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Mary Douglas in Anthropology Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2020


Mary Douglas is on record as being among the most brilliant and intellectually creative scholars of her time. For half a century she served the anthropology field with some of the most acclaimed pieces of cultural anthropology that have been used across the years as points of reference. The most prominent of her works is that of the biblical interpretation and criticism (Sheehan, 2005, p.16).

She spent enough time as a Hebrew bible scholar and therefore developed massive knowledge on the factual and theoretical aspects of the various books in the bible. She made it her personal objective to interrogate the bible and express it as a guide to modern civilization. This acted as her motivation to study and learn the Hebrew language (Douglas, 2004, p. 151).

She delved further, to place the various religious specializations into a contrast of truths and falsehoods with the objective of creating a critical, humane, and sensitive coexistence between the various religions. She chose to expose this contrast from two main perspectives.

The first is the perspective of an informed anthropologist who has a specific conception of the other religions through a balance of critical distance and cultural empathy. The second perspective is one of self-criticism of the western perception of religion. This in the end draws a line between the true, false and superstition in as far as religion is concerned (Fardon, 1999, p. 41).

To achieve a concrete, humane, and sensitive deduction of biblical teaching she proposes that there is a need to step out of the biblical judgment of other religions and evaluate the biblical religion as it is (Berlin, 1997, p. 400).

Mary Douglas as a successor of other important biblical studies scholars does not propose a new method to the study of the bible. She only presents a rather sophisticated and reflective approach to the development of a critical method of biblical studies that was proposed by earlier scholars.

Notions of purity and danger

The most prominent of her contributions to anthropology is her discussions on the notions of purity and danger. In her interpretation of purity and danger, she discusses the book of Leviticus and its prescriptions of good and evil and the relation between these native prescriptions and the modern civilized interpretation of the concept of good and evil (Fields, 1995, p. 23).

She begins her argument from the point of pollution rules. She conceives pollution as a series of events that systematic and anticipated or planned. A pollutive idea is therefore a predetermined series of events following each other (Douglas, 1966, p.62).

She exemplifies this argument by quoting the book of Leviticus and the specific abominations that are provided for in chapter 14. The chapter gives specific prescriptions of the animals that Christians should and should not eat (Douglas, 1975, p.262). She questions the notion and logic behind this prescription and puts to perspective the justifications behind these prescriptions.

Just like Maimonides (1881, p. 55) she proposes the argument that religion is to a large extent symbol free. In specific respects to the dietary prescriptions in Leviticus, she suggests that they are not meant to be symbolic but rather ethical and disciplinary. This view is shared by Epstein (1959, p.24) in his popular history of Judaism where he mentions

“Both sets of laws have a common aim …Holiness. While the positive precepts have been ordained for the cultivation of virtue and for the promotion of those finer qualities which distinguish the truly religious and ethical being, the negative precepts are defined to combat vice and suppress other evil tendencies and instances which stand athwart man’s striving towards holiness” (Epstein, 1959, p.24).

She compares this view with that of Driver (1895, p. 35) who suggests that there is no specific principle that determines the demarcation between clean and unclean animals. This would be because there is bone that covers all the possible scenarios. This therefore, leaves the implication that it can only be a conglomerate of principle that can be said to form a reasonable basis of determining a clean from an unclean animal.

She also makes reference to Jewish though that admits the complex nature of food restrictions. This is because god is perceived to be the creator of heaven and earth ands all that is in it. Moreover, by this mere fact he could not have created an unclean being.

The thought resigns to the opinion that each restriction has its independent deep reasoning that can be practically or ideologically be explained. The thought proposes an example of moses in the biblical narration and his lack of provision for weasels and mice out of his consideration for them. They are on the other hand extremely destructive to the grains and crops in the field.

In totality, the various proposed interpretations do not hold since there is a different interpretation that has been given for each animal. This also opens the door for many other interpretations of the same concept. She however tolerates a second alternative and more logical view.

This approach suggests that the various restrictions that have been proposed by the book of Leviticus were intended to safeguard the Israelite tradition fro pollution and influence from other nations (Spinoza, 2007, p.7).

They are therefore suggested as precautionary measures against foreign influence. This argument is further criticized on the basis that the Israelites are not known to have rejected all elements and values of foreigners. They cannot be said to have borne a sense of consistency in rejecting the participation of foreigners in to their traditions and cultures.

Previous scholars who argue that the Israelites upon entry into Canaan adopted some of the Canaanite modes and styles of worship have disqualified this thesis. Through their interaction with the Canaanites over the years through a free economy that involved the exchange of social economic and even cultural heritages, they were wooed into the Canaanite modes and styles of worship.

