Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mary Douglas – Ritual Uncleanness –summary and review

In chapter 1 of her famous "Purity and Danger", titled "Ritual Uncleanness", structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas bases her distinction between the clean and sacred and the unclean and unsacred, while refuting dominant attitudes in 19th century British anthropology. Douglas argues with the "evolution of culture" paradigm represented by thinkers such as James Frazer and Robertson Smith.

Frazer defined three evolutionary stages in the human cultural development: magic, religion and science. This classification established a hierarchy of cultures based on their position in this evolutionary course. Primitive (or "savage") cultures, according to Frazer, are characterized by faith in magic while modern culture in one of science with religion positioned in the middle.      

According to Douglas, the evolution of culture approach is an example of how western anthropologists established a condescending approach towards other cultures, expressing their euro centrism and allowing for distinctions between cultures.

Like Douglas, Frazer, Smith, Durkheim and other anthropologists established the relationship between sanctity and profanity as central element in religious life, but 19th century thinkers saw it as the touchstone for differentiating primitive and advanced cultures. They argued that primitive religions did not separate sanctity from profanity while more advanced beliefs, like Christianity, did. Douglas mentions two characteristics of the primitive religion according to Frazer:  1. Primitive religion is instrumental and mechanical because it perceives rituals (magic) as supposed to bring about a predicted outcome and influence the course of events. The other feature of primitive religions according to Frazer is the lack of moral principles.  

Douglas heavily criticizes these notions and accuses Frazer of being condescending and theoretically invalid. For Douglas, even if religious and cultural features are different from one culture to another, the substantial manner in which people think is not that different. Douglas further argues that the differentiation between sanctity and profanity, cleanness and uncleanness, is exemplary of all cultures, including "primitive" ones. In addition, Douglas claims against Frazer that magic is not a lesser form of faith for like more "advanced" religions it is a symbolic action through which people organize their word-view, values and actions.
A heavy influence by Emile Durkheim can be found in Douglas's account of the relation between cleanness and uncleanness. Durkheim, in his discussion of the "Totemic Principle" saw religion as a symbolic manifestation of society itself. But while Durkheim differentiated magic from religion Mary Douglas sees magic as the same in the respect of is social ordering function.  
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