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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo

4.05  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,221 Ratings  ·  53 Reviews
In Purity and Danger Mary Douglas identifies the concern for purity as a key theme at the heart of every society. In lively and lucid prose she explains its relevance for every reader by revealing its wide-ranging impact on our attitudes to society, values, cosmology and knowledge. The book has been hugely influential in many areas of debate – from religion to social theor ...more
ebook, 272 pages
Published August 29th 2003 by Routledge (first published 1966)
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Dec 28, 2010 Shinynickel marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Off this review:

Your final book, Purity and Danger, is considered a key text for social anthropology students. Why?

It’s regarded as quite old-fashioned now and the author Mary Douglas, who died recently, somewhat recanted on many of the things that she said. But, for me and still for many of my students, it’s a book that really opened my eyes. It showed me that you could theorize about things that you had always taken for granted and thought didn’t need e
Sep 07, 2009 Ted rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is, of course, a classic. I mean, what does one really say about a classic of structuralist anthropology? The imprint of structural linguistics on this one is so fresh that at times it almost seems like a quaint historical document more than anything else. In any event, there's an easy mastery in the way that Douglas performs what is now a fairly standard maneuver. Find an opposition upon which some kind of subordinating value is founded, demonstrate that each side of the opposition ne ...more
Jan 05, 2013 Christopher rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger? Oh, you mean the Bullshitter's Bible? Yes. I've read that. If by "read" you mean I've skimmed through it to find points vague enough to support a thesis imposed on me by a deconstructionist advisor, then yes, I've read it. The beauty of this text is that one can use it to back up pretty much anything. I used it to show that the Holocaust arose from an "either/or" thinking that sparked terror at the idea of the Jew as simultaneously German and non-German. I recent ...more
Aug 21, 2007 Anna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is an anthro classic about the meaning of purity and pollution. Douglas argues that many of the taboos regarding "polluted" or unclean objects in various societies have more to do with moral and symbolic impurity rather than actual hygiene. For one thing, she argues, things that cannot be neatly categorized into some preexisting and understandable category, are often considered impure /taboo/ dangerous.
Apr 23, 2008 Alex rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Filled with lively British wit!

The biggest assumption: everyone, everywhere, all the time, wants order in the world. That's what people do: whip up systems from molehills.

The next bigger assumption: everyone, everywhere, all the time build those systems from symbols. (cf Southwest Airlines: A Symbol of Freedom).

Analagous to L-S's culture always striving to overwrite nature - frameworks of "purity" protect, integrate, neutralize "danger."

Chapter one gives you a fun ride down memory lane - remembe
The most surprising thing about reading Mary Douglas's 1966 anthropological classic Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, was my sheer enjoyment of the thing. This is a theoretical work, written less for a lay audience than for Douglas's fellow cultural anthropologists, and yet her style is clean and lively, with barbs of wit to keep things interesting. ("This fashionable presentation," she quips at one point, "was supported by no evidence whatever.") As a result, it ...more
Dec 05, 2014 saizine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some faults in methodology (Chapter 3, ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’), but these are acknowledged in the foreword to the 2002 edition (underlining the need to read around the work itself when approaching theses that can be considered classics). Interesting concepts of the interplay between the taboo and the holy, morality and cleanliness, purity and danger; how societies frame their worlds. Readable, with occasional humorous comments from the author. A good look at literary defamiliarization - ...more
Feb 22, 2014 Brian rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really cool thesis: all societies have some sort of purity code inherent in their system and that code is not primarily utilitarian--keeping away demons or germs--but symbolizes the order of the community. Dirt is always going to be arbitrarily defined by the society's notion of disorder. Like the cuisine book, this makes Leviticus just a little more understandable.

After the thesis and some cool explication, it quickly turns technical and thus unbearable for a non-professional.
This may be an entertaining book if you want to read stories of foreign cultures and habits, but I'm slightly racist (only a little teensy bit though) so I found this annoying.

This book remains admittedly too much a collection of notes and readings rather than a tightly-knit thesis. Overall, its chapters move along fitfully, but Leviticus insights and the closing "The System Shattered & Renewed" retain their own relevance for today.
Sara Larson
Feb 19, 2010 Sara Larson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful book!

This text is great for understanding why (and when)items are considered dirty or taboo. Why is hair on your head considered clean but the same hair fallen from your head considered dirty or gross? Simply because the organization system of the mind sees it as matter out of place!

Great for understanding societal rules, such as those for Jews found in Leviticus, and our own uneasiness towards cultural taboos.
Brett Salkeld
If you've ever suspected that "primitive" peoples aren't nearly so stupid as we are often lead to believe, this book is a great place to start. Not only does Douglas highlight the logic inherent in all kinds of cultural systems, she shows that moderns are just as prone to developing such systems as pre-moderns. A great account of human nature.
Simon Lavoie
Sep 15, 2014 Simon Lavoie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
«Les Anglais finirent pas comprendre l'enseignement de Durkheim lorsque des travaux de qualité, entrepris sur le terrain, eurent élevé leurs connaissances à un niveau que Durkheim avait atteint d'emblée dans son fauteuil.»
Jun 24, 2008 Sophie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
outdated, problematic methodology for an anthropological study, but faults acknowledged by the author in the foreword to the new edition. still, an interesting and insightful exploration of a previously untouched subject.
Oct 03, 2011 Seone rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite its many detractors, I found this book fascinating. It gave me a new outlook on many women's issues, particularly in studies in religions. It's a must have for anyone wanting to explore purity/pollution taboos.
May 24, 2011 Erik rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of my favorite anthropology books, even if I would have preferred less on the Old Testament and more information about contemporary societies and the little taboos of everyday life.
Jul 29, 2011 Linda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: anthropology
I read this book way back in University and it changed the way I have thought about culture ever since. Not an easy read, but interesting and extremely worthwhile.

