Mary Douglas

Social Theory MLへのMichalis Lianosという方のメッセージに”Mary died peacefully in University College Hospital in London in the night of 16 May.”というのが。ここにいうMaryとは人類学者のMary Douglasのこと。

Dame Mary Douglas

Brilliant and prolific anthropologist famed for her social theories about cosmology, consumption and risk
Richard Fardon
Friday May 18, 2007

Dame Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, was the most widely read British social anthropologist of her generation. If she had to be recalled for a single achievement, it would be as the anthropologist who took the techniques of a particularly vibrant period of research into non-western societies and applied them to her own, western milieu. Within her lifetime, this was so far accepted within British anthropology as to become almost lost to view. Posterity should restore most of the credit to her, and remember her as an innovative social theorist and for her contributions particularly to the anthropological analysis of cosmology, consumption and the analysis of risk perception.

She was born in San Remo, Italy, the first child of Phyllis Twomey and Gilbert Tew. Her parents had stopped off en route to home leave from Burma, where her father served in the Indian civil service. Mary and her younger sister, Patricia, lived with their mother's parents in Totnes, Devon, until they were old enough to become boarders at the Sacred Heart Convent, in Roehampton, south-west London. After the early death of her mother, closely followed by that of the maternal grandfather to whom she was devoted, Mary found a sense of security in the relatively hierarchical, secluded and safe world of school. Her Catholic commitments and social preferences were set for life.

School was followed by wartime Oxford, where she read philosophy, politics and economics, and then by war service in the Colonial Office, where she met the social anthropologists. Intrigued by the subject, she returned to Oxford in 1946, initially to take a two-year conversion course, and then to register in 1949 for her doctorate in anthropology. The postwar re-establishment of the institute of social anthropology by Professor (later Sir) EE Evans-Pritchard was one of the major events in the development of the discipline; it educated an extraordinarily high proportion of Tew's generation, who went on to redefine the nature of contemporary anthropology. None, however, made a greater contribution to this than she did.

She undertook her fieldwork (1949-51 and 1953) in the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It eventuated in both a DPhil in 1952 and a monograph, The Lele of the Kasai, published in 1963. Her description of the matrilineal Lele, their gerontocracy, complex marriage arrangements and cults - most memorably that of the pangolin, or scaly ant eater - became a minor anthropological classic, but would not by itself be the reason for her fame. Civil war prevented further fieldwork, and Douglas did not return to the country, known from 1971 to 1997 as Zaire, until 1987. For all that she was a gifted field researcher and ethnographic writer, her wider renown was never based on her reputation as a fieldworker or on her ethnographic writings, although these established her competence within the profession.

In 1951, after a brief appointment at Oxford, she married James Douglas. Like her, he was a Catholic and had been born into a colonial family (in Simla, while his father served in the Indian army). James joined the Conservative party research department just as Mary took up an appointment at University College London (UCL), where she was to remain for a quarter of a century, and was professor of social anthropology from 1970 to 1977; a distinguished fellowship followed in 1994. If James was considered to be academic for a party official, and Mary unusually immersed in matters close to home for an anthropologist, an invitation to the Douglas dinner table soon dispelled any mystery.

In 1966, Douglas published her most celebrated work, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. This book is best remembered for its stylish demonstration of the ways in which all schemes of classification produce anomalies: whether the pangolin for the Lele, or the God incarnate of Catholic theology. Some of this classificatory "matter out of place" - from humble house dust in her Highgate house to the abominations of Leviticus for the Hebrews - was polluting, but other breaches of routine classification had the capacity to renew the world symbolically.

In Natural Symbols (1970), Douglas began to answer the question that arose from this: what kinds of society are best able to support the complex symbolism that makes the best society possible? The book took exception to some 1960s cultural trends - notably the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and student revolts - and presented the first of many attempts to correlate features of institutional organisation with patterns of belief and morality. Her conclusion - that differentiated, hierarchical and bounded institutions provided the most condusive environments for complex thinking and symbolism - remained the same, whatever changes her theories underwent.

