Time and space, loaded with meaning

A Very Personal Method: anthropological writings drawn from life by Mary Douglas (ed. Richard Fardon) (Sage)

- Reviewed by Christopher Howse

Mary Douglas, seen by many as the leading British anthropologist of the second half of the twentieth century, came to the attention of the general reader through her study of the ‘abominations’ of Leviticus, a chapter in her 1966 book Purity and Danger. Animals with cloven hooves that did not chew the cud were forbidden as food, she argued then, because they were anomalies viewed as out of place in an ordered world. They were thus both dangerous and an assertion of the holy.

It happened that her restless mind arrived at a quite different account of Leviticus later in her career (related to the universalism of God’s love), but she had made a start at searching for structure and sense, rather than leaving Leviticus and Numbers as neglected heaps of arbitrary laws.

In 1970, a chapter called ‘The Bog Irish’ in her book Natural Symbols made an even more striking claim about the Catholic Church and ritual. She argued that Friday abstinence ‘was the only ritual which brought Christian symbols down into the kitchen and on to the dinner table in the manner of Jewish rules of impurity’.

She questioned the decision of the bishops of England and Wales in 1967 to end obligatory abstinence. ‘People who have become unritualistic in every other way’, she wrote, ‘will eventually lose their capacity for responding to condensed symbols such as that of the Blessed Sacrament.’

Two papers from which that chapter grew are now published in A Very Personal Method. The first, published in New Society in 1966, was called “The contempt of ritual”. It discussed antecedents of modern denigration of ritual as worthless and “primitive”.

Calvin thought the papists had gone after the shadow of empty ritual, and the nineteenth-century biblical scholar Robertson Smith traced a path of progress from superstitious Catholic formulas to a religion of spirit and truth with “a personal relation with Christ’. As for Sir James Frazer, he defined primitive cultures as those that were magic-ridden.

In 1968, Mary Douglas used the same title ‘The contempt of ritual’ for a lecture at Blackfriars, Oxford, later published in New Blackfriars. Here the ‘Bog Irishman’ (her forebear) made his entrance to introduce the theory of elaborated and restricted speech codes, ideas she developed from Basil Bernstein.

Restricted codes are generated in the sort of family where the question, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ is answered by ‘Because he’s your father’ or ‘Because you’re the youngest’. In other types of family the answer is elabor­ated: ‘Think what it would feel like if someone did that to you’ or ‘Because your father is worried’.

The restricted speech code went with positional systems (as seen in ‘working-class’ families); the elaborated code with personal systems of a ‘middle-class’ kind. Mary Douglas does not despise the restricted code. It can say as much tacitly as the elaborated code. (As liturgy says more than words.)

She found in her own hierarchical family and school upbringing that the child ‘does not have to imagine the sufferings of the toad under the harrow. The home is more full of wit and laughter, for a strict set of categories is the basis for endless banter about attempts to evade or usurp obligation.’

Mary Douglas died in 2007, aged 86, still bright of eye and ready to be mischievous in argument. One of her latest papers appears first in this new collection, edited by Richard Fardon, the professor of West African anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, whose intellectual biography of Douglas was published in 1999…

Full review in The Tablet: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000357/booksandart

Wikipedia on Mary Douglas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Douglas

Buy this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8

Mass on Demand


From Parish of Our Lady of The Way, North Sydney & Lavender Bay. The first Mass of the day on YouTube

Mass Online


Live streamed from Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, Waitara


Daily Prayer

Daily Prayer

All your daily readings, reflections and prayers can be found here...