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

Chapter 5: Primitive thought

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In her fifth chapter, Douglas challenges early anthroplogical views on the thinking of tribal peoples.

Understanding pollution

Douglas points to two reasons why we find it difficult to understand ‘cosmic pollution’ [p 74], anomalies in animal taxonomy perceived as threatening the existence of our society. Firstly, having accepted that we are descended from the apes, we are proof against anything that animal taxonomy might throw up. Secondly, we minimise the distinction that really does exist between the primitive and the modern.

However, if we are to try to understand ‘ritual pollution’ [p 74], we must ask why pollution is a feature of primitive cultures but not of our own. In many cultures, pollution is a religious concern, whereas in ours it is merely a social concern: for some breach of accepted standards.

The term primitive

Our reluctance to use the term ‘primitive’ may well derive from an implicit sense of our superiority. Social anthropologists can usefully consider why the term carries pejorative connotations.

In Britain, the problem may be connected with an unwarranted lack of interest in Levy-Bruhl’s work on the primitive: resulting from the Frenchman’s critique of Frazer.


In La mentalité primitive [1922], Levy-Bruhl argued that any disinclination of primitive people to reason discursively was not a matter of inferior intellect but of a focus on matters of immediate relevance.

Following Durkheim, Levy-Bruhl understood primitive ideas sociologically, as ‘collective representations’ associated with ‘social institutions’ [p 76], rather than psychologically, as generated by individuals, the way Tylor and Frazer had understood them.


Evans-Pritchard found that Levy-Bruhl, in generalising about the connections between beliefs and institutions, overemphasised the distinction between primitive and modern thought, making the former seem more mystical than it was and the latter more rational.

Evans-Pritchard himself examined the connection as it applied to particular beliefs and particular institutions in Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande [1937]. This work, along with subsequent ones from British and American scholars, confirmed Durkheim’s original line of thought.

Had Levy-Bruhl not diverged from Durkheim, he might have developed the latter’s distinction between societies with ‘organic solidarity’ and those with ‘mechanical solidarity’ [p 77] [1] as explanatory of differences in belief.


In order to understand ‘sacred contagion’ [p 77], we need to do some generalising: to distinguish between two types of culture, between those which hold pollution beliefs and those which do not. We have to accept that human progress means that primitive and modern societies do differ. The difference is a matter of differentiation, with primitive meaning undifferentiated and modern meaning differentiated.

Differentiation is a matter of diversification and specialisation. With economic differentiation and the concomitant social differentiation comes intellectual differentiation.

From subjectivity to objectivity

Relevant differentiation is not about the complexity of beliefs but about objectivity. Essentially, our intellectual progress has been about our gradual escape from subjectivity, as in the case of the Copernican revolution.

Douglas finds the Winnebago Trickster myth to be a poetic representation of humanity’s progressive liberation from subjectivity. Thus, there is an episode in the myth in which Trickster treats his own anus as a person. When it fails to protect his food from foxes while he sleeps, he punishes it by burning it with a brand and of course feels the pain himself. Such episodes serve to teach Trickster about himself and his relationships with the people and things around him. [2]

Whereas Levy-Bruhl saw primitive thought as pre-logical, Douglas sees it as ‘pre-Copernican’ [p 81].

The man-centred universe

She will develop an understanding of primitive thought as undifferentiated, as in Tylor and Frazer. Then she will attempt to demonstrate that such an understanding is a distortion. [3]

In the first place, the primitive world view is ‘man-centred’ [p 82] in that events are explained in terms of good and bad fortune. Events are related to an individual’s character and actions, as in Jonah confessing he has caused a storm. [4]

‘Belief in anthropocentric powers’ [p 82] is exemplified in a !Kung Bushman idea that when a hunter of a certain physical type kills a prey animal of the same type a force is released that determines the weather. Again, the following ‘laws of vital causality’ [p 83] have been identified by an authority among a Bantu people called the Luba:

1. One human, whether alive or dead, can affect the life force of another. 2. A human’s life force can affect those of lesser beings, whether animal, plant or material. 3. The life force of a human, whether alive or dead, or of a spirit, can be mediated to another, via a lesser being.

Douglas suspects that this kind of thinking is widespread, not merely among Bantu peoples, but more generally.


There is a distinction to be made between beliefs that link all humans with the cosmos and those which allot cosmic powers to special individuals. In Homer, destiny rules the lives of all the Greeks and, in modern Hinduism, everybody has a horoscope. [5]

In many West African cultures, people’s destinies are understood in terms of multiple personality. Thus among the Tallensi, there is an unconscious self that is understood as predestined, maybe to be in conflict with the conscious self. Among the Ijo, it is the conscious self that is predestined.

