Purity and Danger

By Mary Douglas, 1966

Mrs. Douglas seems to have written this book to combat an idea, still popular at the time, of what distinguishes “primitive” from “advanced” religions.  Primitive religions were supposedly concerned with magic, i.e. with following arbitrary rituals or observing arbitrary taboos in order to manipulate supernatural powers for one’s own benefit (or at least to keep them from causing one harm).  Advanced religions put aside all that mumbo-jumbo, and only concern themselves with morality.  As Douglas points out, these characterizations really just carry over Protestant polemics into the science of anthropology, and they don’t describe real primitive peoples any better than they describe real Roman Catholics.

This book focuses on the idea of impurity.  While this might seem like a purely religious concern, Douglas argues that we have it even in modern secular society, except instead of calling things “impure” we call them “dirty”.  An example would be getting food on one’s clothes.  This doesn’t really cause anyone any harm, and we don’t regard either clothing or food as inherently evil.  Still, we object to their combination, because we like to have things in their proper place:  food here, apparel there.   Douglas insists that, rather than seeing this as irrational, we see it as a positive thing—as human beings establishing an order in their world.  We all feel the need for systems, both as individuals and as collectives.  When something doesn’t fit the system, we call it “impure” or “dirty”.

Douglas does not deny that there is a meaningful distinction between primitive and advanced religions, but she finds it not on the level of doctrines or spirituality, but on the level of how the religion functions in its society.  She is a follower of Durkheim, and accepts his distinction between primitive and modern societies based on how extensively the division of labor is developed (“mechanical” vs. “organic” solidarity).  Modern society, with its extensive and complicated division of labor, has developed vast and powerful means of social control—of monitoring citizens and punishing bad behavior.  Primitive societies don’t have so many means of control, so religion has to pick up the slack.  That’s the big difference between primitive and modern religion, according to Douglas.  The former had a responsibility to maintain social order that the latter doesn’t have.  Hence it needed stronger ideas of taboo and more stories about how people get smitten for their sins, just to keep people in line.

Much of the book consists of examples of how ideas of impurity promote good behavior or discourage bad behavior.  For example, the Nuer believe that if a woman commits adultery, it will cause her husband to have back pains if he sleeps with her.  The Nuer don’t seem to take adultery that seriously in itself, so adding the idea of physical suffering for the aggrieved husband helps them to work up more indignation against infidelity than they might otherwise muster.  In another series of examples, Douglas notices that authority figures are often thought to have supernatural powers under their control (e.g. the ability of fathers to curse their sons), while people in roles that effectively give then power without formal authority are more often imagined to be practicing witchcraft without intending to (e.g. through unexpressed feelings).  Here we see that these beliefs don’t just reinforce the social order; they in some ways represent it.  This will be the major theme of Douglas’ later book, Natural Symbols.

The most famous and interesting chapter is on the prohibitions in the book of Leviticus, such as that against eating pork.  Douglas examines and rejects several proposed explanations of these Mosaic rules:  that they’re intended to prevent disease, that they symbolize moral lessons, that they’re just there to distinguish Jews from pagans, or that they’re totally arbitrary.  What reason does the Bible give for these rules?  Here’s an example: “Whatever pars the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals you may eat….you shall not eat these:  the camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you…”  What the devil does that mean?  Douglas speculates that the Hebrews had definite ideas about what constitutes a proper land animal, fish, or bird.  An animal that had some but not all of the qualities of its type was ambiguous, and therefore unclean.  This is because their idea of the Holy consisted not only in being set apart from the profane, but also the idea of unity and completeness.  Thus, the exemplars of each of the classes of being were symbols of God, each in its own way.  The Jewish dietary rules expressed their vision of the order of the universe and of God’s perfection.  Douglas has since recanted this theory, but I still find it suggestive.  At least, I think the true explanation of these laws would have to be something of this sort.

There are many interesting parts of this book; I particularly recommend the chapter on Leviticus.  On the other hand, I think there are some gaps in Douglas’ arguments that someone should try to fill.  For example, she claims that we all need to systematize the world, but that our systems are all, to some extent arbitrary.  I think the latter claim is a larger concession to nominalism than is philosophically warranted.  I admit that the systems of the primitive peoples she discusses seem to have arbitrary elements.  However, that’s another unexplained problem:  why did they feel obliged to introduce rigid categories where it’s not needed?  I can understand why one needs to have a limited number of social roles and have them rigidly defined, but why did these tribes feel the need to do the same thing with animal species?  For example, the Lehe are thrown into mystic confusion by the pangolin, a land animal that looks scaly like a fish.  They have a cult to this animal, who represents to them formlessness and, ultimately, the God who contains within Himself all forms.  That’s nice, I guess, but it seems like a slightly finer classification scheme could have accommodated this animal rather easily.

One Response

  1. […] Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas asks the question “what is the fundamental difference between […]

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