In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Douglas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Social Organization in Microcosm
  • Variation in Elementary Forms of Institutions and Social Organization
  • Explanation, Institutionalization, and Ritual
  • Late Ethnographic Work
  • Reception of Douglas’s Ethnographic Work
  • Related Theories
  • Scholarly Analysis of the Late Work

Anthropology Mary Douglas
Perri 6, Paul Richards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0075


Mary Douglas b. 1921–d. 2007 was an anthropologist and social theorist working in the Durkheimian tradition. Most anthropologists know her 1966 book Purity and Danger (Douglas 1966, cited under Social Organization in Microcosm), and perhaps Natural Symbols (Douglas 1970, cited under Variation in Elementary Forms of Institutions and Social Organization). In other disciplines her The World of Goods (Douglas and Isherwood 1979, cited under Explanation, Institutionalization, and Ritual) and How Institutions Think (Douglas 1986, cited under Explanation, Institutionalization, and Ritual), Risk and Blame (Douglas 1992, cited under Variation in Elementary Forms of Institutions and Social Organization), Leviticus as Literature (Douglas 1999a, cited under Social Organization in Microcosm) and Thinking in Circles (Douglas 2007, cited under Late Ethnographic Work) have been very influential. She argued that institutional social organization exhibits only limited variation in its elementary forms, although in empirical settings, many hybrids of these forms are available. These institutional forms of social organization and disorganization shape and therefore causally explain “thought styles,” meaning the manners in which people classify, remember, forget, feel, and so on. The causal mechanism by which organization cultivates thought style, she argued, works through quotidian ritual, even for those who reject grand public ceremonial: “As a social animal, man is a ritual animal” (Douglas 1966, cited under Social Organization in Microcosm, p. 63). Douglas cross-tabulated Durkheim’s two dimensions of institutional variation in social organization (from Durkheim’s book Suicide)—social regulation and social integration, or, as she called them, “grid” and “group.” These forms specify organization and thought style in any setting, irrespective of technological sophistication or field of endeavor. In Suicide, Durkheim attended to the apices of the dimensions; Douglas concentrated on forms derived deductively in the resulting four cells. These forms are hierarchy (strong regulation and integration), individualism (weak regulation and integration), enclave (weak regulation, strong integration), and isolate ordering (strong regulation, weak integration). Contrary to the conventional wisdom that there is a “micro-macro problem,” Douglas argued that the same elementary forms organize people at the large and small scales alike. Methodologically, she argued that research should identify things that are anomalous within the prevailing classifications, examine how those anomalies are dealt with (or not), and seek to explain them functionally. She examined empirical anomalies about animals, dirt (for which she revived Lord Chesterfield’s definition of “matter out of place”), risks, and dangers. In her last years, she applied her method to ancient Israel as revealed in the Hebrew Bible, showing how distinct styles of composition are cultivated among authors and editors from different institutional settings. Her theory is a fully specified rival both to postmodernist rejections of causal explanation and to narrower rational choice conceptions of explanation by reference to interests and a single thought style. Other researchers extended her theory by supplying theories of change, dynamics, disorganization, hybridity, and settlement among elementary forms.

General Overviews

Douglas provided some short overviews of the development of her work. Douglas 2005 provides a mix of memoir and review of her own intellectual development. In several papers, including Douglas 1999, she reviewed the development of the theory of institutional variation. The secondary writings on Douglas’s work of an exclusively exegetical kind are few in number, although many original research studies discuss particular aspects of her work of relevance to their particular project. The most important exegetical study is the intellectual biography (Fardon 1999), which examines the development of her theory and discusses critics’ arguments and her rebuttals; Fardon 2010 concisely analyzes Douglas’s later work. A more recent extended treatment of Douglas’s thought is given in 6 and Richards 2017. A short overview can be found in 6 2007. A chapter on her work, Wuthnow, et al. 1984—although written too early to capture her full development—reviewed important early works and identified key themes that also continued in her later work. The two-volume anthology 6 and Mars 2008 collects papers by researchers who have used her theory of the elementary forms of institutional social organization. Hargreaves Heap and Ross 1992 presents some responses to her work.

  • Douglas, M. 1999. Four cultures: The evolution of a parsimonious model. GeoJournal 47:411–415.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1007008025151

    This short article reviews the development of the typological level of her theory of the elementary forms of institutional organization. It is a suitable introduction for undergraduates.