In these West African understandings, one’s destiny can be rejected once it has been recognised. This was not the case for the Homeric Greeks. West African thinking here seems more differentiated than Ancient Greek.

For the Dinka of Sudan, one’s actions come not from an independent self, but from emotions projected externally as spirit forces. Douglas quotes a sentence from Jung suggesting that he found this sort of projection in primitives generally. [6]

In Chinese culture, the cosmos is seen as bound up with individual human lives. Individual good fortune is a matter of being in harmony with the universe: understood in Feng Shwe [sic] in terms of geomantic alignment.

In Feng Shwe, in Greece and in West Africa, some individuals have better destinies than others. ‘Sometimes’ [p 86], only special individuals have a destiny of their own, which ordinary people share. So ordinary people need to select carefully whom to follow. [7]

The impersonal personalised

In the undifferentiated world pictures discussed above, things happen to people on account of personal links with the cosmos, either their own links or the links of others. In those sorts of world pictures, things and people may not be altogether distinguished from each other, with impersonal cosmic forces being endowed with some measure of personality.

This is not simply a matter of linguistics, as in the way we may refer to a boat as ‘she’. It is a matter of expecting impersonal forces to respond actively to human advances.

This expectation is found in belief in sorcery. Thus, the Azande speak to a poison that they make from bark and administer to chickens in order to detect witches: the poison responds by killing the chicken or not. [Zande Poison Oracle]

[Frazer's] The Golden Bough is crammed with examples of belief in the possibility of communication with impersonal forces. According to Stanner, for Australian Aborigines the whole world is humanised this way.

A final feature of undifferentiated world views is belief in the ability of impersonal forces to discern human transgressions. Thus the Cheyenne thought that any of their number who had killed another Cheyenne gave off an odour that repelled the buffalo. The Lele people [8] think that medicine can discern adultery and debt. If the practitioner has sexual intercourse with his patient’s wife, his medicine will kill the patient; if the patient does not pay for his medicine, he will suffer a relapse and may even die. [9]

Douglas says that though she has derived her information from recent fieldwork, the picture of non-differentiation in primitive thought that emerges corresponds well with those found in Tylor, Marett, Frazer and Levy-Bruhl. Again, the beliefs are reminiscent of the confused thinking of young children according to Piaget or Klein.

Non-differentiation rejected

In fact, non-differentiation is not involved. The primitive beliefs referred to may not even be held by members of the societies in which they have been found: individuals in primitive societies may develop philosophies of their own. [10]

The ideas on destiny and so on referred to are not components of some coherent philosophy. Rather, as Evans-Pritchard argued, ‘they are institutions’ [p 90], comparable to our Halloween.

In this light, the poison oracle of the Azande looks quite different. That the Azande speak to their poison does not mean they are confusing things with people, simply that using the poison has become ritualised.

Robertson Smith was the first to link beliefs with practices; evidence in favour of this connection has subsequently accumulated. Indeed, we ourselves, unless we are engaged in philosophy, gradually cobble together a world view as we deal with situations that arise.

Why things happen

Evans-Pritchard points to the concern of the Azande for why things happen, not in general, but in particular and to explanations in terms of witchcraft. Thus if an old building collapses, killing somebody in the process, witchcraft must be involved. [11] For the issue is not that old buildings collapse, but that one should do so at a particular moment and kill a particular person: that needs an explanation.

Explanations are aimed at dealing with the practical issue of regulating social life: accounts of people’s place in the world merely arise out of that. Ideas about destiny, witchcraft etc arise as mechanisms used in handling the practical social problems that all communities experience: troublesome young people, quarrelling neighbours, threats to authority. In primitive cultures, the beliefs that arise out of social institutions are rarely thought about: they exist at an unconscious level.

In our society, we experience organic solidarity thanks to all the advanced forms of social control with which we live. So it is difficult for us to understand what primitive societies must do in order to maintain social coherence.

The world religions are not to be understood as survivals of primitive culture. They are themselves modern in the sense that their beliefs have gradually become detached from social life. [12]

Douglas ends the chapter hoping that the term ‘primitive’ will not be cast aside. The Continentals are still happy to use it: perhaps because they do not feel superior and appreciate other cultures. [13]


1 Organic solidarity ~ mechanical solidarity

Durkheim had made this distinction in The Division of Labour in Society [1893]. It does not figure in Elementary Forms.     [Back to Article]

2 Winnebago Trickster myth

The getting on for 2 pages, pp 80-81, Douglas spends on the Winnebago Trickster myth seem to add nothing to her argument. After her account, she says:

In the next few pages I am going to press as hard as I can the analogy between primitive cultures and the early episodes of the Trickster myth. [p 82]

