Mary Douglas

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane
Filmed by Alan Macfarlane
Interview Length: 1 hour, 28 minutes, and 8 seconds
Interview date: February 26, 2006
Supported by the Leverhulme Trust 

Description of Interview

Mary Douglas had the mumps when she wrote Purity and danger. She points out, “there was an immediate connection with contamination and infection.” Mary Douglas was born in Italy in 1921. Her father was in the Indian Civil Service, working as a District Offer in Rangoon, Burma. At the age of five, Mary Douglas was sent with her sister Pat, to England to live with her grandparents, where she remained for seven years. Before her mother died, Douglas and her sister were taken by their mother to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton. Douglas explains that her grandparents’ marriage was a “mixed” one, and although her grandmother was a “staunch” Protestant, she had promised her mother to raise her granddaughters as Catholics. 

While the hierarchical influence of her grandparents and the convents might have shaped the kinds of topics she tackled in anthropology (and the way she tackled them), her encounters with certain ethnographic accounts also “converted” Douglas to the discipline. The most notable monograph she read during her time working in the Colonial Office was Audrey Richard’s Land, labour and diet in Northern Rhodesia: An economic study of the Bemba tribe. Douglas had hoped to become one of Evans-Pritchard’s doctoral students at Cambridge, but her application was rejected because there was no vacancy; so she went to Oxford instead. Evans-Pritchard coincidently transferred to Oxford at the same time, but was unable to take on DPhil students. At Oxford, Douglas eventually went on to conduct her fieldwork (now immortalized in her subsequent books and articles) among the Lele at Kasai.

Video Index and Transcript

0:00:05 Born in Italy in 1921; father in Indian Civil Service, a District Officer in Rangoon, Burma; mother died when I was twelve and sister, Pat, was ten; father, whom we hardly saw, took us over; had been sent home aged five to grandparents with who we lived for seven years; very formal upbringing; sent as weekly boarders to French covent in Torquay; before mother died she took us to Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton where she and her cousins had been, and handed us over knowing she was dying; very happy there. 

0:03:28 Hierarchical influence of both grandparent's home and convent; never felt parents had rejected us by sending us home as it was so usual at that time. 

0:06:16 Consciously religious when we went to the convent; grandparents marriage was mixed and grandmother was a staunch Protestant; had promised daughter to bring us up as Catholics so taken to Mass every week and taught the Catechism; first convent was very sectarian but the second was much more open-minded; Richard Griffith's book on sectarianism of French Catholicism in later nineteenth century. 

0:08:27 Experience of convent set the problems later addressed through anthropology; personal religion and anthropology; questions asked by biologist, Helen Spurbury, about virgin birth; anthropological discussion on the subject by Edmund Leach and others; own interest as a Catholic. 

0:15:29 At the convent had a series of brilliant teachers with Oxford backgrounds; every day we had a doctrine class where gloves were worn; on feast days wore white and white gloves; gloves were a sign of respect; loved the doctrine class as the nun was so enthusiastic; my favorite subject was English, did not like history and could not do maths or science; wanted to do social studies; Catholic social teachings based on Papal Encyclicals taught in all Catholic schools; should have done sociology at University but nuns thought it was anti-God and religion; they would never have sent me to the L.S.E.; from its founding, University College had no sociology as it was thought of as teaching socialism and revolution; was allowed to read P.P.E. at Oxford and lived in a house owned by the convent. 

0:20:56 Donald McKinnon taught philosophy, but it was a bad time because of the war; didn't do well as too mathematical; after Oxford, in 1943, went into the Colonial Office as I wanted to be involved in the war; had chosen it because of the Burma connection and had studied Colonial Constitutions at Oxford, but it was a backwater; stayed there for four years; Audrey Richards was there and at her party I met Bill Stanner, Phyllis Kaberry; Raymond Firth was also in the Colonial Office and he started me reading anthropology; converted by Audrey Richards' "Land, Labour, and Diet"; also read Margery Perham's work on Nigeria but Audrey's book more important; as a person she was rather scarry, very sharp, fierce and clever; Raymond Firth was charming and I read "We, The Tikopia" which I thought far too chatty; also read Evans-Prichard "The Nuer" which I preferred; division between Oxford anthropologists and the L.S.E.; Daryll Forde outsider as he had never been part of the Malinowski seminar group; Evans-Pritchard had been in the seminar but didn't like Malinowski as a person or his books; Meyer Fortes also described Malinowski's writings as 'higher journalism'. 

0:26:47 Attracted by Evans-Pritchard's work so wanted to go to Cambridge where he was at that time; turned down as there was no vacancy there and went to Oxford; Evans-Pritchard transferred to Oxford at the same time; initially he was my supervisor but found he was barred from taking D.Phil students; announced this in an embarrassing manner when Max Gluckman was present; did not want him as supervisor although he was the obvious person; decided on Srinivas but I only saw him a couple of times and never after I went to the field. 

