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Great Thinkers: Richard Fardon FBA on Mary Douglas FBA

Blog • Anthropology

“The importance of ritual, of making sense of your experience, is something we all share as humans, and that’s something that was extremely important to Mary Douglas.”

Henrietta Moore FBA

Purity and Danger, a book exploring the concepts of pollution and taboo in societies around the world, made its author Mary Douglas one of Britain’s most celebrated anthropologists. In this episode, Fellows of the British Academy Richard Fardon and Henrietta Moore discuss the book’s lasting impact and Douglas’s equally fascinating later work.

 Mary Douglas was born in 1921 and educated at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Roehampton. She remained a devout Catholic throughout her life. She studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, before undertaking war service in the Colonial Office during the Second World War. This experience introduced her to several social anthropologists, who inspired her to return to university after the war, this time to study anthropology.

For her doctorate, Douglas moved to the Belgian Congo and lived among the Lele people. Unrest in the Congo prevented further fieldwork in the country, but the results of her studies were published as The Lele of the Kasai in 1963, by which time Douglas was lecturing at University College, London. The book provided an early introduction to some of the ideas that would later make Mary Douglas famous – specifically, the nature and significance of human rituals. It also famously discussed the cult of the pangolin, an animal that Douglas suggested was seen as sacred by the Lele partly because it defied classification. A scaly mammal, the pangolin did not run away when hunted, but instead curled up, as if to offer itself as a sacrifice.

“She was intrigued particularly by what did not quite fit our classificatory systems. The aphorism she used, that ‘dirt is matter out of place’, may have been borrowed, but it became memorable because of the insights she drew from it.”

Richard Fardon FBA

In 1966, Mary Douglas published Purity and Danger, which remains her best-known book. It expands on her earlier consideration of the classifications that humans in both traditional and modern societies use to label things as ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’. As Henrietta Moore explains, “in Mary’s work it’s very clear that if you’re going to classify the social world in various ways, then you’re going to end up with things that don’t fit in”. For example, the Bible’s Book of Leviticus prohibits eating pigs, on the grounds that they “cheweth the cud but divideth not the hoof”, therefore making them ‘unclean’ for human consumption. Douglas was fascinated by the way that time and space influenced classificatory systems, allowing animals that would be seen as inedible by some cultures to be commonly eaten in others.

Although Purity and Danger made Douglas famous, her next book, Natural Symbols, caused more consternation among her fellow anthropologists. Richard Fardon explains that it was interpreted, in part rightly, as a response to the Second Vatican Council, which introduced sweeping reforms to the Catholic church. The anthropologist Edmund Leach claimed that Douglas had put her anthropology into the service of Catholic beliefs; he would later level a similar criticism at Henrietta Moore, regarding feminism. Moore counters that,

“If you articulate a passion and a position and you follow it through in your work, your reader is able to understand where you’re starting from. If, on the other hand, you provide an idea that your work has no connection at all to your own position in life or beliefs or values, you imply that it is completely objective, which of course, is always misleading.”

Mary Douglas’s later work embarked on wide-ranging comparisons of societies around the world, including the contemporary western world, exploring consumerism and risk as well as ritual and symbolism. She rejected the idea that western society was becoming increasingly secularised, even at a time when this was very much the mainstream position. Moore suggests that Douglas would not have been surprised by the return of religion, nor by the fact that, in many places the religion we see now is not the one that we thought was dying.

Despite the popularity of Douglas’s books, honorary degrees and other recognitions from the academic community came late in her career. Fardon reflects that the value of her ability to engage with people outside academia and popularise anthropological concepts was not recognised by many of her contemporaries, who were more concerned with ensuring that their discipline was taken as a serious social science.

“In the ’60s and ’70s we have a whole change of world, with the rise of feminism, the rise of all the movements against race discrimination and Mary was speaking to all of these kinds of things, in a sense: how are people excluded, why are they excluded, for what reason? She was talking about the things that really mattered.”

Henrietta Moore FBA

After spending 11 years in the United States, Mary Douglas returned to University College, London in 1988. She continued to regularly publish essays and books in her later years, including studies of the Biblical books of Leviticus and Numbers. She received a Damehood of the British Empire in 2007, just eight days before she died. 


 Richard Fardon is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2004.

Dame Henrietta Moore is the Founder and Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity and the Chair in Culture, Philosophy and Design at University College London (UCL). She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2007.

Blog • Anthropology