Purity and Danger


Douglas claims that the book is “a late blow struck in the battle which anthropology in the 1940s and 1950s was fighting against racism.” What characterized this “battle,” and was it within or without the field itself? Why this time period?

Are all anthropologists social constructionists, or have we just been reading a lot of those that are?

Juxtaposition between psychological understandings of cultural practice and sociological/cultural ones; can we flesh this out? Is this understanding a ritual from an individual’s perspective, analyzing it as their own personal beliefs and linking these beliefs to their overall cosmologies versus placing the ritual in a cultural context, in which it is instead a method of mass cultural control?

How can we apply Douglas’s insights to medical ritual? How can I apply them to conceptions of pollution around Eureka Springs?
Could use this to analyze the separate spring for ES’s African American citizens.
The water, in the 1890s, began to be marketed as “pure” — could I take this framework and flip it to look at the opposite of pollution? Disease was understood (by some) as a blockage, an anomaly, in the healthy system, and the pure springwater was supposed to cleanse it by breaking down the dirt and flushing it out.
Pathological modernity as a transgression against the body’s natural proclivity to balance and maintain itself. Nature as punisher for transgressions of urbanization/industrialization (clogging up body) and ultimate savior (its waters as cleansing tonics).

Preface to Routledge Classic Edition

Taboos/dirt require “a form of community-wide complicity,” put in place to establish a “local consensus on how the world is organized.” Transgressions need to be understood as avenged by physical nature; “the waters, earth, animal life and vegitation form an armory that will automatically defend the founding principles of society, and human bodies are primed to do the same.” (xi-xii)

Central part of argument — “…rational behavior involves classification, and… the activity of classifying is a human universal.” “Classification is inherent in organization…” (xvii)

Discusses taboo’s connection with risk; both subjective, used by people in power to control behavior. Links work she does with risk analysis and details her foray into applied social theory/anthropology with a policy analyst.

What do we view as risky? What do we view as dirty? All ways of classifying and shaping the world and are subjective and generally culturally specific.


“…dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.” “Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.” (2)

“…rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience.” (3)

We can use taboo/pollution/dirt as a tool to help us uncover the relations between different parts of society, “as mirroring designs of hierarchy or symmmetry which apply in the larger social system.” (4)

“…society does not exist in a neutral, uncharged vacuum. It is subject to external pressures; that which is not with it, part of it and subject to its laws, is potentially against it.” (5)

“Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death.” (7)

1: Ritual Uncleanness

Douglas is using very “us versus them” language… “contemporary primitives,” “for us…,” “alien religion…” here. Why? That implies that both “us” and “them” understand dirt homogeneously within our own groups. This generalization is what Said was arguing against in Orientalism. This dates this book, unless I’m misunderstanding something.

Discusses late 19th century theologians’ and anthropologists’ theories about religion; took an evolutionary standpoint, where Protestantism (devoid of “magical” and “ritualistic” beliefs and instead based on community ethics) was the zenith, followed by Catholicism, then Islam, onto more primitive religions where ritual was more pronounced.

Early anthropologists drew a line between magic and religion, which is problematic. But the conclusions they came on the demarcation between the sacred and the profane were helpful:
The sacred is abstract, a religious entity, “merely ideas awakened by the experience of society…” and thus must be “constantly hedged in with prohibitions. The sacred must always be treated as contagious because relations with it are bound to be expressed by rituals of separation and demarcation and by beliefs in the danger of crossing forbidden boundaries.” (26-27)

Frazer: magic >> relgion >> science

“…we shall not expect to understand other people’s ideas of contagion, sacred or secular, until we have confronted our own.” (35)

2: Secular Defilement

“Medical materialism” tarnishing interpretation of ritual practices; Douglas has a problem with people taking practices and putting them into a modern medical context. (Leviticus says don’t eat certain stuff because those people must have had some way of knowing that it was actually bad for them!) Douglas is also far from okay with scholars taking the opposite approach, and condemning these rituals as completely foreign to our own ideas of cleanliness/hygiene. (“Our practices are solidly based on hygiene, theirs are symbolic…”)

“…our ideas of dirt also express symbolic systems and that the difference between pollution behavior in one part of the world and another is only a matter of detail.” (43)

Discussion of entrance of uncomfortableness (and sometimes stimulating) effect of anomaly and ambiguity into the individual classification systems that color our perception/understanding of the world.