She summarizes the contrast and conflict between taboos, prohibitions and abomination into a single streamline of thought that clean or unclean is a single step towards being holy and righteous. Holiness in this context is to mean complete and compact into a singe entity.

This therefore means that every interpretation of an individual animal has an ultimate finishing line of holiness. There can be not more than a single category of holiness and therefore tall other deity rules serve to motivate the metaphor of holiness in their various versions.

It is from this basis, that she constructs her proposed argument and case for each individual animal that is mentioned in the book of Leviticus. She argues the case for and against the rules against and for the consumption of these animals. She takes keen interest in the cattle and the pig. She explains the difference between the cow and the wild beasts to be the fact that a cow has a covenant that the wild beast doesn’t.

The pig on the other hand is fails to meet the fundamental basic prescriptions by the fact that it has no milk, hide, nor wool. It on the other hand passes for the requirement of a split hove such as that of a camel and antelope. She proposes that its initial exclusion was due to the fact that it failed as a wild boar.

These two animals are considered, as the borderline cases since the rest are exquisitely clear and need no further interpretation. In conclusion she contends that the correctness or otherwise of the rules concerning diet among the Israelites are meant to act as motivators to the Israelites. They served as warning signs to every believer of the need to maintain a pure, whole and holy self in the likeness of God (Douglas 1975, p.20).

Anthropological modernism

Douglas has on several occasions been referred to as “a classical expression of British anthropological modernism” the modernism concept as originally conceived by Durkheim (1997, p. 80) in his theoretical sociology concept focuses on developing a practical model of functionalism. It gives specific attention to the extent to which social phenomenon cultivates coherence in society (Kuper, 1983, p. 36).

Douglas revoked the exemption by Durkheim(1997, p. 80) of the western society from the anthropological analysis by putting values in the relationship between the individual’s thoughts practices comments and habits with the social environment in a rather unconscious intensity.

From the above argument that she presents for and against the inclusion of certain rules and procedures there is a clear deduction that can be applies in the current asylum seekers situation in Australia.

The Australian immigration policy has a mandatory detention system of treating asylum seekers in Australia (Parliament of Australia, 2009, p, 16). Those without a visa are mandatorily detained as they wait for their asylum situation to be decided (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009 p, 12).

According to the Australian department of immigration, the number of detained immigrants stands at least 3200 people in the detention camps (O’Kane, 2003, p. 45). The greater majority of these spend up to a year before they can be notified of their immigration status and whether they can be allowed to stay in Australia.

This has further been followed by incidences of assault and damage of property to the tune of more than 1200 reports within the detention centers (United Nations, 1951, P 56).

The number of mental illness related reports has also been recorded as increasing mainly due to the health conditions of the detention camps that according to the United Nations have been considered as an insult to human dignity (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009, P. 5)

Clearly, there is a serious problem that needs urgent intervention through local and structural adjustments. Douglas addresses a concern such as this in the biblical dietary prohibition analysis. In specific reference, she engages the pig taboo in a modernism anthropological fashion and suggests that it is incorporated as part of a larger cultural system.

The argument trends along the dictum that “when something is firmly classified as anomalous the outline of the set in which it is not a member is clarified”. It is at this level of the argument that she poses the question as to why the specific animals should constitute proper cuisine. This follows a question as to why the political asylum seekers should be given a fair chance at staying in Australia.

The response Douglas’s initial question is that the animals specifically required as the proper and allowable cuisines were the same ones that were to be used as sacrifices with the further provision that those intended for sacrifice must be without blemish. In this same manner, every human being is entitled as a basic human right to asylum in any such country as well as the facilitation and provision of essential needs for their survival.

The relation between the Israelites and God was evident in the similarity expressed by the dietary prohibition. In this same manner despite the existence of legal and jurisdictional differences, the government of Australia should give equal treatment to asylum seekers in the same manner as they give their citizens.

As Douglas puts it, the rules of behavior are what hold the society in one piece. These rules are the basis of the formulation of meanings and therefore demystify concepts that would otherwise have been considered ungraspable. These rules are therefore considered as the specifications that provide analogies between states.

In her discussion and interpretation of the book of Leviticus, the abominable pig is proposed as a rational superstition and a morally valid belief. It is considered as an act of human activity and interpretation of the various parameters and concepts that are involved in their every day activities and engagements. It represents a compromise between the cultural and religious of disorder coupled with the risk of disruption and disorder.