From 1977 until the mid-1980s the Douglases took up a variety of appointments in the United States. This period coincided with the publication of Mary's work most explicitly concerned with contemporary society. Her collaborative research on British consumers, The World of Goods (1979) with Baron Isherwood, was a pioneering work of the contemporary anthropology of consumption. In it, she argued both that contemporary consumption had ritual aspects that defined lifestyles, and that the increasing emphasis on individual consumption threatened a crisis in collective provision. If consumption was a form of communication, then those individuals who consumed less also communicated less.

While at the Russell Sage Foundation, New York (1977-81), with the late Aaron Wildavsky she co-authored Risk and Culture (1982), an analysis of risk perception and critique of alarmist environmental groupings that sparked a feeding frenzy among reviewers. At Northwestern University, Illinois, she occupied a chair jointly in anthropology and religious studies (1981-85, and then as professor emeritus), and published a string of articles on contemporary religion and social commitments.

On her return to Britain, back at UCL Douglas continued to publish a volume of her collected essays or a new book every few years, while being showered with professional honours and other recognitions, including a CBE in 1992 and a DBE this year. While a new generation of anthropologists might have forgotten how late this recognition came, Douglas, who had a particular fascination with the sociology of forgetting, did not. It was only in 1989 that, returned from the US, she was elected a fellow of the British Academy. Before her emigration, many in the anthropological establishment had considered her work marginal to the mainstream tradition, an indication in itself of how much the discipline changed during her career.

Two preoccupations were particularly apparent in Douglas's later work: refinement of her theoretical statements, notably in How Institutions Think (1986) and Missing Persons (1998), and a return to the analysis of the Old Testament that had been an important feature of Purity and Danger. This became the particular fascination of a trilogy that engaged her for two decades: 1993 saw the publication, after unusually protracted labours by the standards of Douglas's productivity, of In the Wilderness, a meditation on the literary construction and social context of the Book of Numbers; Leviticus as Literature followed in 1999, revising ideas about the Jewish dietary codes that Purity and Danger had made famous; and in 2004 Jacob's Tears completed the series, asking who had edited the Pentateuch, and how their aims might explain its textual form.

An invited lecture series allowed Douglas to collect her ideas about the poetics of ring composition, the technique in which texts are formed in circular patterns, in what she described as a summation: An Essay on Ring Composition appeared to her delight earlier this year. Aside from seeing her father's collected essays on fishing into print (they are promised soon), and hoping to collaborate with Congolese Lele scholars on a book using her 1950s photographs of material culture, she had completed all the work she felt she had in her.

Douglas's theoretical commitments to stability, loyalty and completion were evident in her own life: one marriage (from 1951 until James's death in 2004); one family home (from 1956 until she moved to a flat in Bloomsbury a year ago); leaving aside her American sojourn, half a century of service to UCL; and a lifetime of practising Catholicism. A similar singlemindedness was evident in her espousal and refinement of the theories she developed from her Oxford years, and her advocacy of the social policies that flowed from them.

As a colleague she could be intransigent in what she considered matters of principle, and she never dissembled her estimation of others. Her sense of humour was acute and in later years she enjoyed playing to her own reputation, gleefully recalling just how objectionable she had made herself to some American colleagues whose political correctness irked her, and accepting academic honours with mild irony, given what she recalled as her years in the wilderness. A wide circle of friends outside anthropology, and the like-minded within, will remember her capacity for encouragement and support of younger colleagues, an enthusiasm and curiosity that age only accentuated, and her boundless energy. She inveighed against exclusion; her hospitality was genuine and her home open to so many visitors that only the self-discipline of her work habits and her writing facility allowed her to achieve so much.

She is survived by her three children, Janet, James and Philip.

• Margaret Mary Douglas, anthropologist, born March 25 1921; died May 16 2007,,329872620-110843,00.html

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