(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mary Douglas is a cultural anthropologist whose work, like that of Claude Levi Strauss, has a provocative interdisciplinary appeal. Her scope in this set of collected articles is broad, her chapters vary wildly in subject matter, yet she brings a precise theory to bear in each case, such that it is more than a theme that runs through the book, it is a guiding principle. Furthermore, the structure of the argument is much the same in each case. A subject is chosen, preferably one that has not traditionally been seen as being in the purview of cultural anthropology, such as ecology, epistemology, or economics. A well-known figure in the field is then enjoined in a discussion of the subject, but it soon becomes apparent that he or she is to be a foil for Douglas’ real project, which is to present her grid/group analysis as a more suitable approach to the problem, whatever it is. She musters help from colleagues and friends, many of whom have tried out her theory in areas as diverse as mathematics and organizational crime.

The grid/group theory is an extension of the idea of personal freedom versus social solidarity put forth by Emile Durkheim and others earlier, and more recently in another form principally by Pierre Bourdieu with his concept of habitus. The original social argument stated that where there existed a high degree of individual freedom, there usually was also a lack of social solidarity, and vice versa. Douglas has mapped this onto a graph which describes not two, but four different cultural patterns, which she presents almost as if they were universal and exhaustive. If she is right, it simplifies ethnographic analysis a great deal.

In the graph, the X-axis describes increasing solidarity while increasing limits on options are plotted along the Y-axis. The resulting chart describes four cultural models, and Douglas argues that cultures tend to cluster in these corners, such that one does not usually get the values and behaviors of the differing patterns mixing together to any great extent. The four models are:

A. Individualist: This is a market economy, an individualist culture where the free and open exchange of goods, ideas, and values is the primary mode of interaction. Personal achievement is rewarded; failure to achieve on a personal level is not well tolerated.

B. Isolates: These people are not connected well to their peers, but feel trapped by rules imposed by others. They are the homeless, the blue-collar worker on the bottom rung without union support, prostitutes and others living at the margins of other cultural models (Usually A or C).

C. Central Community: These are hierarchicalists, whose various and varied attempts to form a more structured society than that of the individualists give them a great deal of social cohesion but rob them of personal freedom.

D. Dissenting Enclave: Also known as sectarians or communards, these are those who love both personal freedom and social solidarity. The only way to achieve the latter without sacrificing the former is through sheer commitment to the group. Douglas considers Isolates (B) and Enclaves(D) by their nature to be less stable, and thus less viable as long-term cultural patterns than the Individualist (A) and Community (C) models. That is because she believes that what she traces out as the “positive diagonal” between A and C describes the older, but still valid observation that individual freedom and social solidarity naturally work as opposing pairs to form the most stable cultures. While B and D can exist, they usually do so in some sort of subordinate relationship to an A or a C culture.

The book is divided into three parts: “Risk and Blame” (chapters 1-6), “Wants and Institutions” (7-1 1), and “Believing and Thinking” (12-16). These can be characterized roughly as the laying out of the argument, its practical application, and its theoretical implications, though there is some overlap as well. Douglas is never an easy read, but she is particularly deep (and impressively well-read) in the last section, where she deals with difficult questions regarding the self and epistemology. In spite of having been written at various times for various audiences, and in spite of dealing with very different subjects, the essays cohere not only by virtue of Douglas’ unrelenting application of her theory but also by means of a clear and thoughtful overall structure. Some small things remain puzzling, however, such as the fact that in spite of the advance billing they receive in the titles, the ideas of risk and blame do not appear with much frequency in the book except in the first section. They are doubtless presupposed at other points in the other articles, but it is here that one misses the unity that comes from a book that is written as such, rather than as a collection of articles.

After an introduction where Douglas argues for an interdisciplinary approach to economics, politics, and anthropology, she lays the foundation for her ideas in her first chapter (“Risk and Blame”) and takes on the issue of blame directly. She makes the cogent point that blaming (for taking risks) is an effective means of social control and ideological domination within most societies and institutions. She mentions some exceptions, and finds them noteworthy (for example, the Sherpas’ “no-fault” culture). It may be cynical to doubt her on this last point, but one certainly would like a fuller investigation.

In Douglas’ second chapter (“Risk and Justice”) she points out that the term “risk” now has come to mean danger (as in medical treatment risk versus benefit). The forensic use of risk (to keep people in line culturally), however, is what Douglas considers important about it for anthropology. What is so often seen as sin or taboo when the individual is considered as an agent is considered as a risk when the individual is seen as a recipient. Dangers are real enough in the world, but Douglas insists that the political use of danger is conventional. Furthermore, ideology is the fundamental grid through which we filter incoming data....

(The entire section is 2488 words.)