These in totality can be summarized as being a single set of analogies with no central or converging end that in one way or another strike the balance between the moral and physical realms despite the imminent interrelations. The case of the old mandatory retention immigration policy therefore is justified by the existing balance of events and relative stability of society.

The constant interpretation and state of affairs is however, stands to be questioned in as far as the effectiveness and utility are concerned. This therefore, forms the basis for the subsequent proposal that the moral and physical realms are in a state of imbalance arising from the lack of an effective compromise between the interests of the asylum seekers and the interests of the Australian government.

The political deadlock can be likened to the cultural conflict in the second approach to the dietary prohibition that sought to propose that the reason behind the dietary restriction was to protect the Israelites from external influence from foreigners. This provides not only a basis but also a starting point for the analysis of the various interests represented by the conflict between the interested parties in the government’s decision-making arm.

The political parties like the clergy, priests and lawyers of the biblical ages are seeking to have a policy that is easy and fluid to expedite at the lease cost and involvement. It is for this reason that they have floated the offshore processing policy (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010, p. 7).

The easiest of options would be to process the asylum requests from an offshore stage to absolve these asylum seekers from the misery they face at the detention camps (Yoldi, 2007, pp 67).

The other alternative that was not available to the early clergy and is not also available to the government is to ignore the entire asylum issue and limit the legal provisions to refugees and non-immigrants. This would lead to some serious administrative and societal problems.

However, just like the early clergy as analyzed by Douglas there is bound to be a conflict of ideas and opinions among the various participants. In this light, the coalition will always differ with the labor party. These are the normal balancing acts within any decision making branch of society and are therefore anticipated. The other related and affected parties are the citizens.

Since 1976, there have been more than 25 000 asylum seekers who have docked on Australia’s shores (Phillips and Spinks, 2010. p 35). They bring equal benefits and consequences on the population as well as influence. There is a clear distinction between the various types of citizens just as there were the various animals in the biblical accounts in Leviticus.

Douglas qualifies this argument by pointing out the fact that the Israelites did not maintain a strict observance of the tradition and rules and instead blended the Canaanite traditions and styles of worship with theirs. In this same spirit, the Australian government should consider their foreign policies and scrap the mandatory detention system of treating asylum seekers (Evans, 2009, p.12).

This will go a long way in streamlining the state relations with other countries as well as reduce all the related costs in maintaining the asylum seekers in the detention centers (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2010, p. 3).

Douglas made a progressive critical and constructive analysis of the biblical readings that has continued to gain relevance and application across the scholarly divide. Her discussion of the social practice of purity laws continues to inspire and give credence to the various legal reforms in Australia and beyond.


Berlin, I., 1997. “Herder and the Enlightenment,” in idem, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays .New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 359. – 435,

Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC). 2009. Annual Report 2008-09. Web.

Douglas, M.,1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Print

Douglas, M., 1975. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Print

Douglas, M., 1975. “Deciphering a Meal,” in idem, Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Print

Douglas. M., 2004. “Why I Have to Learn Hebrew: The Doctrine of Sanctification,” The Comity and Grace of Method: Essays in Honor of Edmund F. Perry, (eds) Chicago:Northwestern University Press, 151.

Driver, R. S., 1895. International critical commentary on Holy Scriptures of the old and new testaments: Deutronomy. New York: Oxford university press

Durkheim, É., 1997. The Division of Labor in Society. New York :Free Press, 72–147.

Epstein, I.,1959., Judaism. London: standard art press

Evans, C., 2009. Media Release: Opposition must come clean on Temporary Protection Visas. Web.

Fardon, R., 1999. Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography. London: Routledge.

Fields, K. E.,1995. “Introduction,” in É. Durkheim, the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Fields. New York: Free Press, xxiii.

Kuper, A., 1983. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School 2nd ed.; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 36.

Maimonides, m.,1881. Guide to the perplexed. London. Trans. M. friedlander.

O’Kane, M., 2003. Refugee and Asylum Seeker Issues in Australia. Brunswick. Brotherhood of St Laurence Ecumenical Migration Centre.

Parliament of Australia., 2009. Joint Standing Committee on Migration: Immigration Detention in Australia: Report 2. Web.

Phillips, J. & Spinks, H., 2010. Boat Arrivals in Australia since 1976. Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Library. Web.

Sheehan, J., 2005.The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 21– 219.

Spinoza, B., 2007.Theological-Political Treatise, ed. J. Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights., 2010. All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration. Web.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010., Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries 2009. Web.

United Nations, 195., Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Web.

Yoldi, O. 2007. Life in Refuge Camps, NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors. Web.

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