Mark McNulty
This book wasn't quite what I expected. It was as much a critique of past anthropological works as it was a contribution to the analysis of purity and defilement and the sacred. Her insight that our modern sense of purity/cleanliness and associated rituals have been divested from our formal religious structures (she uses the example of spring cleaning) was excellent. The topic of the book is even more relevant today with the prevalence of chemophobia, germophobia and environmentalism. Also, whil ...more
Gustaf Nilsson
Feb 26, 2016 Gustaf Nilsson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had to come back to this book and change the rating as I reached the end of it and realised that it had more to offer than I first thought. The subject seemed at first rather strange and not worth the while. Moreover, when it comes to this kind of work where focus lies both on very particular points and on big and fundamental questions, there always tends to be a bit of a struggle first finding your way into the train of thought. Me also being new to the field of Socialanthropology had an addi ...more
R. Blaauw
Mar 24, 2015 R. Blaauw rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Have recently begun this book. Looks very promising, "...revealing ... wide-range impact on our attitudes to society, values, cosmology, and knowledge. This book has been hugely influential in many areas of debate--from religion to social theory. But perhaps its most important role is to offer each reader a new explanation of why people behave in the way they do. . . .Purity and Danger continues to challenge and question, well into the new millennium."

From what I've read so far, I want to recom
Kiffer Card
Oct 08, 2015 Kiffer Card rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mary Douglas's anthropology of dirt, sin, and risk is an excellent read that breaks down the traditional demarcation between "modern" and "primitive" society and religion. She offers lots and lots and lots of interesting examples, in such a way that she does not seem to be repeating herself with each one. I enjoyed the read, even if at times I grew tired of the academic air. With that said, the wikipedia pages gives you as good an insight as her entire book, though without the fun little example ...more
Jun 16, 2016 Benjamin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: anthropology
In the 1960s, Mary Douglas destroyed a lot of crap assumptions about "primitive" people with this little book. Rules about "clean" and "dirty" aren't just medical or just hygienic. People from "primitive" cultures are just as clever and smart as we are; they don't expect it to rain after the rain dance any more than Christians expect peace-on-earth after Christmas prayers. She shows how these and some other doozies were still floating around in anthropology and other early 20th Century "common s ...more
Gabrys and other waste theorists turn to Douglas as a starting point for thinking about the relationship between dirt and systems and then variously amend her conclusions and criticize her methods. Gabrys represents Douglas as attentive to dirt as marking the boundaries of systems then presents as Serres as a necessary innovation in this thinking: “We cannot know systems without their dirt, he suggests” (670). But--Douglas’ other contribution is her emphasis on rituals of cleansing and polluting ...more
Agathe Schwaar
Oct 20, 2014 Agathe Schwaar rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the most important you need to have on your book shelf if you are interesting in Anthropology.
Jan 31, 2016 Outmind rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.75/5 a lot of interesting examples, but i kinda didn't get the point in the end.
I understand the need for this book, and it certainly works against Frazer's anthropological system and the problem inherent in a modern viewpoint that valorizes our own society as the pinnacle of evolution over and against "the savage." However, it's still very much a product of the Modern age, and Douglas thinks she's doing science--objective work that validates itself over against the undifferentiated, subjective viewpoints of the others. Etc.

It's worth reading, but there's a lot better stuf
Saadik Bhanbhro
Jan 01, 2015 Saadik Bhanbhro rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A through and sound analysis of risk and pollution.
An easy to read book that explanes everything about the pollution and taboos in societies.
Rebecca Lartigue
Yeah, my reading's been all over the map this summer: Vikings and Old French romance and Roman emperors and Emily D., oh my! Now anthropology and the "nonfiction novel" that Capote claims to have invented. Anyhoo: I've certainly read a lot *about* this classic but I'd never looked at it myself. I'm skimming the "lit review" parts about anthropology / religious studies debates of the 1800s to get to the examples and conclusions, which are interesting.
This was very interesting, and will definitely help with my current project in my degree.
Required reading for an anhropology class. I remember reading this being partly fascinated and partly bored. But this is one of those books that I find myself quoting a lot and using Douglas's analysis to make sense of different situations and the way people react to some things. It has been more influential than I would have thought.
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“Without the letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulations, and occasional postcards, the friendship of a separated friend is not a social reality. It has no existence without the rites of friendship. Social rituals create a reality which would be nothing without them. It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought. For it is very possible to know something and then find words for it. But it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts.” 8 likes
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