Natural Symbols Essay - Critical Context

Mary Tew

Critical Context

That patterns of social relation are both expressed through and created by collective rituals and belief systems is one of the central theses of Emile Durkheim’s pioneering work in cultural anthropology, and Mary Douglas works squarely within the Durkheimian tradition. Douglas extends the range of such study, however, by employing techniques of linguistic analysis, especially those of Basil Bernstein (whom Douglas acknowledges throughout Natural Symbols). Showing correlations between belief systems, linguistic codes, and social structures, Douglas reaches across several subdisciplines within the field of anthropology. She is also the first to use the grid/group model to account for religious patterns in widely divergent cultures.

Although in her meticulous citations of sources and descriptions of fieldwork Douglas is as detached and objective as any professional social scientist, her sympathies lie always with religious belief and its expression through condensed symbols. Unlike many other anthropological studies, Natural Symbols draws explicit conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses not only of remote and primitive cultures but also of contemporary Western culture. Douglas’ own cosmology is not value-free: To her, the failure of the clergy and the academic communities to understand the needs of ordinary people is deplorable, but capable of being remedied. It is this insistence on seeing and judging clearly that makes Natural Symbols an important work for readers other than anthropologists, and that makes some anthropologists uneasy when they confront it.

Among Douglas’ many other works, one that is particularly relevant to Natural Symbols is Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (1975). Implicit Meanings, which gathers essays and lectures from 1955 to 1972, shows how different cultures organize the raw material of experience in different ways. In her preface, Douglas makes explicit the thrust of these essays, arguing for a radical relativism. While acknowledging Durkheim’s pioneering efforts in demonstrating the “social factors controlling thought,” she notes that he failed to extend his critique to his own attachment to modern science and the notion of “non-context-dependent” truth. In short, Douglas provocatively contends that most arguments for cultural relativism have not gone far enough: “It is no more easy to defend non-context-dependent, non-culture-dependent beliefs in things or objective scientific truth than beliefs in gods and demons.”