Biography

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

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.

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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 early twentieth century.

Douglas saw rituals of purity and impurity as existing to create a unity of experience and to uphold political or moral structures and behavior. This holistic and moral emphasis was to typify all her later work, constructed around major categories of order, being, form, margins, and death. A chapter in Purity and Danger on the Old Testament laws of purity reveals a thorough knowledge of biblical scholarship. Douglas felt no embarrassment in marrying theology to anthropology.

Penguin published several other of her works, including Rules and Meaning and especially Natural Symbols, first published in hardback in 1970 and as a paperback in 1973. She incorporated the work of Basil Bernstein (also a Durkheimian), an educational sociologist with particular interest in language codes and the framing of knowledge institutionally. She sought to use these categories in rewriting some of her earlier material. One chapter, “The Bog Irish” (poor Irish immigrants in London), reveals both her Catholic sympathies and her conservative instincts against the modernist de-ritualizers in the church.

In 1970 she was appointed professor of social anthropology at University College, London, remaining there until 1978, when she took an appointment in the United States as director of research at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York. From 1981 to 1985 she was Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University and was designated professor emeritus on her retirement. From 1986 to 1988 she was visiting professor at Princeton University. Honors have included honorary doctorates at Uppsala, Sweden (1986), and Notre Dame (1988), election as a Fellow of the British Academy (1989), and the award of Companion of the British Empire in 1992.

In the later 1970’s Douglas’s interests moved toward food and consumerism in general; in the 1980’s, she became interested in risk-taking. One of her most significant later books, How Institutions Think, was presented first as a lecture series at Syracuse University in 1985. It is an attempt to redefine a theoretical basis for all her earlier work, seeking to do more perfectly what Purity and Danger attempted: to generalize from Africa to her own condition and culture. It demonstrates her humanitarian concerns, notably in its attempt to show the reality of altruism. Above all, her particular achievements were her ease in all the social sciences, her range of interests, her ability to make connections, and her ability to marry British and American insights. In 1994 Douglas was awarded the Bernal Prize by the Society for Social Studies of Science and her continuing importance to the field of anthropology is attested by the publication of her twelve-volume collected works in 2002. Douglas died in London on May 16, 2007.

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