Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

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.

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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.

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