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

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  1,846 ratings  ·  88 reviews
Professor Douglas makes points which illuminate matters in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science and help to show the rest of us just why and how anthropology has become a fundamentally intellectual discipline.
Paperback, 244 pages
Published September 12th 2002 by Routledge (first published 1966)
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Dec 28, 2010 marked it as to-read
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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
Aug 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 The imprint of structural linguistics on this one is so fresh that at times it almost seems like a quaint historical document more than anything else.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
Aug 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Aug 18, 2011 added it
Shelves: read-in-2011
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
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Douglas’ work is yet another recommendation from Dr. J, who read it when she was 16, it is an old publication associating purity with secular manifestations (primarily dietary restrictions). Unlike Moore Jr.’s work on purity, Douglas’ theory differs enough from Freud to be considered a separate conceptualization.

Primary differences are outlined first: purity (or pollution idea/belief) acts like a perceptual mechanism permitting the reordering and framing of experiences. Pollution ideas work at
Deepti Sreeram
Mar 30, 2021 rated it liked it
Parts of this book were interesting especially when it asks us to reflect on dirt and on whatever we deem as unhygienic. I liked how she wrote assertively against the eurocentric notions of "primitive societies". However I wish she had at least proceeded to not use the same term and constantly pose it as an other when she examined rituals. I also found it terrible that she has quoted Naipaul's views on open defecation in India to propose the argument that Indians have ambiguous notions on excret ...more
Mar 25, 2014 added it
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
Apr 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Sreejith Puthanpurayil
May 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ok, this was a pretty dry, academic read so I skimmed large parts of the book and re-read some of the core parts of it. Here's what I got from it:

Humans have an innate (biological?) need to categorise. It's what helped tribes to navigate this complex world to know what to eat and what not to, as well as understand and exploit tribal social structures. Those who understood social structures thrived. Categorization helped them make better decisions regarding food and society. It's no accident that
Fascinating in its thesis that all societies are preoccupied with dirt and cleanliness. Especially her statement that our own ideas on cleanliness are arbitrary, and not based on an objective criterium of hygiene, is highly relevant and inviting.

On the other hand, I found the book to be quite the product of its time. Douglas for examples argues for using the term "primitive" when referring to cultures that are less technologically advanced. I wonder whether such an "us vs. them" mentality makes
May 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Sara Larson
Feb 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 22, 2014 rated it liked it
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.
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. ...more
Jun 24, 2008 rated it liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
May 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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.

Taylor Swift Scholar
Feb 27, 2021 rated it really liked it
I am not an anthropologist - just a person who wants to understand more about religion. As such, I can't evaluate the specific claims that Douglas makes (in the preface to this later edition, she debunks her own analysis of Leviticus) but I really appreciate the care with which she analyzes the parts of religion that I have always tended to skip over: purity rituals and taboos. She consistently and coherently argues against oversimplifying, glossing over, or projecting childlike motives onto the ...more
Adam Orford
Jan 28, 2018 rated it it was ok
I came to this book looking for some inspiration re modern environmentalist culture’s outlook on chemical pollution. I knew that this was not the topic of the book but I was hoping perhaps for some transferability. Alas, the ideas within were not transferable in any meaningful manner I could make out.

This book contains exactly one coherently developed argument - an attempt to explain the dietary restrictions in Leviticus by reference to an alleged abhorrence of inter-categorized forms of being
Jan 08, 2021 rated it liked it
I am not a professional anthropologist and I should leave the assessment of the content to professionals. For some reason, I liked the first few chapters very much and then I found myself gradually losing interest. There is a certain imbalance between theoretical discussions and actual data on the topic. There isn't much connection between individual chapters. About 80% of the book consists of theoretical discussions and some of of involves Freudian theory, which is nowadays considered outdated. ...more
Dec 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: anthropology
British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, published Purity and Danger in 1966. In it she discusses ideas revolving around ritual purity and pollution. As a new graduate student, I haven’t read a lot of theoretical pieces, instead I have been use to relying heavily on books discussing the history of the field of anthropology. I found reading this piece to be exciting as I was able to draw a lot of connections to ideas I heard throughout undergrad. Douglas’s broad framework of viewing the dichotomy of ...more
Oct 28, 2020 rated it liked it
I originally started this book to learn more about fascist purity politics, but instead got an impassioned critique of early modernist anthropology — particularly James George Frazer, the author of the Golden Bough.

Mary Douglas picks apart the Hegelian argument that we developed, evolutionarily, from "savage" to "modern" peoples through a dialectical movement from magic to religion to science (from irrationality to rationality). Through a structuralist lens, she shows that "magical rituals" (as
Nov 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: systems, anthropology
"Taxonomy and Taboo"; Frazer is out, but Freud is in. I still find the idea by which this book was recommended to me, that concepts of impurity come from things which do not fit cleanly into a taxonomic scheme, to be intriguing, but I found this book unconvincing. There are sections which are all citation, where no idea is really developed, and then there are sections filled with assertions and assumptions that demand significantly more citation and justification.

Now that I've read it, I would a
Irene Wang
Oct 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 theory. But perhaps its most important role is to offer each reader a new explanation of why people behave in the way they do. Wit ...more
Kevin Fitzpatrick
May 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Data filled, wide-ranging in its scope, and profound in its meditations on the nature of man and his taboos, Mary Douglas's "Purity and Danger" is an important overview of the issue of prohibitions and the sacred from a classic source. So, while some of the book has been superseded by more recent research, the book itself still offers a worthwhile insight into how purity and danger plays itself out in cultures both modern and primitive. By the time the book ends, with a discussion of the sacred ...more
Matthew Richey
An analysis of purity and impurity in primitive (her word and she defends it) cultures including the Old Testament (Leviticus) and in isolated tribes studied by anthropologists. It is interesting and helpful in places, but the helpfulness of this book for me was mitigated somewhat by the fact that she has since recanted much of what she wrote about Leviticus. Nevertheless, I found it an engaging read and a good way to prepare myself for diving into the world of Leviticus because there is still m ...more
Feb 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
A classic work that revolutionised how Anthropology dealt with concepts of ritual pollution and purity. Mary Douglas criticises and debunks the claims of Robertson-Smith and Sir James Frazer that so-called primitive cultures were, collectively and individually, unable to distinguish between the 'sacred and the profane'. However, Douglas does recognise the vital role both scholars played as pioneers of Anthropology as a discipline and attributes many of their misunderstandings to zeitgeist and co ...more
Nov 27, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-nonfiction
I can see why Purity and Danger is claimed as a classic for cultural anthropology but I found this a bit too repetitive and outdated to my taste. Douglas uses the term "primitive" too liberally to describe all the communities that aren't as skilled with technology as Western cultures. Still, I found the book very eyeopening and I can imagine that the theory of pollution is something that can be pretty much used in any essay on cultural anthropology. ...more
Feb 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
Master of symbolic-structuralist anthropology! This is the analytic intervention into how we think about things and world. This is the power of clarifying and developing hiterto fuzzy concepts. This is the example of going beyond particular cultural idioms, phenomena and digging into universal dillemas. A masterpiece!
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