Mary Douglas Summary


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)


Mary Douglas, born Mary Tew, was a leading British anthropologist who popularized the subject and extended its borders, meshing it particularly with sociology and social psychology, in an effort to apply anthropological insights to an understanding of Western cultures.

She was born the daughter of Gilbert and Phyllis Tew and educated at a leading Catholic private school in London. Her early Catholic upbringing and allegiances stayed with her, often to be seen in her writing. She was an undergraduate at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, 1939-1942, majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics. She then became involved in war work as a civil servant at the Colonial Office.

At this point she became seriously interested in anthropology and returned to Oxford in 1946 to train under Professor Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, professor of social anthropology at Oxford from 1946 to 1950, and for whom she held a lifelong admiration, later writing a book about him. Her fieldwork was concentrated in Africa, in what was then the Belgian Congo; she had two early stints there (1949-1950 and 1953) under the auspices of the International African Institute, and a later visit in 1987.

On completion of her studies, she was appointed lecturer in anthropology at Oxford in 1950, and then at University College, London, a post she held from 1951 to 1978. In 1951 she married James Douglas; they had three children.

Her first major book, Purity and Danger, was published in 1966 as a popular text on anthropology by Penguin. It immediately became well known, both popularly and academically. She acknowledged the influence of her husband, a social psychologist, as well as Evans-Pritchard and the great structuralist, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Purity and Danger is an attempt to re-map anthropology, taking it back to the communal direction posited by Émile Durkheim (though later she was to disagree with him in some respects) and away from the folkloristic popularizings of Sir James George Frazer and the symbolic psychoanalytic approaches of Carl Jung. She believed that anthropology had made no progress since the...

(The entire section is 890 words.)