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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge Classics) Paperback – 12 Sep 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (12 Sept. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415289955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415289955
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 157,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Mary Douglas (1921-). One of the most distinguished anthropologists of modern times. Natural Symbols, another of her major works, is also available in Routledge Classics.

Inside This Book

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Our idea of dirt is compounded of two things, care for hygiene and respect for conventions. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Pastiche on 30 July 2009
Format: Paperback
Few anthropological works have had as profound an impact as Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger. In it she outlines an anthropological theory of purity and pollution that has become a central part of what is otherwise an often conflicted and vaguely-defined subject area. This is not to say Douglas's work has never been criticized, but that many of her ideas are now so deeply ingrained in anthropological thinking that they simply appear as a given to students learning them today, whereas they revolutionized the interpretation of so-called "primitive" thought.

A reader encountering Douglas's ideas for the first time may be surprised to find that "dirt" is not intrinsically dirty, but is, rather, "matter out of place". This concept epitomizes what we might call the "anthroplogical mindset": a close attention to cultural interpretations -- and the specificity thereof.

The book begins with a sketch of European historical materials whose relation to some of the other issues surveyed is not clearly elucidated. However, this minor writer's fault can be forgiven, and the reader is encouraged to focus on Douglas's comparative analysis of sources as varied as her fieldwork among the Lele, and her (now canonical) reading of the book of Leviticus.

Beyond her addition to the canon of anthropological theory, Douglas also deserves praise for her willingness to critique her own material. The preface she wrote for the Routledge Classics paperback includes a reconsideration of her work on Leviticus that entirely justifies publishing the new edition.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Thorne on 8 Jan. 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Difficult read but an essential for my studies
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful By GIULIO GUIZZI on 18 May 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I already knew many news treated in this book but
here is interesting the Analysis and the mental
study of taboo concepts
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 19 reviews
60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Clean or dirty? Your culture decides. 5 Jan. 2001
By Gregory L Dyas - Published on
Format: Paperback
All cultures have definite ideas about what is clean and what is dirty. Drawing from previous hallmark works on how cultures make classifications (Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked, etc.), Douglas makes clear and concise arguments about the use of ritual in separating that which is considered pure from what's considered unclean. The convincing argument she makes is that such rituals and clearly defined boundaries of purity reinforce a society's common definitions, increasing its unity and therefore its ability to work together to succeed. Additionally, Douglas alludes to Malinowski's anxiety-reduction theories of totems to theorize that clear definitions of right and wrong and of clean and unclean reduce the stress in a given society, helping everyone to know who they are and what is expected of them. In fact, she feels, a lack of such distinctions can be fatal to the integrity of a group. If everyone went on their own deciding what was good or bad, there would be chaos - the danger alluded to in the title.
A highlight of the book is the chapter titled "Abominations of Leviticus", in which she interprets the Jewish divisions between kosher and graev (no pork, no mixing of milk and meat, etc) in a cultural context. Here she shows that the Levites divided "pure" animals (deer, cattle, sheep, goats, etc) from those considered "mixed" (pig, rabbit, woodchuck), or having an undesireable combination of traits rather than just being dirty in aspect, as is commonly believed.
40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
pangolin stew 27 Sept. 2000
By courtney J angermeier - Published on
Format: Paperback
Why was one locust cleaner than the other? Man, I had no idea either till I picked up this book. In fact, I had no idea that Jewish dietary laws made any distinctions at all on the locust front. (I mean, as far as I'm concerned, you could leave the locusts off the menu altogether and it's a fair bet I wouldn't even notice.) Mary Douglas, extensively supported by a gaggle of other similarly academically endowed individuals in quote form, however, delves right into the whole locust conundrum and she does it in a truly fascinating manner. What begins as a graceful though predictable swan dive assessment of profanity as disruption of cultural order jack knifes thrillingly there in the middle to talk about physical creatures as metaphoric representations of religious and cultural values. The book starts out talking about dirt and ends up in a fascinating examination of how we as humans, both "primative" and "civilized", twist our concrete world to become metaphor for psychological and spiritual experience Cool, huh. Also, as an added treat, Douglas spends A LOT of time talking about the South American Lele cult of the pangolin. (For laypeople, that's that funny armadillo/anteater thing that looks quite alot like a pinecone.) Douglas takes some fairly weighty theories of cultural anthropology and turns them into an entertaining and infinitely readable piece. A nice trick. Oh, and did I mention the anteater? What's not to love?
50 of 61 people found the following review helpful
insightful, but uneven 5 Nov. 2004
By Caraculiambro - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At the instigation of an anthropology teacher, I read this book when I was about 19 and found it shattering and profound. Now, however, returning to it years later (and having read in the meantime dozens of books on anthropology and anthropological issues, and having thought for years about what I thought I learned in this book) I'm not so sure it's as perceptive as I thought. In other words, I think what I may have found mind-blowing in my younger years was the insights of anthropology itself -- not so much the contributions of Ms. Douglas.

