Purity and Danger  

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"I think, however, Kristeva’s analysis in the long run transcends Douglas’s, which is arguably too intellectual, too narrowly confined to remarking category transgressions that violate a given culture’s conceptual-classificational paradigm and thereby provoke aversion responses to "impurity.”" --The Biology of Horror (2002) by Jack Morgan

"When something is firmly classed as anomalous the outline of the set in which it is not a member is clarified. To illustrate this I quote from Sartre’s essay on stickiness. Viscosity, he says, repels in its own right, as a primary experience. An infant, plunging its hands into a jar of honey, is instantly involved in contemplating the formal properties of solids and liquids and the essential relation between the subjective experiencing self and the experienced world (1943, p. 696 seq.)."--Purity and Danger (1966) by Mary Douglas

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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) is a book by anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas. In 1991 The Times Literary Supplement listed it as as one of the hundred most influential non-fiction books published since 1945.


Subject matter

The line of inquiry in Purity and Danger traces the words and meaning of dirt in different contexts. What is regarded as dirt in a given society is any matter considered out of place (Douglas takes this lead from William James). She attempts to clarify the differences between the sacred, the clean and the unclean in different societies and times. Through a complex and sophisticated reading of ritual, religion and lifestyle she challenges Western ideas of pollution, making clear how the context and social history is essential.

In Purity and Danger, Douglas first proposed that the kosher laws were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of Jews' commitment to God. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those that did not seem to fall neatly into any category. For example, pigs' place in the natural order was ambiguous because they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but did not chew cud.

Later in a 2002 preface to Purity and Danger, Douglas went on to retract her initial explanation of the kosher rules, saying that it had been "a major mistake." Instead, she proposed that "the dietary laws intricately model the body and the altar upon one another" as of land animals, Israelites were only allowed to eat animals that were also allowed to be sacrificed: animals that depend on herdsmen. Thus, Douglas concludes that animals that are abominable to eat are not in fact impure at all, rather, that "it is abominable to harm them," and that later interpreters (even later Biblical authors) had misunderstood this. Douglas also makes it clear in Purity and Danger that she does not endeavour to judge religions as pessimistic or optimistic in their understanding of purity or dirt as positive (dirt affirming) or otherwise.


The historian of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown states that Purity and Danger was a major influence behind his important 1971 article "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity", which is considered one of the bases for all subsequent study of Early Christian asceticism.

In Powers of Horror (1980), where Julia Kristeva elaborates her theory of abjection, she recognizes the influence of Douglas’s “fundamental work,” while criticizing certain aspects of her approach.



  • Richard Fardon, Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography (London: Routledge, 1999), ch. 4.

See also

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