Posts Tagged ‘Purity and Danger’

Dirt – is it ‘matter out of place’?

January 10, 2012

Keep calm and pick up a broom

“The Wellcome exhibition starts with a quote from Mary Douglas, the great social anthropologist who wrote Purity and Danger. Dirt she defined as “matter out of place”. She remains a key thinker, prefiguring many of the bigger, better known French structuralists. In analysing taboos about the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, Douglas makes us see that context is everything. Dirt, then, is in the “eye of the beholder”.” [The Guardian]

Admirers of the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have appreciated the exhibition on dirt, which took place in 2011 at London’s Wellcome Gallery.

If dirt is a matter of cultural bias, the question of who cleans up becomes an important indication of social organisation.

Egalitarianism: Everyone cleans up; strong group motivation based on moral imperatives. Recent example: Egyptian revolution – the protesters cleaned up after themselves. Cleaning denotes status. Anyone seen to be not cleaning is morally inferior to the group.

Fatalism: No one cleans up. Why bother, it will just get messy again (and keeping it messy is an important, unstated method of social protest). ‘Mattter out of place’ isn’t ‘dirt’ – it’s a succinct description of the whole of life. Ability to cause dirt to someone else’s property denotes status. Example: graffiti.

Individualism: I’ll clean up! (There’s brass to be made from muck). Example: the entire recycling industry. The rag and bone man of my childhood.

Hierarchy: cleaning denotes status. The cleaners are socially lower than the cleaned. This is made to appear self-evident,obviously true, inevitable.

Mary Douglas saw dirt as ‘matter out of place’ not because dirt simply is matter out of place, in some essential or definitional sense, but because she tended to align herself with an Hierarchical view of the world. In hierarchical institutions ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is a key maxim. The parade ground, for instance, is proof that neatness, order and regimentation is everything. The strong assumption of the Hierarchy is that the army that walks together the most neatly is obviously the most intimidating and the most likely to win a battle. Extremely clean, neat, ironed and polished uniforms will definitely go a long way to providing certainty about a nation’s capacity to repel invaders.

Individualism will see dirt as matter under-priced. Treasure from trash is a leading business model.

Fatalism will see dirt as inevitable – and take a quiet, stoic pride in it.

Egalitarianism will see some kinds of dirt as proof that ‘we’re all in this together’. But large scale trans-national dirt like radiation or carbon dioxide is seen as a threat against which we need to all pull together as one.

See also: The Toxicity Panic

Image credit: Brett Jordan/Flickr

BP Oil Spill – why we care

September 18, 2010
A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. (more…)

Don’t stop believing – purity, danger and Glee

March 23, 2010

Germ-Free Adolescents by Daniel Trilling in the New Statesman, looks at our ideas of purity and ritual in relation to the way the TV series Glee depicts teenagers. He makes use of the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s views on dirt. Adolescents can be seen as ‘matter out of place’, a mixing of kinds (child/adult monster). Moving swiftly to another sanitized and ordered musical number is much safer, it seems, than acknowledging  the ambiguity.

‘If uncleanliness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order. Uncleanliness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained. The same principle applies throughout. Furthermore, it involves no special distinction between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules.’ (Purity and Danger 1966: 53)

‘In the primitive culture the rule of patterning works with greater force and more total comprehensiveness. With the moderns it applies to disjointed, separate areas of existence.’ (Ibid.)

Interview with Mary Douglas.

‘I think we won’: Mary Douglas Interview

May 8, 2009

Mary Douglas, anthropologist and originator of what became grid-group cultural theory, was interviewed in 2006 by Cambridge anthropologist Alan MacFarlane. An annotated video is part of a large series of fascinating interviews he has conducted over many years. Exerpts are posted at Youtube (see below),  The long version is worth watching to find out what illness Mary Douglas had when she wrote Purity and Danger. At the start of Part 2 she describes the influence of Basil Bernstein on the ideas behind Natural Symbols. She suggests that, following Bernstein, hierarchical social arrangements should perhaps be termed ‘positional’. Of her work with Aaron Wildavsky on risk  she says, “I think we won”.


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