But very strangely, that is the last we hear of the matter.     [Back to Article]

3 An about-turn

This apparent about-turn on the part of Douglas is baffling and irritating. Since her first mention of Copernicus over two pages earlier, Douglas has given the impression that she links lack of differentiation in primitive thought with subjectivity. Now she proposes to challenge that association: but only after she has developed it some more.     [Back to Article]

4 Confusion

At this point, Douglas offers in a single paragraph two mutually exclusive explanations of why things happen. She does not seem to appreciate the need to manage the juxtaposition of these two explanations in some way. If you are going to say in the same breath that in the alleged man-centred thinking the things that happen to people are caused by cosmic forces such as fortune and by personal forces such as character, you need to make it clear how that is possible. You might say, for instance, that there are two types of man-centred thinking. The confusion persists throughout the amplification that follows.     [Back to Article]

5 An awkward transition

Here your summariser reproduces an awkward transition from the general to the particular occurring in the middle of a single lengthy paragraph of the original. Material on only special people being linked to the cosmos comes 2½ pages later in the book.     [Back to Article]

6 Bibliography

Douglas gives a page reference for her Jung quotation, but no source document. Nor does Jung figure in her bibliography.

Indeed, there is no consistency whatsoever in Douglas's treatment of sources in Purity and Danger. At a guess I'd say that this chapter alone contains at least a dozen variations on the bibliographic reference, ranging from comprehensive to non-existent.

To give some indication of Douglas's inconsistency in handling references, I have tabulated below 18 references in Chapter 5 that provide specific information on specific peoples. There are maybe as many again general references in this chapter, handled with at least as much inconsistency.

Looking at the handling of just quotations on specific peoples, we find a different reference style for each of the 3 authors. For Onians, year and page are given in the text, while title, year and place of publication are given in the bibliography. Radin gets title, year and place in the bibliography only. Stanner gets title only in the bibliography only.

Note that we get page references for only 4 sources. As with Jung, no title is supplied for one of these, the Colson, and it does not figure in the bibliography.

Page People Info Author Title Year Page Place
85 Homeric Greeks quotation Onians b t, b t b
80 Winnebago quotations Radin b b   b
88 Aborigines quotation Stanner b      
88 Arnhemlanders details Berndt b b t b
83 Luba details Father Tempels b b t  
89 Plateau Tonga details Colson     t  
82 !Kung details Marshall b b   article
84 Tallensi details Fortes b t, b   b
84 Ijo details Horton b t, b   article
87 Azande details Evans-Pritchard b t, b   b
90 Bushong details Vansina b b   article
85 Chinese details Freedman b t, b    
87 Ituri pygmies detail Turnbull b b    
85 Dinka details [Lienhardt ?]        
88 Lele details [Douglas ?]        
88 Cheyenne details          
79 Hadza detail          
87 Nyae-Nyae detail          

I have found it extremely tedious to compile this table, but I wanted to make a point. I take this sort of inconsistency as symptomatic of the present work generally.     [Back to Article]

7 An unfulfilled promise

2½ pages earlier, Douglas had distinguished between world views in which everybody has a destiny and those in which only special individuals have one. Then she spent 2½ pages discussing examples of the first type. We might very reasonably suppose that she is going to discuss examples of the second kind. But unfortunately, this does not happen. We get the general point that ordinary people need to select carefully a special destiny to follow: that’s all we get.     [Back to Article]

8 The Lele

A Central African people who were the subject of Douglas’s own anthropological fieldwork     [Back to Article]

9 Communication and discernment

Douglas’s categories of non-differentation are unconvincing. She has made the Zande poison oracle an example of communication because the Azande speak to it and it responds after a fashion, but it is also an example of discernment, because it distinguishes between witches and non-witches.     [Back to Article]

10 A major problem

Douglas’s claim here that individuals in primitive societies sometimes generate their own philosophies poses a major problem for her, one which she ignores. Her claim militates against the view that religious beliefs are generated by social institutions, the view that she herself apparently espouses.

A capacity for individuals to generate personal philosophies suggests that it is that individuals generate beliefs rather than social institutions. May not the world pictures of whole societies have originated as personal philosophies that found general acceptance: the way Tylor and co. supposed?     [Back to Article]

11 Causality

The old building example is from Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande [1937] pp 69-70.     [Back to Article]

12 The modernity of world religions

This argument of Douglas seems extremely feeble.     [Back to Article]

13 Continentals

Douglas must have read Claude Levi-Strauss: La pensée sauvage [1962], English translation: The Savage Mind [1966], before she wrote Purity and Danger. Why doesn’t she take account of it in this chapter?     [Back to Article]


(c) John C Durham, 2006

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)