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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge Classics) [Paperback]

by Mary Douglas
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 15, 2002 0415289955 978-0415289955 1
In Purity and Danger Mary Douglas identifies the concern for purity as a key theme at the heart of every society. In lively and lucid prose she explains its relevance for every reader by revealing its wide-ranging impact on our attitudes to society, values, cosmology and knowledge. The book has been hugely influential in many areas of debate - from religion to social theory. But perhaps its most important role is to offer each reader a new explanation of why people behave in the way they do. With a specially commissioned introduction by the author which assesses the continuing significance of the work thirty-five years on, this Routledge Classics edition will ensure that Purity and Danger continues to challenge and question well into the new millennium.

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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge Classics) + Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates + Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China and the United States
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Editorial Reviews


"Sparkles with intellectural life." -- Times Literary Supplement

"This is an absorbing book, full of fascinating insights into some important and universal aspects of human behavior, and Professor Douglas's erudition is made accessible through the enviable lucidity of her writing." -- Lore and Language --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Mary Douglas (1921-). One of the most distinguished anthropologists of modern times. Natural Symbols, another of her major works, is also available in Routledge Classics.

Product Details

  • Series: Routledge Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: TAYLOR; 1 edition (November 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415289955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415289955
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #246,312 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clean or dirty? Your culture decides. January 5, 2001
All cultures have definite ideas about what is clean and what is dirty. Drawing from previous hallmark works on how cultures make classifications (Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked, etc.), Douglas makes clear and concise arguments about the use of ritual in separating that which is considered pure from what's considered unclean. The convincing argument she makes is that such rituals and clearly defined boundaries of purity reinforce a society's common definitions, increasing its unity and therefore its ability to work together to succeed. Additionally, Douglas alludes to Malinowski's anxiety-reduction theories of totems to theorize that clear definitions of right and wrong and of clean and unclean reduce the stress in a given society, helping everyone to know who they are and what is expected of them. In fact, she feels, a lack of such distinctions can be fatal to the integrity of a group. If everyone went on their own deciding what was good or bad, there would be chaos - the danger alluded to in the title.
A highlight of the book is the chapter titled "Abominations of Leviticus", in which she interprets the Jewish divisions between kosher and graev (no pork, no mixing of milk and meat, etc) in a cultural context. Here she shows that the Levites divided "pure" animals (deer, cattle, sheep, goats, etc) from those considered "mixed" (pig, rabbit, woodchuck), or having an undesireable combination of traits rather than just being dirty in aspect, as is commonly believed.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars pangolin stew September 27, 2000
Why was one locust cleaner than the other? Man, I had no idea either till I picked up this book. In fact, I had no idea that Jewish dietary laws made any distinctions at all on the locust front. (I mean, as far as I'm concerned, you could leave the locusts off the menu altogether and it's a fair bet I wouldn't even notice.) Mary Douglas, extensively supported by a gaggle of other similarly academically endowed individuals in quote form, however, delves right into the whole locust conundrum and she does it in a truly fascinating manner. What begins as a graceful though predictable swan dive assessment of profanity as disruption of cultural order jack knifes thrillingly there in the middle to talk about physical creatures as metaphoric representations of religious and cultural values. The book starts out talking about dirt and ends up in a fascinating examination of how we as humans, both "primative" and "civilized", twist our concrete world to become metaphor for psychological and spiritual experience Cool, huh. Also, as an added treat, Douglas spends A LOT of time talking about the South American Lele cult of the pangolin. (For laypeople, that's that funny armadillo/anteater thing that looks quite alot like a pinecone.) Douglas takes some fairly weighty theories of cultural anthropology and turns them into an entertaining and infinitely readable piece. A nice trick. Oh, and did I mention the anteater? What's not to love?
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47 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars insightful, but uneven November 5, 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
At the instigation of an anthropology teacher, I read this book when I was about 19 and found it shattering and profound. Now, however, returning to it years later (and having read in the meantime dozens of books on anthropology and anthropological issues, and having thought for years about what I thought I learned in this book) I'm not so sure it's as perceptive as I thought. In other words, I think what I may have found mind-blowing in my younger years was the insights of anthropology itself -- not so much the contributions of Ms. Douglas.

