Natural Symbols

By Mary Douglas, 1970

In 1967, the Catholic bishops in England abolished the rule of abstinence from meat on Fridays.  The abstinence rule had become a meaningless ritual, it was believed.  It made Catholics stand out from other Englishmen, something the Bishops regarded as bad.  True religion, it was felt, should be a more spiritual thing and a more individual thing.  Beneath it all was the belief that progress in religion meant less emphasis on ritual and more on ethics.  Shortly afterwards, renowned anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote this book to refute the bishops’ superficial understanding of their own religion.  Rituals that receive widespread obedience are never meaningless.  They function as “condensed symbols” which carry a wide range of implicit meanings about society and the cosmos.  A ritual like Friday abstinence expresses solidarity among all Catholics, both living and dead.  It’s supposed to make them stand out.  The bishops don’t understand how rituals function because they grew up in relatively unstructured (non-hierarchical) homes without developed symbolic means of communication, and so they are deaf to the significance of condensed symbols for their own flocks.

What about the claim that the replacement of ritual by ethics is the good and true progress of religion?  Douglas claims that it is an error to believe that all primitive people are ritualistic.  The pygmies, for example, have essentially no interest in ritual, and seemingly even little interest in religion itself.  So Douglas changes the question to “why do men abandon ritual as they become more scientific?” to “why is industrial Europe reverting to the spiritual state of the pygmies?”  “Science” and “moral progress” can’t be the answer.  What Europeans and pygmies have in common, she suggests, is a weak social structure:  weak loyalty to group and weakly defined social roles.

Douglas believes that a society’s structure is reflected in its understandings of the cosmos and the human body.  The cosmos and the body are always symbols of society.  She credits Durkheim with this idea, but she seems to have the opposite preferences as Durkheim.  Douglas classifies societies according to two variables:  “group” and “grid”.  “Group” means the strength of group bonds, how much loyalty and sacrifice they command.  “Grid” means the importance of role differences, things like gender roles, age roles, and status.  This point, that social strength is two-dimensional, has certainly helped to clarify my thinking on these matters.  A people can have strong group and weak grid, and vice versa.  Based on these variables, there are four possibilities:

1)      Weak group, weak grid—the state of pygmies, university students, and the urban proletariat.  Since bonds are weak, people feel that their lives are controlled by impersonal (natural or bureaucratic) forces.  The world seems an amoral arena controlled by chance, and there is little interest in ritual or religion.  The case of such a people being embedded in a more structured society is considered below.

2)      Strong group, weak grid.  Here “us” vs. “them” is the category that eclipses all others.  Such peoples tend to have dualistic cosmologies (i.e. to see the cosmos as a battleground between a good and an evil power), and fear of contamination is the most potent bodily symbol.  People are particularly interested in rituals that ward off the influence of witches.

3)      Weak group, strong grid—the world of individualist capitalism.  Here status (often represented by wealth) is king.  The universe is seen as generally amoral, but it rewards hard work and cleverness.  Ritual magic is used primarily to get ahead.  The losers in this system tend to sink into a weak group, weak grid existence.

4)      Strong group, strong grid—the world of Catholic Europe.  Since people’s lives are controlled primarily by personal forces (i.e. authorities), the world is seen to be infused with morality—a good God or gods reward good, while demons and witches (if they exist) punish evil.  The body (representing society) is regarded positively as a mediator of spiritual values, so religion is strongly sacramental or “magical”.  Dogmas like the Incarnation and Transubstantiation also affirm the body’s role as mediator of God, and therefore symbolize society’s benevolent mediating role.

A particularly interesting case is what happens to the mass of losers in a weak group, strong grid society who fall into an undifferentiated (weak grid) existence.  These tend to be subject to millenarian fantasies.  The body (larger society) is contrasted with the spirit (the un-integrated minority), with the former despised and the latter extolled.  Douglas suggests that the best thing to do for these unfortunate souls would be to organize them so that they can have the spiritual benefits of a strong grid and so they can take effective collective action.  Instead, she points out that their leaders prefer to engage in mass marches and protests, to despise forms and hierarchies, and to harbor ridiculous fantasies of creating a utopia just by overthrowing the existing order.  What is going on here is that the alienated members of society are trapped in the bodily symbols of their alienation.  Rather than reintegrating “body” and “spirit”, they imagine that the latter can overthrow the former.

“How to humanize the machine is the problem, not how to symbolize its dehumanizing effects.  When bureaucrats hear the catchword ‘equality’ (a symbol of non-differentiation), they should beware.  The way to humanize the system is to reject equality and to cherish the individual case….Instead of anti-ritualism it would be more practical to experiment with more flexible institutional forms and seek to develop their ritual expression.  But this would mean going into the world, mixing with corruption and sin, dirtying oneself with externals, having some truck with the despised forms, instead of worshipping the sacred mysteries of pure content.”

6 Responses

  1. […] the health of communities is multidimensional.  In her book Natural Symbols (which I review here), anthropologist Mary Douglas classifies societies according to two measures of community strength, […]

  2. […] worldview/society taxonomy.  I reviewed her impressive but mostly-forgotten Natural Symbols here, and I’m glad to see these ideas getting more […]

  3. […] (Throne & Altar blog) […]

  4. […] it has been effectively neutralized by Vatican II, and therefore absorbed by liberalism. (This traditionalist Catholic blog offers a short reflection on the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, and her condemnation as a scientist of the English […]

  5. […] it has been effectively neutralized by Vatican II, and therefore absorbed by liberalism. (This traditionalist Catholic blog offers a short reflection on the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, and her condemnation as a scientist of the English […]

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