Purity and Danger

The anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas' 1966 book Purity and Danger is a classic, and has been hugely influential on the thinking of many people, me included. In it she examines concepts of dirt and cleanness, and how these are expressed in dealt with in differing cultures. Her subject matter is pretty fascinating all by itself, but what is even more interesting, and what has been  has been seminally influential for many people is the theory of language she brings to her observations.

She says, quite accurately, that all languages divide things up into groups or categories or classes. In fact, even to name something is to divide it off from the rest of creation, so I see Frank walking past and think "cat". But naming him so, I am simultaneously naming everything else "not cat", so immediately we have two groups. Our groups become large, variable and complex. Sometimes they overlap. So I have groups labelled human, woman, family, friends, pilgrims, christian; and into all of these I can include Clemency, my wife, and I could name many categories to which she does not belong. Everything is laid out into groups in a way which facilitates our thinking about them and our relating to them.

But occasionally, as Mary Douglas points out, we come across phenomena which don't fit easily into any of our existing categories. Of course the obvious problem here is that our categorising system is deficient, but we never think that because we don't think that our system is artificial and approximate and arbitrary. We think instead that our system is some sort of  solid and inviolable participation in the very substance of the universe, and that if there is something that doesn't fit it is the STDF that is the problem. Uncleanness in every culture is about those paradoxical things which we can't squeeze into one of our comfortable categories.

So for example, in Jewish dietary laws pigs are unclean because they cannot be categorised: they have cloven hoofs like ungulates but they don't chew the cud as ungulates are supposed to. These breaches of category provoke feelings of disquiet and repugnance in us. They make the very order of the universe (an order which we ourselves have imposed) seem questionable and they threaten our very sense of self.

Douglas says that the rituals of various cultures are the means by which they deal with these breaches in categorisation and bring order back to the world which they have disrupted.

I have been thinking about Mary Douglas because I continue to be appalled and baffled by the energy that is generated around issues of sexual identity in our church. When the planet is being despoiled; when the 67 wealthiest people in the world have as many assets as  the poorest 3.5 BILLION people we in the Anglican church are dividing because some fellow Anglicans are in love, wish to make a life long commitment to each other and have that commitment liturgically blessed? Yes, really.

I look at the indignation and the vitriol and ask "where does this energy come from?" And I think Mary Douglas is right on the money. Homosexuality is an apparent  paradox that compromises the linguistic categories of many people who feel a consequential rise in discomfort and repugnance. Of course just as Mary Douglas' analysis is accurate so is her (implied) solution. If this situation doesn't fit your categories, it is your categories which are lacking. Get new ones. Better ones. More accurate ones. Ones that more fully reflect this astonishing, varied, complex universe that our God has made and our Lord has redeemed.


Elaine Dent said…
Thank you. Sounds like one of those books I should never have missed.
Gillian Swift said…
An interesting read.
Anonymous said…
From Wikipedia (ie only possibly helpful) Later in a 2002 preface to Purity and Danger, Douglas went on to retract this explanation of the kosher rules, saying that it had been "a major mistake." Instead, she proposed that "the dietary laws intricately model the body and the altar upon one another." For instance, among land animals, Israelites were only allowed to eat animals that were also allowed to be sacrificed: animals that depend on herdsmen. Douglas concluded from this that animals that are abominable to eat are not in fact impure, but rather that "it is abominable to harm them." She claimed that later interpreters (even later Biblical authors) had misunderstood this. Rhys Lewis - see also Milgrom on Leviticus
trevor james said…
Can one imagine a mind and/or language use that did not differentiate? Speculatively the problems for understanding and communication would be overwhelming and possibly unbearable (autism might be an illustration of this, but I don't know).
Your last 2 paragraphs - absolutely - except your hermeneutical circle is reintroduced with the categories to be sought. The bright new shiny categories are likely to start a similar bind all over again!
Kelvin Wright said…
Precisely Trevor. The very nature of language itself means that such confusions of categories are inevitable and universal. The trick isn't to try and arrive at some system of conceptualisation which avoids the problem but to be aware that the problem is there. That is, to know that even as we cannot avoid thinking in categories the categories are not absolutely congruent with "the world as it really is"; they are culturally and personally defined. And that we are capable of adapting and refining and revising them.

Yes, Anonymous, she did make that later contraction, but in some ways this is a matter of detail. She redefined the Levitical food laws, but not her basic theory. That is she saw the uncleanness in food as arriving from the paradoxes in a different set of categories than she had previously assumed.
Elaine Dent said…
One could say that racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, fundamentalism, etc. is based on categories of who is "us" and who is "not" and the "nots" are therefore less (if not altogether unclean). Categories were broken when we elected a black President; vitriol and non-cooperation has been rampant in some corners although few would ever admit that the category of race has had anything to do with that. Listening to my black brothers and sisters, however, has taught me to question things differently and realize that hidden categories are still there. In fact, we even perpetuate the categories we intellectually reject. Why? Because they are so systemic and institutionalized we don't recognize them. I as a white heterosexual can unwittingly perpetuate the false categories I don't believe in unless I listen to my black and gay brothers and sisters. People on the other side of the category can see the boundaries much clearer than I. In the same way, my male clergy colleagues have needed to listen to me to understand how they were unconsciously perpetuating a false category in their speaking and in our gatherings. Hope I don't digress too much, but dismantling categories is such hard work. It takes speaking out in a lot of different ways. And reactions are strong and loud, like the RCL gospel for this Sunday, January 31.