0:29:56 At that stage Daryll Forde was very influential as head of the African Institute; they gave generous support to researchers who would write in the Ethnographic Survey of Africa series; I wrote on the "Tribes of Lake Nyassa Region" using Gluckman, Barnes and Mitchell's work; got paid enough to support own research; African Institute arranged fieldwork and got letters of advice from Daryll Forde; he was good and concientious, a very good head of department at University College; had a strong cockney accent; as African Institute was international he brought in foreign anthropologists; encounter with Lévi-Strauss. 

0:33:16 Field work among the Lele of Kasai; first went to a convent at Basongo hoping to learn Lele but only one Lele spoke French and he had a cleft-palate; Lever Brothers had a palm cutting operation in Lele country and travelled on their lorries; struck by how handsome the Lele were and the beauty of their houses; first village was hopeless as too near the missionary station and the District Officer who feared something might happen to me; had a cook who took me to his village and lived there; accepted as a member of the village because of him; there was a missionary rest house in the village where I lived; in the first village frighened by what I thought was a leopard in the night; found to be a pig; villagers remembered the incident on return forty year's later.

0:39:40 Doing total anthropology, starting with the shape of the huts and technology and work; took photographs with a box camera; was there for a year the first visit and four months on the second; returned to a job at Oxford while still on a scholarship for D.Phil; examined by Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes; have written a biography of Evans-Pritchard; rude to people he thought deserved rudeness, like Raymond Firth, but courteous to his students; rate him first with Levi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown for having completely changed the discipline; next Godfrey Lienhardt; thought Leach was a bad influence on anthropology; Meyer Fortes was stimulating and generous; equally important with Evans-Pritchard but a shyer personality; we were a small group with the Bohannans and Franz Steiner, later joined by Lienhardt; Julian Pitt-Rivers also there; like him I had wanted to go to Europe but the rest were Africanist and there was no support for him; his family had to pay for him to do research in Spain; reason for the focus on Africa was in the development of theory; in the Mediterranean area anthropology was not well established so the theory limited to honour and shame and no strong tradition of argument; very glad I went to Africa because of the Lele who were much the stongest influence on my life. 

0:45:57 Remember Godfrey Lienhardt as quizzical, witty and profound; think his book "Dinka Religion" is the best book on religion anthropologically until Gellner's "Saints of the Atlas"; now think Harvey Whitehouse is really brilliant; left Oxford because I got married; husband had just left the Civil Service and entered the Conservative research department; for the first five years lived in his flat in South Kensington; then with three children came here nearly fifty year's ago; joined the department at University College; Phyllis Kaberry, Harry Powell, and Peter Morton-Williams there, also Barnicote, a physical anthropologist; Daryll Forde was head of department; although an outsider as a geographer, he was a friend of Max Gluckman; together they started the A.S.A.; I taught the first year course which was very stimulating; would love to have had graduate students but we could never get many; those that did come were taken by Forde, and Kaberry who could offer both West Africa and Australia; felt intellectually deprived; gave everybody a copy of "Purity and Danger" hoping to get some response, but none except from Morton-Williams; also hardly ever invited to examine PhDs.

0:52:39 Reflections on the writing of "Purity and Danger"; wrote it when I had mumps and there was the immediate connection with contamination and infection; then thought of secularizing the idea of ritual purity; influenced by Durkheim, Robertson-Smith and Steiner, and own lived experience; hierarchy and matter out of place; have had to amend ideas of chapter on Leviticus; criticism of approach in "Purity and Danger" and failure to get across the intended message; holistic approach in anthropology. 

0:58:31 "Natural Symbols" written as a result of criticism of Basil Bernstein who reproached "Purity and Danger" for over-emphasis on universality of the idea of disorder; plea for those who thrive in disorder and don't recognise it as such. 

0:00:05 Talks about the writing of "Natural Symbols" and the influence of Basil Berstein's work on families; adjusted his analysis to religions which was the basis of "Natural Symbols"; status and contract. 

0:04:10 Went to America in 1977 when invited to the Russell Sage Foundation by Aaron Wildavski; stayed in America for eleven years; tried to come back but couldn't get a job due to Thatcher cuts; taught at North-Western and Princeton; at North-Western was in the religion department which was a pity as I had just got interested in risk; invited to give the Gifford Lectures on natural religion; decided to base them on the book of Numbers. 

0:06:35 Became interested in risk through Aaron Wildavski and together wrote "Risk and Culture"; was working on "The World of Goods" when I went to America. 

0:09:27 Particularly liked the women's culture in American academia; returned to England in 1988 after three year's in Princeton; gave Gifford Lectures (1989) after which Graham Ord asked if I had read any of the commentaries on the Book of Numbers; found that these were highly critical but led to a deeper investigation into the structure of Numbers; applied insights to Leviticus; describes analysis; picture poems and Frances Yates' work; recalling analysis of Book of Numbers; has book in press "Thinking in Circles"; Ernest Gellner.