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Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, like Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Claude Levi-Strauss’ Anthropologie structurale (1958; Structural Anthropology, 1963), addresses contemporary cultural conditions in the Western world using the insights of anthropological studies. Mary Douglas’ study begins with an apparent anomaly in contemporary Western societies: While the better-educated, elite clergy of mainstream denominations (Douglas cites especially the Roman Catholic church in Great Britain) tend to devalue the inherent efficacy of traditional observances such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, many ordinary church members cling to such rituals. This split is one manifestation of a pattern of changes taking place in Western culture, a pattern generally characterized by an increasing emphasis, among elite groups, on the ethical dimensions of religious experience at the expense of the symbolic dimensions, concurrent with an increasing valuation of elaborated, rationalistic speech codes at the expense of condensed speech codes. Douglas’ thesis is that these changes are part of a pattern observable in many cultures, not merely a result of inevitable secularization in industrial societies. Various relations between a society’s “grid,” or system of roles and hierarchies, and its “group,” or level of control exerted by others over the individual person, correlate with four major varieties of religion and cosmology. Furthermore, the symbolism of the physical human body—a symbolism used in virtually every culture—responds to the social system, so that types of bodily symbolism correlate with types of grid-group relationships.

The first five chapters of Natural Symbols set out the terms of the grid-group system and the kinds of interpretations to which it can lead. The concluding five chapters apply those terms to a variety of religiocultural situations, providing a multifaceted demonstration of the ways in which social systems, religions, languages and linguistic systems, and symbolic codes interact.

Douglas’ argument begins with the observation that family structures and linguistic modes can both be seen as ranging along two continuums. Family structure ranges from the “positional” (that is, hierarchical and rigid regarding roles and duties) to the “personal” (that is, concerned with developing sensitivity to others’ emotions and ability to manipulate abstractions). Speech modes range from the “restricted” (that is, used for the purpose of reinforcing positional values) to the “elaborated” (that is, used for self-expression and critical reflection). In societies characterized by highly positional families who use highly restricted speech codes, ritual is a potent form of communication. In societies with personal families and elaborated speech codes, such as upper-middle-class England and America, ritual gives way to ethics; ironically, the highly educated religious leaders drawn from this class cannot respond to the “condensed symbols” which lie at the heart of all rituals.

Family structure and the style of control it implies do not, however, arise independently of a larger social and cosmological order. Power, Douglas argues, is made legitimate in terms of elements of a society that are not explained or even discussed by its members, but instead are so implicit as to seem self-evident. These sources of power or control can be traced along two dimensions of human interaction. The first is the amount of pressure the individual can or does exert on others and the amount they can or do exert on him. Douglas calls this dimension “group.” Second, the coherence of the system by which experience is categorized she calls the “grid.” The experience of any individual person within the group or the grid is not an absolute value, but relative to the experiences of others in his or her culture. Thus, for example, in an industrialized society strong grid may correlate with the presence of both strong leaders who exert great pressure on the group and a mass of people subjected to the impersonal rules of the grid; these people attach themselves comfortably to a leader as long as he is in ascendancy but break out into millenarianism when his fortunes collapse.

Human societies present an enormous variety of religious and cosmological forms, but, Douglas argues, there are four main social types, corresponding to four cosmological types. First, societies characterized by strong grid and group see the universe as just, with pain and suffering serving as appropriate punishments for misdeeds, either individual or collective. Second, societies characterized by intense identification with small groups but lacking strong grid see a war between the forces of good and evil in the universe, with evil as an alien danger introduced by outside contamination. These societies are especially prone to such religious manifestations as the exorcism of witches. Third, in societies with strong grid but weak group identification, the leaders see the cosmos as an arena in which they compete, using any means, natural or supernatural, that will assure their success. Fourth, the mass of people in strong grid, weak group societies see the universe as a place of impersonal rules followed to placate distant gods. Such people are prone to millenarian movements when the rewards for obeying the rules seem not to be forthcoming.

Within this worldwide context of societies and cosmologies, modern Westerners live with highly developed grids but relatively low group identification. The search for group solidarity manifests itself in clinging to identifying rituals (such as Friday abstinence), while the desire to transcend the impersonality of the grid leads to antiritualism in its various modern forms, including religious revivalism and secular revolts against bureaucratic and academic structures.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 72

“Grids and Groups,” in The Times Literary Supplement. May 14, 1970, p. 535.

Hacking, Ian. “Knowledge,” in London Review of Books. VIII (December 18, 1986), pp. 17-18.

Rabon, Jonathan. “Conservative Cosmologies,” in New Statesman. LXXIX (June 5, 1970), pp. 812-813.

Steinfels, Peter. “The Sartorial Shagginess of St. John the Baptist, Hippies, and Nuer Prophets,” in Commonweal. XCIII (October 9, 1970), pp. 49-51.

Wuthnow, Robert, et al. Cultural Analysis: The Work of Peter L. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen Habermas, 1984.


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