Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966). 

A sharp, comparative analysis of symbolic boundary maintenance across times and cultures, Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger intervened in the anthropology of religion and ritual, as well as in the theoretical development of the field as a whole. It is a key text in symbolic anthropology, an approach that, in viewing symbols as the building blocks of socio-religious worlds, sought to analyze the ways symbolic constructions either generated order or disorder. Innovative for its time, Douglas follows E. E. Evans-Pritchard ethnographic account of The Nuer when she claims that we cannot understand ideas of purity or pollution—that is, hygiene—in isolation.[1] Solid anthropological knowledge comes from an analysis that attends to the ways systems relate to one another and form the structural “backbone” of a society. 

And so, Purity and Danger embarks on an historical ethnographic analysis of hygienic rituals, locating them as critical parts to classificatory systems that revolve around perceptions of “dirt.” Douglas advances her theory of “dirt” as conceptual “matter out of place.” “As we know it,” she writes, “dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder…Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment” (2). Dirt, then, emerges as a meaningful social residue—its eradication both an act of world-making and symbolic maintenance.

Émile Durkheim’s influence on Douglas is keenly felt at the heart of her argument: notions of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure, are both relationally constituted and relative to a particular system of classification (or culture, in the Boasian tradition of anthropology). Symbolic practice emerges in these relations and is designed to both police and defile boundaries. Concepts of pollution and taboo have very little to do with biology; instead, they aim to circumvent (and occasionally correct) ambiguities and anomalies in a cultural system (46-49). As such, pollution, taboo, and “dirt” are occasionally endowed with ineffable qualities and inextricably rooted in phenomenology as they “protect” a society from perceived danger.

Purity and Danger, then, is ultimately a phenomenological and structuralist exercise. If we set aside our conviction that Western notions of cleanliness are all about bacteria and pathogens, one is left not just with a simply religious notion of “purity” but rather with the old definition of “matter out of place.” In so doing, Douglas demonstrates, even before Bruno Latour, that “we have never been modern.”[2]

Relevance Today

Purity and Danger might not appear in the history of anthropology’s traditional canon, but it should be read by any historian of the discipline concerned with the formation of social anthropology or interested in how anthropologists grappled with religion and ritual—cultural categories that are often difficult to parse due to the very nature of their societal position and function. Its pivotal role in symbolic anthropology­—an approach popular in the 1960s and 70s—and contributions to thinking not only with the intangible but the tangible makes Douglas’s text particularly groundbreaking. While she is close to the oeuvre of Victor Turner (whose Forest of Symbols was released in the following year, 1967) and Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973), her work departs from their approach by opening up fresh avenues into theorizing the materiality of religion and developing a robust and holistic approach to classification by putting philosophies of science and religion into conversation with one another in response to anthropologically resonant questions.[3] Widely cited in the 1980s and 90s by prominent figures in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) including David Bloor, Barry Barnes, and Steven Shapin, her work has become foundational for science studies and the anthropology of science.

So, too, Douglas delivered a poignant message to the public during a critical historical juncture—that is, the book was released in the wake of the fall of the British empire and the pursuant decolonization of Africa and Asia. Purity and Danger deftly illustrates how we all are surrounded by ‘dirt,’ despite being governed by varying conceptions of what is clean or unclean. As such, Douglas makes the strange familiar; she writes against the discipline’s earlier habit of producing an ‘Other’, which relies on reified discourses of “us” and “them.”[4] In other words, by analyzing a Judeo-Christian text like the Bible, Douglas reveals humans are thoroughly symbol-using creatures, far from immune to “superstition,” which was especially significant as anthropologists began their long journey of wrestling with a past intimately bound and tainted by empire. 

Going forward, Purity and Danger takes on new salience in the present and for the future. It may prove useful to “think with” for anthropologists and historians of science who are engaged with ontology and the constitution of concepts that govern and order the world today. Studies of cosmology prefigure and anticipate both the “ontological turn” and posthumanist approaches to anthropological issues. For historians of science interested in the intersection of empire, architecture, and geopolitics—or simply the way anthropology and archaeology were imbricated in the complete refashioning of (post)colonial built environments, Douglas may be read with Timothy Mitchell or Lucia Allais. The notion of “governing by design,” envisaged as the cultivation (or ordering) of particular beliefs and relations to history, is a poignant take-away. 

Purity and Danger also enjoyed great success outside the academy. It was widely read and well-received by the public, and boasts over six reprints since its original print. Furthermore, the 1991 and 1995 Times Literary Supplement listed it as one of the hundred most influential non-fiction books since World War II. In this sense, Douglas’s book is very much both a rigorous historical and anthropological study, as well as a text written with the popular audience in mind. Her scholarly contributions are critical and legible, occupying the same terrain of anthropological interpretations of Western symbolism for a mass audience as the work of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Clifford Geertz, and more recently, David Graeber. 


Ardener, Edwin. Purity and DangerMan 2, no. 1 (1967): 139.

Beidelman, Thomas O. Purity and DangerAnthropos 61, no. 3/6 (1966): 907-908.

Madge, Charles. Purity and DangerSociology 1, no. 2 (1967): 209-210. 

Spiro, Melford E. Purity and Danger. American Anthropologist 70, no. 2: (1968): 391-393.

[1] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of the Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[3] Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967). 

[4] Compare with Webb Keane, “The Evidence of the Senses and the Materiality of Religion,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, no. 2 (2008): 110—27.

Hilary Leathem: contributions / website /