Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 889 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“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.