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

4.3 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0415289955
ISBN-10: 0415289955
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Editorial Reviews

Review

'[A] classic book.' – New York Times --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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.
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Product Details

  • Series: Routledge Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (November 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415289955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415289955
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #130,392 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Cutting through the epistemological deadlock of both Durkheimian project of defining religion and Maussian focus on manifestly religious activities such as sacrifice, Mary Douglas bring us into that fluid world of the everyday through her meditation on purity and danger. Purity and danger are two concepts one can find in any society and any culture. Purity and danger are two themes that concern everybody in one’s daily encounters, from the miraculous to the quotidian. And yet, each culture has its own taboos, its own rituals, and its own formulations of what constitutes as pure and as dangerous. As such, purity and danger carries us out of rigid metaphysical framework of what is and what is not, instead shed light on the relation of “order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death” (7). In so doing, Douglas opens up a new path that integrates both explanation and understanding modes of doing anthropology.
The core of her methodological ingenuity (instead of merely choosing an interesting topic) lies in her comparative method: “In the first place we shall not expect to understand religion if we confine ourselves to considering belief in spiritual beings, however the formula may be refined… Rather than stopping to chop definitions, we should try to compare peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe. In the second place we shall not expect to understand other people’s ideas of contagion, sacred or secular, until we have confronted our own.”(35, my italic) By looking into the everyday (her first method of comparison), her meditation walks us from the mundane to the sacred and demonstrates how religion/cosmology and social order emerge from daily life and how such perceived order in turn governs one’s lived experience.
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Format: Paperback
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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