Culture — collective classificatory systems/understandings — are more rigid, less easily adapted or changed when confronted with anomaly. Usually dealt with in 5 ways:

  1. “Settling from one or another interpretation…”; monstrous births are baby hippos accidentally born to humans
  2. “…physically controlled…”; twins are murdered at birth
  3. avoidance; steering clear of things that crawl on their bellies (Leviticus)
  4. “…labeled as dangerous…
  5. “…used to… enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of existence.”

“…if uncleanliness is a matter out of place, we must approach it through order.” (50)

3: The Abominations of Leviticus

Argues that the what seem like arbitrary or perhaps medically materialistic restrictions on animals that are prohibited for eating in Leviticus can be understood in terms of an attempt at placing distance between order and anomaly. Animals on the ground, in the sky, and in the water were supposed to be whole and have certain characteristics. If they don’t fall into these categories, they are unholy and to be avoided.

If this interpretation is correct, “the dietary laws would have been like signs at which every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God. By rules of avoidance, holiness was given a physical expression at every encounter with the animal kingdom at every meal.” (71)

4: Magic and Miracle

To judge “primitive” religions for ritual practice is hypocritical. Evangelicalism, Douglas argues, is suspicious of religious ritual; but if “…ritual is suppressed in one form it crops up in others, more strongly the more intense the social interaction. Without the letters of condolences, telegrams of congratulations…the friendship of a separated friend is not a social reality… Social rituals create a reality which would be nothing without them.” (77)

“The difference between us is not that our behavior is grounded on science and theirs on symbolism. Our behavior also carries symbolic meaning. The real difference is that we do not bring forward from one context to the next the same set of ever more powerful symbols; our experience is fragmented. Our rituals create a lot of little sub words, unrelated. Their rituals create one single, symbolically consistent universe.”(85)
Again with the us-them dichotomy. Who is this “us”? And “them”? This generalizing is really problematic.

Money, cleaning as rituals.

5: Primitive Worlds

Really confused about this chapter. Douglas seems to be arguing for the conception of societies/cultures as “modern” and “primitive,” and that the only reason some anthropologists have been uncomfortable with this construction is due to a feeling of superiority.

“Differentiation in thought patterns goes along with differentiation in social patterns.” (97)

Argues that “modern” societies are less self-centered, seeking objectivity. Uses analogy of the Copernican revolution, in which men cast off their need to see themselves as the center of the universe and relate all natural phenomena to their immediate selves. Also couches the change in terms of cultural differentiation. “Primitives” don’t see the world this way.

“…our own type of culture needs to be distinguished from others which lack this self-awareness and conscious reaching for objectivity.” (98)

“[Primitive]s’ world revolves around the observer who is trying to interpret his experiences. Gradually he separates himself from his environment and perceives his real limitations and powers.” (100)
This seems to imply that we’ve accomplished this — seen our real powers through objectivity. Pfft.

“…their relation to their environment is mediated by demons and ghosts whose behavior is complicated and unpredictable, while we encounter our environment more simply and directly. This latter advantage we owe to our wealth and material progress which has enabled other developments to take place. So, on this reckoning, the primitive is ultimately at a disadvantage both in the economic and spiritual field.” (115)

6: Powers and Dangers

Discusses witchcraft and sorcery; generally exists in portions of the population that exist in ambiguity, in the cracks. Not easily classified and particularly prone to cause social disorder — even if they aren’t. Their mere existence is uncanny and uncomfortable.

7: External Boundaries

Discusses the body as a site of ritual meaning. Stuff that transgresses the boundaries of the body (spit, piss, blood, shit, sweat, etc.) has significance.

“…when rituals express anxiety about the body’s orifices, the sociological counterpart of this anxiety is a care to protect the political and cultural unity of a minority group.” (153)
Definitely see this in medical spas — thinking specifically of Curing the Colonizers.

8: Internal Lines

“…pollution rules can serve to settle uncertain moral issues…” (162) and help to fill in the gaps to sustain social order where morality falls short.

9: The System at War with Itself

Argues that more primitive social structures are more prone to enact distinct and harsh categories and expectations between men and women. (174)


“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?