British social anthropologist Mary Douglas developed theories about human behavior and culture that have been influential in many disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, political science, religious studies, economics, literature, biblical criticism, risk analysis, and folklore. Douglas, a symbolic anthropologist, focuses on how people understand the world in which they live and how this understanding influences their cultures. Douglas is also concerned with the interactions between people and within their culture’s institutions. She is notable for developing theories that can be applied to people in all cultures and societies.
In the early part of her career, Douglas’s work centered on Africa, but by the mid-1960s, she began examining theoretical issues on a broader scale. In Douglas’s book, Purity and Danger (1966), she outlined her theory that people organize their social lives based on categories of purity and impurity. Moreover, in societies where beliefs of pollution and cleanliness are particularly strict, Douglas argued there are also religious and other cultural practices and prohibitions to reinforce these ideals of purity, which apply not only to physical cleanliness but moral health as well.
In Natural Symbols (1970), Douglas outlined her grid/group theory, which has been particularly influential throughout many disciplines. Douglas believes that all societies can be understood and compared on the basis of both “grid” and “group.” Grid refers to the extent to which the status of an individual in society is ascribed based on specific social distinctions and divisions, such as race, ethnicity, sex, descent, and caste status. Group, in this case, relates to the degree to which people in a particular society are motivated based on the good of the society as a whole or whether they are driven by their own individual beliefs. Therefore, in societies with a strong grid and group, the good of the group is used as an explanation to divide people in the society into clearly delineated structures. These social divisions, whether they are based on caste, age grades, or race, are believed to be necessary to sustain the society. In societies with low grid and low group, individuality has a greater level of importance, and an individual’s role within society is variable.
In her more recent work, Douglas has focused on a variety of current issues, including HIV/AIDS, social justice and awareness, environmental issues, religious revivalism, and economics.
Douglas earned her PhD in 1951 from Oxford University. She was awarded honorary doctorates from University of Uppsala, University of Notre Dame, Jewish Theological Seminary, University of East Anglia, University of Essex, and University of Warwick.
Douglas has had an illustrious career in the field of anthropology that includes appointments at Oxford University, University of London, Northwestern University, Princeton University, and the Russell Sage Foundation, where she worked as the director for research on culture. Douglas continues her research as a professor emeritus at University College London. In addition to the two books mentioned previously, Douglas has published numerous books and articles exploring her theories and applying them to a wide variety of topics.
- Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Douglas, M. (1970). Natural symbols: Explorations in cosmology. New York: Vintage Books.
- Fardon, R. (1999). Mary Douglas: An intellectual biography. New York: Routledge.