Purity and Danger (Book Cover) by Mary Douglas

Douglas, Mary. “External Boundaries”. Purity and danger : an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Praeger, New York: 1966.

In this book, Douglas speaks of foreign cultural ritual practices intended to make safe the dangerous passage from one experiential state to another. Whether transitioning between social identities, growing from inception to the time of one’s birth, or existing in an otherwise formless state (the example given is menstrual or miscarriage blood). The Social Anthropologist also references transitory identities and marginal existences in a variety of societies, where such persons are ascribed with similar status characteristics; being dangerous, abnormal, or otherwise disharmonious in societal context.

Douglas suggests that there is a relationship between inter-relational power dynamics and the character of spiritual belief systems, remarking also upon a common theme of internal and external powers. For example, an individual perceived as inhabited by an internal power, or state of alterity, is not thought to be in control of or have influence over the associated magic. Alternatively, external objects or practices of magic can be controlled and influenced.

There is also a third position the author identifies as the endangering and the endangered. The latter locates the ‘good of the group’ through distinct and legitimized (authorized) roles and functions and attributes the uncontrolled, dangerous, disapproved powers to those whom hold ambiguous roles. In this way, the author views externalized (explicit) symbols as upholding social structure (inter-relational dramas). While unformed internal powers are sensed as laying beneath or just beyond a threatening veil. Douglas proposes that articulated status and roles are attributed with conscious powers to protect the social system. Those inhabiting transitional positions, or even in accepted but multifarious roles, will be credited with uncontrollable powers and/or suspect for potential deviances.

In this excerpt, the author relates the symbol and function of the body to the internal / external boundary concept, by investigating the contents and meanings of ritual. She states that the way ritual is performed reflects complex social forms, and that in such context the body frequently represents a bounded system (symbol of society). Noting also that with modernity the psychological tradition has narrowed our focus upon the individual and away from the societal grouping. Therefore ritual enacted on the body is taken to express personal concerns with more emphasis than inter-relational ones. She adds that our cultural adaptation habits are ‘alloplastic’, seeking to change the external situation. Some other cultures (referred to as ‘primitive’) are seen more to engender ‘autoplastic’ adaptation habits, looking inward to change oneself. Douglas adequately disputes descriptions of infantile or undeveloped ego attributed to these other (“primitive”) cultures. She points instead to a projection by one culture upon another, and argues that infantile fantasies (ego developments) describe the workings of all humans. Asserting that body-bounds too can be seen among a common stock of symbols employed by persons of all cultures.

The example of bodily functions and excretions is provided. Noting that perception of dangerous margins or boundaries of the body, correlate with a perception of dangers in societal context. Such dangers can be seen in a culture’s inference or definition of social pollutions, of which the author cites four kinds: Danger of pressing on external boundaries; Danger from transgressing internal lines of system; Danger in margins of the lines and; Danger from internal contradictions. These boundaries may be marked in differing ways but often relate to, or are evidenced in, societal roles and functions. In this way, concern surrounding entries and exits of the body can be seen to relate to sociological, political, and cultural protections that ensure group structures and identities (caste and class systems).

This is demonstrated in one case study, where she describes the handling of human feces that was assigned to the ‘lowest’ caste, along with strict rituals for the handling itself (physical approach with only a certain choreography and use of limbs). The cultural expectations assigned to this class were opposite those expected of the elite caste. Upper caste cleansing and adornment rituals, as well as social behaviours, clearly signalled avoidance of the anus and feces; employing the lower caste to perform any related tasks on their behalf. These norms and expectations then extended to the manner in which products, supplies, and services were acquired in the public sphere. At once avoiding contamination of waste handling, from the transfer of goods etc to the upper caste, all the while characterizing and re-affirming each caste’s identity in social context. Governing laws likewise corresponded. Regulating against geographic co-habitation, co-presence at some public events / space, and inter-marriage between differing caste members, in order to avoid a cultural (and caste) identity ‘contamination’. The physical relationship to the body, cultural expectations, and systems developed in this insular society perpetuated and preserved the (pre)existing hierarchy and organisational order.

Interestingly, the author observed women as ‘gates to caste’ and kinship belonging, whose purity is therefore carefully guarded. The suggestion matches well with the historical treatment of Aboriginal women in Canada, and can be evidenced in both Occidental and Western religious histories and conventions.

This excerpt compliments Michael Taussig’s text and has offered tantalizing insights upon the extent to which one might interpret performativity in everyday life, social engagements, and political structure; expanding the potentials of Post-Structuralist analysis.


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