There have been some fascinating and diverse applications of the social theories of Mary Douglas in the media lately. Douglas was an anthropologist, best known for her work on risk, on purity and on the grid-group typology which this website explores.
This month alone Mary Douglas has been quoted in relation to the following:
- food intolerance – are we just making it up?
- the end of the apocalyptic militarism of Bush and Blair
- President Zuma and safe sex in South Africa
- Conservationism and the future of the Chagos Islanders
Particularly interesting was the idea that food intolerance might be seen as socially constructed. There was a discussion of this at the Savage Minds anthropology blog. My contribution:
This seems to be a near perfect example of a quite different kind of Mary Douglas’s ‘boundary maintenance’ – that between expert and non-expert. The claim there are too many self-diagnosed food intolerances derives credibility by coming from university-based academics, but is then questioned by connections with the flour industry. Are these experts or not? Is this science or not? Mary Douglas took Durkheim’s ideas of sacred and profane and re-interpreted them in terms of purity and pollution. Is the science here flowing from the ‘pure’ source of academia, or is it ‘polluted’ by association with the Flour Advisory Bureau? Note that the Telegraph reported this as coming from Portsmouth University only, whereas the Portsmouth University media release noted who actually commisioned the research.
The report itself, not peer-reviewed (therefore not scientific???), is clearly labeled as a flour Advisory Bureau report. It mixes medical information from the Lancet journal (pure?) with consumer survey data (polluted?).
Is it scientific enough? Not for publication in a science journal, perhaps. But certainly scientific enough to be ‘distributed to health professionals’ and reported in a leading English newspaper just in time for national allergy week. Mission accomplished?
For more on boundary work among scientists see Brendan Swedlow 2007.