Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo – Mary Douglas (1966)

1960s: Days of Rage


“A sharp, comparative analysis of symbolic boundary maintenance across times and cultures, Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger intervened in the anthropology of religion and ritual, as well as in the theoretical development of the field as a whole. It is a key text in symbolic anthropology, an approach that, in viewing symbols as the building blocks of socio-religious worlds, sought to analyze the ways symbolic constructions either generated order or disorder. Innovative for its time, Douglas follows E. E. Evans-Pritchard ethnographic account of The Nuer when she claims that we cannot understand ideas of purity or pollution—that is, hygiene—in isolation. Solid anthropological knowledge comes from an analysis that attends to the ways systems relate to one another and form the structural ‘backbone’ of a society. And so, Purity and Danger embarks on an historical ethnographic analysis of hygienic rituals, locating them as critical parts to classificatory systems that revolve around perceptions…

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