Having said that, there are four or five extremely interesting observations herein that will help explain, or at least clarify, some puzzling issues: why gangs "jump" initiates, why Muslims do not permit nonbelievers to enter Mecca, why frats "haze" their new recruits, etc., although you pretty much have to fill in those blanks for yourself: Ms. Douglas does not explicitly extend her theories to cover such aspects of modern society. I used to think the book was deep; now, I think (in general) that she doesn't go far enough with her theories, instead stopping short just when things are getting interesting.

Another unfortunate aspect of this book is that the author felt it necessary, in the first few chapters, to refute previous, erroneous ideas about filth and pollution. Unfortunately, many of the theories she refers to are complicated and difficult to follow, at least before you read the rest of the book. In other words, I think she should have left that section for last, instead just launching into her conclusions directly.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Who shares your dessert? August 30, 2007
Why do we let those close to us lick the same spoon, or eat off the same dish? Why kiss away tears but not snot? How do we learn to live with some filth and yet recoil at other dirt? And how does this all relate to "primitive" ritual, magical belief, and ethical culture?

This book manages to be accessible for the non-anthropologist or historian of religion, yet too densely argued and scattered for the novice. How can it be both? Douglas writes in a no-nonsense style that I enjoyed, when I could grasp her points. Too often, like many critics, she's engaged more in a grudge match with previous academics and uses a considerable amount of this text settling scores, some from the time of "The Golden Bough" and the formative years of her discipline. While she makes her own argument known, the details of tribes, the skipping about that many of the chapters engage in through time and culture make her intricately developed thesis appear probably more fractured and piecemeal than she intended.

The centerpiece, therefore, stands out as the lasting reason for which this earlier book is known, and you can see from her later work that she returned to Leviticus with gusto. "The Abominations of Leviticus" pioneered a cultural approach to the laws not as health codes -- although she notes that ethical control, hygiene and dietary concerns may well be by-products of these Mosaic restrictions and allowances -- but as aesthetic counterparts drawn from the natural world to the cohesion that the military camp and the Hebrew tribes demanded for survival and identity. She reads the proscriptions and prescriptions as conceptual structures of what fit the divinely mandated order that the Hebrews strove to impose-- following God's will as they understood it-- on their natural surroundings.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Mary Douglas is a great writer
I have read all of Mary Douglas' books. Her perspective is not like anyone else, and at the same time she is more insightful than 10 other writers on the same subject combined. Read more
Published 3 months ago by John M. Beasley
5.0 out of 5 stars obssessed with order
Cutting through the epistemological deadlock of both Durkheimian project of defining religion and Maussian focus on manifestly religious activities such as sacrifice, Mary Douglas... Read more
Published 5 months ago by X. Zu
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye Opening
I chose this book because I had questions regarding some of our religious traditions and the history behind them. I found this book to very helpful for my needs. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Robert P. Kauffman
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid, comprehensive and thought-provoking
The title is a bit of a misnomer, as this book tackles much more extensive subjects than simple 'taboos'. Read more
Published on July 25, 2011 by kaioatey
2.0 out of 5 stars Just because it's "Classic" doesn't mean I want to read it
I was assigned this book for a college course and really didn't care for it. This book is relatively old now and that is reflected in the writing style. Read more
Published on March 23, 2011 by Erin
5.0 out of 5 stars Quick shipping, nice product
I needed this book at the last minute for one of my college courses. I got it very quickly, within the earlier part of my estimated delivery window. The product came as described.
Published on December 21, 2010 by Rebekah
5.0 out of 5 stars Great service!
Even during the busy holiday season, the book arrived as promised and ON TIME! Great job!
Published on December 30, 2009 by Bruce A. Steinway
5.0 out of 5 stars classic work
This is one of the most famous and still relevant works about what are behind any given cultures concepts on cleanliness and impurity. Read more
Published on January 28, 2008 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic Anthropology
This book is considered a classic and laid groundwork for future anthropological work in religion and belief. Read more
Published on January 16, 2008 by B Stuff
2.0 out of 5 stars Storytelling
This may be an entertaining book if you want to read stories of foreign cultures and habits, but I don't think it meets the scientific standards of anthropology. Read more
Published on April 17, 2007 by T. Carlsson
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