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3962NY Times Obit

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    May 22, 2007
      May 22, 2007

      Dame Mary Douglas, 86, a Wide-Ranging Anthropologist, Is Dead


      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
      eating alone.

      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
      Conservative Party.

      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
      of place."

      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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