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Purity and Danger summary

Mary Douglas

Investigations on the Human Obsession With Dirt and Cleanliness

3.8 (159 ratings)
17 mins

Brief summary

Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas is an anthropological work that explores the concept of pollution and taboo in various cultures. It highlights how the categorization of dirt and disorder is used to reinforce social norms and group identity.

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    Purity and Danger
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    What’s so dirty about dirt?

    Think back to your early childhood. Were you ever given any warnings of what to do to avoid something bad happening? Perhaps you were told such micro-taboos. For example, if you didn’t eat enough spinach or broccoli, you wouldn’t grow big and strong. Or maybe you were told that some catastrophe would happen, however fantastical and unlikely, if you didn’t go to bed on time.

    Each of these warnings comes with a danger, a risk. This consequence for breaking the rules influences your behavior – and what you think is correct or inappropriate in your society. In other words, you learn from a young age what is unclean.

    So what’s the reason for all this fuss? Well, the story goes that, if a community commits to recognizing certain ideas or objects as dirty or taboo, it is more likely to survive. By recognizing the same set of dangers, members stick together and have a unified experience.

    Douglas defines dirt as matter that’s out of place. But how we make these decisions is far from universal. After all, dirt is relative, and only exists, as she writes, “in the eye of the beholder.” In other words, its uncleanness depends on its location, and whether we think it fits according to rules that we’ve learned – like those muddy boots on the kitchen table. If you thought that was gross, you probably learned at some point that dirt-encrusted footwear doesn't belong on the table while you’re eating.

    When we consider something dirty, it is a threat – a danger – to the rules and order you know and love. But each society is its own private universe, with its own set of customs, even if its conventions can still be influenced by outside factors. In one place, eating with your hands might be viewed as impolite or unhygienic by some: “Hands don’t belong in food,” they might say. In other places, it’s the norm, while eating with cutlery is considered unusual.

    But much larger taboos than hygiene guidelines often play a more substantial role in ensuring that members of a community follow a pattern of conduct and maintain social order, especially when it comes to morality and spirituality. Now, these restrictions play out in different cultures in diverse ways, including dietary restrictions, warnings about sorcery and incest, and rituals for curing illnesses. In the following sections, you’ll get an idea of a few of these, as well as Douglas’s recommendations for how to interpret them.

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    What is Purity and Danger about?

    Purity and Danger (1966) presents a framework for understanding different societies and religions according to what they find pure and sacred and what they consider unclean and out of place. Cultures organize their experiences, values, and worldview into binary categories: either something is “dirty” and does not belong, or it is pure or holy. Sometimes, something – or someone – is both or neither. By looking at how other cultures make these distinctions, you can become more aware of how your own is organized.

    Purity and Danger Review

    Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas (1966) is a thought-provoking exploration of the cultural and social meanings attached to cleanliness and dirtiness. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Its sharp analysis of how purity and danger are constructed and maintained across different cultures challenges our preconceptions and expands our understanding of social norms.
    • Through compelling case studies, Douglas demonstrates how our concepts of cleanliness and pollution shape our perceptions of the world and influence our behaviors.
    • The book's nuanced examination of how notions of purity and danger shape everything from food taboos to ritual practices offers a fascinating glimpse into the complexities of human societies.

    Who should read Purity and Danger?

    • Cultural theory and anthropology students looking for an introduction to Douglas’s works
    • Anyone interested in comparative religion
    • Curious-minded people hungry for a new perspective

    About the Author

    Mary Douglas (1921-2007) was a British anthropologist and cultural theorist, in addition to a professor of anthropology at University College London and Princeton University. She is primarily known for her work on symbolism in human cultures and on her field research on the Lele people of the Kasai-Occidental. Douglas is the author of numerous books and collections of essays, including Natural Symbols (1970), Risk and Culture (1980), and How Institutions Think (1986).

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    Purity and Danger FAQs 

    What is the main message of Purity and Danger?

    The main message of Purity and Danger is how societies use concepts of purity to create social boundaries and maintain order.

    How long does it take to read Purity and Danger?

    The estimated reading time for Purity and Danger varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just a few minutes.

    Is Purity and Danger a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Purity and Danger is a thought-provoking book that explores the social construct of purity. It offers valuable insights and is worth reading for those interested in anthropology and sociology.

    Who is the author of Purity and Danger?

    The author of Purity and Danger is Mary Douglas.

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