Mary Douglas’s masterpiece Purity and Danger holds a troubled place in the social sciences and humanities. Both classic and cast out, the book’s analysis cannot be ignored. In fact, Douglas’s thesis, “Dirt is matter out of place,” can help explain the fate of the very book that made it famous. Purity and Danger presents a probing cultural analysis. Douglas argued that social systems should be understood by what they expel but also that the true power of dirt lies in the acts of cleansing. Cultural upheaval, decolonization, and war together appeared to render Douglas’s interest in social stability naive, however, and Purity and Danger languished following its publication in 1966. Today’s politics of purity, from white nationalism to rule by imprisonment, makes Purity and Danger more necessary than ever. The tension between the search for human universals and the social and historical particularism at its heart continues to haunt social inquiry today.
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)
Caitlin Zaloom is a cultural anthropologist, an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, and coeditor in chief of Public Books. She is the author of Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (2019) and Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London (2006).
Caitlin Zaloom; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966). Public Culture 1 May 2020; 32 (2 (91)): 415–422. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-8090159
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