Society does exist after all, and it's good for you

Mary Douglas
September 15, 2000

Those who worry that social anthropology - in its contemporary version at least - was the last redoubt of the post-1968 European radical intelligentsia will be happy to know that this is not always the case. In this thorough assessment of the work of one of the leading anthropologists of the 20th century, Richard Fardon gives us a well-rounded portrait of a scholar whose sociological conservatism, "with a small c" as the biographer twice hastens to specify, is at least as remarkable as the ambitions of her work.

Mary Douglas is probably one of the very few social scientists to think that it is not only possible but also morally compelling to elaborate a theory of sociality not simply cross-cultural but altogether universal in space and time. Douglas's motivations are rooted in her Roman Catholicism, "cradle and Ultramontanist", and therefore more demanding and probably less glamorous than the Oxford home-bred version she met as a PhD student of Evans-Pritchard. She is best known to the wider public for her best-selling Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo , published in 1966. The book was translated into several languages and has never been out of print. Thirty years later Douglas has closed the circle with the publication of a new series of essays on the Pentateuch. Critical at points of her earlier masterwork, here she shifts the emphasis from the aporias of cognition and classification towards an analysis more inclined to consider the contexts and the political-institutional agendas of the biblical text.

The trajectory of Douglas's engagement with the scriptures is paradigmatic of her wider - often very wide - forays into several fields of "home anthropology"; the anthropology of contemporary western society. These are characterised by an uncompromising sociological apologia for institutions, which she deems necessary, good and healthy to live with, as against the disruptive and inane utopias of sectarian paranoid criticism.

Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (1970) was a critique of the anti-ritualist stance of the reformed (intellectual when not doctrinal) modernist persuasion and an indictment of Vatican II for departing from heavy-duty ritualism. In marked contrast to many radical critics, Douglas elevated consumerism to an activity crucial in supporting not so much the productive apparatus of global capitalism as the sacred foundations of family and society. In The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1978), consuming is not simply disposing of ill-gained polluting commodities, but building sociality through exchange and making sense of the world via the routinised ritual of shopping at Sainsbury's. In a similar vein she reduces the early ecological movements to peripheral sects intent on blaming the institutional world of the centre for some imagined millennial catastrophe in fieri . She articulates what Fardon qualifies, with some caveats, as "a penchant for order" with penetrating - occasionally brilliant and never boring - passages of sociological analysis ( Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers , 1982, in collaboration with Aaron Wildavsky).

It is the merit of Fardon's rigorous analysis of Douglas's oeuvre to present us with an intellectual portrait that joins a deep personal experience with existential commitments. These, in turn, translate into an intellectual programme and vision remarkably consequential and unflinchingly coherent. This is no mean achievement in an age where the gentlest of skepsis appears too doctrinal. Those who would like to know where the narrator stands in the evaluation of such a controversial thinker will be disappointed. Although in the case of Douglas the no-scholar's land between approval and dismissal is bound to be extremely narrow, Fardon stubbornly refuses to take sides and may appear to sit on a very sharp, uncomfortable fence. He does not shy away from occasionally critiquing his former teacher's work, but his admiration for her is genuine: "Like few anthropologists of her own time, Mary Douglas has articulated a general and explicit vision of the society in which she lives and the society she would prefer to live in." Granted this might not be your choice or mine, yet she is probably the last of the Durkheimians to think that society is good for people and that there is no sensible life without strong, creditable institutions.

Many will be the readers attracted by this thorough portrayal of a crucial episode in the history of British (ultramontane) cultural critique. And those whom I mentioned at the beginning can set their hearts at rest: there is such a thing as society, and God may be hidden in it.

Cesare Poppi is deputy director, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia.

Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography

Author - Richard Fardon
ISBN - 0 415 04092 2 and 04093 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00, £15.99
Pages - 315

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