Having said that, there are four or five extremely interesting observations herein that will help explain, or at least clarify, some puzzling issues: why gangs "jump" initiates, why Muslims do not permit nonbelievers to enter Mecca, why frats "haze" their new recruits, etc., although you pretty much have to fill in those blanks for yourself: Ms. Douglas does not explicitly extend her theories to cover such aspects of modern society. I used to think the book was deep; now, I think (in general) that she doesn't go far enough with her theories, instead stopping short just when things are getting interesting.

Another unfortunate aspect of this book is that the author felt it necessary, in the first few chapters, to refute previous, erroneous ideas about filth and pollution. Unfortunately, many of the theories she refers to are complicated and difficult to follow, at least before you read the rest of the book. In other words, I think she should have left that section for last, instead just launching into her conclusions directly.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Who shares your dessert? 31 Aug. 2007
By John L Murphy - Published on
Format: Paperback
Why do we let those close to us lick the same spoon, or eat off the same dish? Why kiss away tears but not snot? How do we learn to live with some filth and yet recoil at other dirt? And how does this all relate to "primitive" ritual, magical belief, and ethical culture?

This book manages to be accessible for the non-anthropologist or historian of religion, yet too densely argued and scattered for the novice. How can it be both? Douglas writes in a no-nonsense style that I enjoyed, when I could grasp her points. Too often, like many critics, she's engaged more in a grudge match with previous academics and uses a considerable amount of this text settling scores, some from the time of "The Golden Bough" and the formative years of her discipline. While she makes her own argument known, the details of tribes, the skipping about that many of the chapters engage in through time and culture make her intricately developed thesis appear probably more fractured and piecemeal than she intended.

The centerpiece, therefore, stands out as the lasting reason for which this earlier book is known, and you can see from her later work that she returned to Leviticus with gusto. "The Abominations of Leviticus" pioneered a cultural approach to the laws not as health codes -- although she notes that ethical control, hygiene and dietary concerns may well be by-products of these Mosaic restrictions and allowances -- but as aesthetic counterparts drawn from the natural world to the cohesion that the military camp and the Hebrew tribes demanded for survival and identity. She reads the proscriptions and prescriptions as conceptual structures of what fit the divinely mandated order that the Hebrews strove to impose-- following God's will as they understood it-- on their natural surroundings. Here, Douglas provided a paradigm shift for scholars trying to figure out what had eluded them about these seemingly arbitrary do's and don'ts. I have to admit I was reminded of a Monty Python routine that takes glee in enumerating similarly detailed provisos and prohibitions.

Of value, too, remain cogent observations late in the book (my battered 1970 Pelican paperback may have different pagination) that relate to our own times. Most do not keep kosher or follow "primitive" rituals, but Douglas cautions us. We too follow our own elaborate yet apparently "natural" habits of cleanliness, and our own magical formulae. Douglas notes that when religions filter down to the masses, ordinary folks tend to minimize the philosophy and maximize the material benefits. Moral conformity and adherence to ritual guarantee, adherents are assured, continued prosperity. But, how long can the magic lamp be rubbed, she wonders? The danger comes when the magic, the pizazz of the ritual becomes vulnerable to disbelief. Too much stress on the ritual may lead to the exposure, as I compare it, of the charlatan and not the wizard behind the curtain. How does a religion safeguard itself against dissent? How keep the rituals potent and their promise fresh>

How do religions sustain their aura? Douglas suggests three ways. 1) Suggest an enemy's to blame for undoing the religion's good effect. Demons enter on cue and sinister forces can be blamed at work here. She faults this as a half-hearted answer that makes the religion appear weak, as if it cannot explain the whole of existence without resorting to boogeymen.
2) Attend to fine print, or else the incantation will not be efficacious. She likes this approach better, as the devil or angel as it were may lie in the details. Also, the audience and priests need to be cleansed, guilt-free-- again if the ritual fails, scapegoats often can be found close at hand to take the blame. This method also establishes moral purity and aspiration to a higher sense of communal goodness to bind the worshippers more closely to assure the success of the religious ritual. 3) Change its tack, as Douglas puts it. Religions can alter to meet the times, the mood, the circumstances.

Considering various "faith communities" in our curious parlance of our own generation's bureaucracies, applying Douglas' three responses to the present day secularizing drift and fundamentalist tendencies proves, now over forty years since its first publication, a salutary exercise in putting beliefs to the test. 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 verve for today.

(Image: the Routledge cover's genius, compared to my mangy, bird-nibbled, unclean $1 used Pelican 1969 copy with its René Magritte monochrome painting, pretty boring.)
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
classic work 28 Jan. 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the most famous and still relevant works about what are behind any given cultures concepts on cleanliness and impurity. Written in an accesible language so even interested laypersons can benefit from Mary Douglas' scholarly research. If you are intersted in Biblical criticism and/or anthropology - this book belongs in your bookshelf. It is simply a classic.
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