  • Douglas, M. 2005. A feeling for hierarchy. In Believing scholars: Ten catholic intellectuals. Edited by J. L. Heft, 94–120. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823225255.003.0008

    Combines anecdotal memoir with an account of Douglas’s intellectual development, including her experience in Catholic upbringing and faith, while making clear that she always regarded her theoretical contributions as independent of Catholic teaching. Argues for a more sympathetic analysis of hierarchy, against scholars (especially sociologists and anthropologists) whom, she felt, had a greater affinity for egalitarian modes of organization.

  • Fardon, R. 1999. Mary Douglas: An intellectual biography. London: Routledge.

    Fardon’s study is the major secondary work to date, and should be regarded as essential reading, although it was written too early to deal fully with the late works using ancient Israel for their empirical illustrations. Fardon reviews Douglas’s development chronologically, and in each chapter discusses critical reviews and her responses.

  • Fardon, R. 2010. Margaret Mary Douglas, 1921–2007. Proceedings of the British Academy 166:135–158.

    In this memorial review article, Fardon shows that Douglas’s work on religion provided models for her wider account of social organization and the cultivation and stylization of thought, agency, and composition practices. In particular, Durkheim and Mauss’s argument that classification reproduces people’s organization, and is achieved through ritual processes, is shown to be central to Douglas’s work.

  • Fardon, R., ed. 2013. Mary Douglas. 2 vols. London: SAGE.

    Two-volume set of previous uncollected papers by Douglas, edited by her biographer and literary executor. The first volume, Cultures and Crises: Understanding Risk and Resolution, provides papers presenting her later statements of her typological theory as applied to risk as well as important statements on institutions and on dynamics, while the second, A Very Personal Method: Anthropological Writings Drawn from Life, focuses on religion and ritual.

  • Hargreaves Heap, S. H., and A. Ross, eds. 1992. Understanding the enterprise culture. Edinburgh: Univ. of Edinburgh Press.

    Collection coincided with a celebration of “enterprise culture” by Britain’s Thatcher government. Includes papers by Douglas reprising her argument about consumption (Douglas and Isherwood 1979, cited under Explanation, Institutionalization, and Ritual), by O’Riordan sympathetically considering her theory of risk perception, and one by Thompson reworking his dynamic theory. Hollis and O’Neill revisit earlier debates about how far Douglas’s epistemological position comes to relativism (see Critics, Criticisms, and Rebuttals).

  • 6, Perri. 2007. Mary Douglas. In Fifty key sociologists: The contemporary theorists. Edited by J. Scott, 63–69. London: Routledge.

    This short notice concentrates on the significance for social theory of Douglas’s theoretical arguments and her method, before briefly discussing criticisms and rebuttals. Those entirely unfamiliar with Douglas’s work might begin with this piece.

  • 6, Perri, and P. Richards. 2017. Mary Douglas: Understanding social thought and conflict. New York: Berghahn.

    Overview of Douglas’s theory and its significance for theory and method across the social sciences, emphasizing the causal structure of her institutional explanation of thought style as a means for understanding conflict containment as well as its amplification. Unlike Fardon 1999, the book examines her late writings, including Douglas 1993 (cited under Late Ethnographic Work), Douglas 1999a (cited under Social Organization in Microcosm), and Douglas 2004 (cited under Explanation, Institutionalization, and Ritual), and it also reviews major achievements of Douglasian scholars across the social sciences.

  • 6, Perri, and G. Mars, eds. 2008. The institutional dynamics of culture: The new Durkheimians. 2 vols. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    Two-volume set reprints some of Douglas’s most important articles and chapters on her theory of institutional variation, including an article on institutions not previously published in English, but is mainly devoted to reprints of articles and chapters by researchers who have sought to test or apply her theory of institutional variation in various fields beyond her own empirical interests.

  • Wuthnow, R., J. D. Hunter, A. Bergeson, and E. Kurzweil. 1984. Cultural analysis: The work of Peter L. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas. London: Routledge.

    Chapter 3 considers Douglas as a theorist of culture. It locates her work in the Durkheimian tradition of examining ritual and symbol, and discusses her typology. Written before many of her important works were published, it does not fully recognize the central explanatory role of institutional forms of organization, nor does it examine her causal understanding of ritual.

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