Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

By Paul Bouissac

Mary Douglas peacefully passed away on May 17 at the University College London Hospital. Semioticians, among others, will mourn the death of an inspiring and generous thinker who was concerned with the ways in which people make sense of their environments and their lives, and who focused her research on the symbols we live by. Mary Douglas had taught courses in the International Summer Institutes for Semiotic and Structural Studies in 1983 (Indiana University), 1990 (University of Toronto), and 1991 (University of Hawaii). Until the last weeks of her life, she remained vigorously engaged in research and publication. Her most recent book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring Composition (Yale University Press) appeared in early 2007.

She was keen on participating in the Semiotics Institute Online for which she had agreed to provide a course on Cultural Theory. In early May, she sent me her second lecture further developing and applying to contemporary events her seminal notions of grid and group. Knowing too well that she would not be able to complete the course herself, she had secured the collaboration of a team of colleagues and disciples whom she entrusted with the task of providing the remaining lectures.

In order to take a comprehensive view of her rich intellectual career it seems appropriate to quote the first-person account she sent me when we built her homepage for the Open Semiotic Resource Centre:

Born in Italy in 1921, educated at Oxford, I finished with a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1951.

My major research was in the (then, 1949-53)) Belgian Congo, later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first book on this work was published in 1963, The Lele of the Kasai. Most of my teaching life was in the Anthropology Department of University College London (1951-77). After four years in New York, four years in Northwestern University, and three years in Princeton, I retired to England and have been living in London ever since 1988.

The philosophy and institutions of the Lele people have inspired my subsequent work. In the direct line of influence, I have worked continuously on the relation between beliefs and social organization, starting with Purity and Danger, an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, (1966), and Natural Symbols, (1970). The Lele at that time had only recently encountered the money economy, which led me to try to learn some economics (thanks to a Leverhulme grant), and launched me into an anthropological critique of economic theory, (see The World of Goods, 1979). The Lele used to have severe problems of mistrust and difficulties in mobilizing support, which fired my interest in the question of solidarity. This concern surfaced in a book on organization, How Institutions Think (1986).

With Aaron Wildavsky I co-authored Risk and Culture (1982), which developed a theory of risk perception derived directly from Purity and Danger. It was an attempt to apply to the then current debates about risk perception what anthropologists understand about perception of danger. In the seventies the current psychological theories on risk as a matter focused on the individual’s psyche, whereas anthropologists are primarily interested in social pressures to conform. They try to think systematically about how an individual is influenced by the surrounding culture. The sub-title, ‘An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers’ indicates the focus on selection. Some things that we are afraid of, other people do not fear; there are some principles which select the things we are prepared to take action to prevent. The Lele were afraid of the sorcery of their neighbours, on very flimsy evidence, and afraid of being struck by lightening, a very rare event, but they faced other regular dangers calmly. Crudely: they, and we, take most interest in the dangers that can plausibly be blamed on someone. It is part of a general theory of the politicisation of nature. I followed this book with a literature review of risk perception, Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences (1985) and eventually with collected essays, Risk and Blame, (1992).

There are other influences that I received from living among the Lele. Their dietary restrictions, and their classification of animals as safe to eat or dangerous, originally turned my interest to the Mosaic dietary laws. From here it was a natural development to have been working for the last fifteen years on the law books of the Bible, and to reflect upon the Jewish dietary prescriptions (In the Wilderness, (1993), Leviticus as Literature (1999).

In the background of these specific interests I have been working for a long time with a group of colleagues who are developing a two-dimensional model of cultural variation, (known as ‘Cultural theory’). My own abiding and central interest in the topic stems from suggestions I made in 1970 in Natural Symbols. We are concerned with the forms of social organization that crystallize collective thought, with the effect of empowering some behaviours and outlawing others. I believe that the social sciences cannot continue indefinitely to be satisfied with their strong individualist focus. There is a need for a way of organizing and systematically testing individualist intuitions on morals and politics against well-understood systems of cultural bias.

It was to answer this need that Mary Douglas had generously undertaken to coordinate a course on line for the Open Semiotic Resource Centre. The first two lectures she authored can be read at