May 22, 2007
Dame Mary Douglas, 86, a Wide-Ranging Anthropologist, Is Dead
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Dame Mary Douglas, an anthropologist whose influence ranged beyond the
traditional questions of her field to examine areas as diverse as kosher
diets, consumer behavior, environmentalism and humor as she described
how humans work together to find shared meaning, died Wednesday in
She was 86, and on May 8 she was made a dame commander of the British
Empire. She was thrilled that Prince Charles took part in the ceremony,
because he studied anthropology at Cambridge, her friend Alida Brill
The cause of death was complications of cancer, Ms. Brill said.
Dame Mary marshaled a vivid, pugnacious writing style in more than 15
books to describe the relationship between culture and social action,
leading to her conclusion that knowledge is built by people
communicating and responding to one another.
"The colonization of each other's minds is the price we pay for
thought," she wrote.
Drawing on her field experience in Africa and expansive reading, she saw
little difference between "modern" and "primitive" societies, and
sometimes drew startling conclusions. In the provocative 1982 book "Risk
and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental
Dangers," she and Aaron Wildavsky argued that environmentalists'
complaints reflected an antipathy toward dominant social hierarchies.
The authors compared environmentalists to religious cults and
superstitious groups of the past.
This train of thought reflects that of one of Dame Mary's most discussed
books, "Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and
Taboo" (1966). She explored the relationships between dirt and holiness,
impurity and hygiene, as means of defining one's own group as distinct
from other groups. She said foods were banned as unkosher because they
did not fit into any definite category: pigs seemed ambiguous because
they shared the cloven hoof of ungulates but did not chew cud.
Once made, such choices were a way to define Jews as different, she
Rituals in the Roman Catholic Church
an_catholic_church/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , of which she was a
lifelong member, similarly bind people together, she wrote. Therefore,
she regarded the abolition of Friday abstinence from meat as a threat to
people's sense of solidarity with God and fellow Catholics. She found
proof for her belief that collective interaction defined and governed
personal behavior in the fact that people use a knife and fork even when
Among many intriguing theories was her contention in a book written with
Baron Isherwood, an economist, that buying things is a way people create
meaning in their lives. She attracted admiration from biblical scholars
for discovering a new way to interpret the literary structure of
She pointed out advantages of hierarchical social forms and rejected the
notion that magic was necessarily inferior to the ethical approaches
that emerged from the Enlightenment. She said comedy was "the victorious
tilting of uncontrol against control."
Mary Tew was born March 25, 1921, in San Remo, Italy. Her parents had
stopped off on their way home from Burma, where her father was in the
Indian civil service. She was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in
southwest London. She studied philosophy, politics and economics at
Oxford, then worked in the British Colonial Office during World War II.
She was intrigued by anthropologists she had met in the colonial office
and returned to Oxford to study anthropology. Her teacher, mentor and
role model was E. E. Evans-Pritchard, whose work on witchcraft in East
Africa was groundbreaking. Dame Mary wrote a biography of him in 1980.
She did her own fieldwork in what was then the Belgian Congo, studying
the Lele, a matrilineal tribe . In 1951, after a brief appointment at
Oxford, she married James Douglas, who soon became a researcher for the
Mr. Douglas, who went on to teaching and other jobs, died in 2004. Dame
Mary is survived by her sons James, of London, and Philip, of Sydney,
Australia; her daughter, Janet, of Surrey, England; and six
In 1951, she began teaching at University College of the University of
London and in 1966 published her most celebrated work, the "Purity and
Danger" book. One of the book's more famous lines: "Dirt is matter out
From 1977 to 1981, she worked at the Russell Sage Foundation in New
York, then taught at Northwestern University
thwestern_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> until 1985. She was a
visiting professor at Yale
e_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> and Princeton.
Her last book will be a posthumous compilation of essays by her father,
many of them about fly-fishing. Her most recently published book,
"Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition," came out this year;
it offers interpretations of texts structured in circular patterns like
the Book of Numbers, Chinese novels and Zoroastrian poetry.
"Writings that used to baffle and dismay unprepared readers, when read
correctly, turn out to be marvelously controlled and complex
compositions," she wrote.
Dame Mary remained active almost until her death. On April 28, The
Spectator published an interview in which she used her own cultural
theory to discuss Al Qaeda
qaeda/index.html?inline=nyt-org> . She urged the United States to let
the group express its views.
"If these people hate America anyway, and America attacks them, it
increases the hostility of the enclave," she said.
Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
CCC Metro TLC
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