

In her short second chapter, Douglas engages with the phenomenon in tribal religions of rules connected with defilement. She points first to the notion of some commentators that such rules are hygienic in intention and second to the contrary notion that the rules are symbolic. Depicting both these explanations as simplistic, the anthropologist suggests that, in order to reach a proper understanding, we need to confront the question of dirt and hygiene in our own culture. Finally, she discusses ambiguity and anomaly.

Medical materialism

Douglas borrows the William James term medical materialism to label the gloss given by some commentators to the effect that religious rules against defilement are at bottom practical hygiene rules for avoiding disease. An example she gives of medical materialism in this sense is the claim that religious rules about not eating pork stem from the consideration that it is not safe to do so in hot climates.

Douglas sees the possible medical benefits to be derived from religious rules against defilement as happy side effects and dismisses purely medical explanations even when supplied by believers themselves. Unfortunately, the anthropologist's reasoning here does not emerge clearly.

The symbolic interpretation

A contrary interpretation rejects out of hand any comparison between religious rituals of purification and the hygiene measures of our own culture, seeing the former as purely symbolic and the latter as purely practical. Douglas cautions against this approach too. In this context she looks particularly at Hindu practices, such as a type of ritual bathing.

This time, the anthropologist's reasoning is retrievable. The grounds for rejecting the disputed interpretation is that a false contrast is involved, that between the religions and ourselves. It is not that rituals of purification are not symbolic, but rather that our own attitudes are not necessarily practical, based on medical considerations: our hygiene too can have a symbolic element.


Turning to our own notions, Douglas argues that our association of dirt with bacteria should be discounted on account of it being a recent development. In our culture, dirt is essentially a question of matter out of place [p 36], of that which we find inappropriate in a given context. It is concomitant with the creation of order.

Ambiguity and Anomaly

Douglas now effects a transition in her discussion from dirt to ambiguity and anomaly, the latter two being the same for practical purposes. As an example of the way we find it difficult to handle anomaly, Douglas refers to Sartre's analysis in Being and Nothingness of the experience of viscosity, an intermediate state between liquid and solid.

Cultures have a range of tactics for dealing with phenomena perceived as anomalous or ambiguous:

  • The anomalous phenomenon is assigned to one of the two possible categories involved and dealt with accordingly. Thus, the East African Nuer people chose to regard monstrous births, seemingly both human and animal, as baby hippos mistakenly born to humans and placed them in a river.
  • The anomaly is destroyed. Thus, in parts of West Africa, if a cock, supposedly a bird that crowed at dawn, actually crowed during the night, it was killed.
  • The anomaly is subjected to rules of avoidance, thereby reaffirming the system of categorisation it challenges. Thus, in the Old Testament, crawling things are declared abominations.
  • The anomaly is branded as dangerous. According to Festinger: A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), to declare a controversial subject dangerous is to take it out of dispute.
  • Ambiguity is used as a source of powerful symbolism: not only in religious rituals, but also in myths and poems.
(c) John C Durham, 2004

Links to Other Chapters:
Purity and Dangerch 1ch 2 |  3 |  ch 4ch 5 |  6 |  7 |  8 |  9 |  ch 10

Extended Comments Pages:
Ndembu Doctor (ch 4)Zande Poison Oracle (ch 5)