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The Study Of Culture Essay

2283 words - 10 pages

1. Discuss the idea of Mary Douglas, including how the idea of clean versus dirty is paramount in her theoretical perspective.

According to Mary Douglas, purity or clean versus dirty or impure represent the boundaries of a society, and is a manifestation of the society’s fears. Douglas examined the use of blood as a means of purification and as a source of contamination that must then be purified in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in a variety of African groups. Douglas emphasizes the symbolic meaning of purification rituals, and how they are manifested through ritual and daily practice. In essence, Douglas argues that the concept of purity enforces a society’s structure. ...view middle of the document...

For that earth to be purified, the murderer’s blood must be spilled (Hanson, 2007). This is another example of purity being used as a set of laws, essentially. The concept of the unclean or dirty is what, in part, maintains a society’s values and rules. As Douglas states in Purity and Danger, “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.” (Douglas 2). This binary of pure and dirty help a community define itself and its boundaries.
One obvious illustration that the binary concepts of pure and dirty have served to enforce hierarchical societal structures are the ideas regarding vaginal discharge, specifically that of menstrual blood. Menses is treated in a variety of ways across the world: there are groups who believe it increases the earth’s fertility, there are groups who believe it to be a natural, neutral process of elimination. In many groups, however, women are unclean during the time of menstruation. Leviticus explains that anything a woman lies on or sits on is unclean, as is anyone who comes in contact with her or anything she has made unclean, and that both her and anyone who has intercourse with her is unclean for seven days (Hanson, 2007). Turkish Muslims have extremely similar interpretations of the menstrual cycle. “In this case, the gender-division of traditional Middle Eastern cultures is expressed in the fear and control of women's bodies and sexuality. So the “order” for which purity codes strive sometimes results in the restraint, marginalization, or oppression of some of the society's members; this, then, relates directly to social hierarchy and power. This may prompt a further reflection on how our own culture's purity codes manifest our fears of and desire to control “the other,” whether the other is defined in terms of gender, sexual orientation, disease, religious affiliation, age, or even homelessness.” (Hanson, 2007).
Mary Douglas’ work on the binary concepts of purity and dirt not only illuminated the use for ritual sacrifice and purification in ancient societies, but helped to lay the foundation for an examination of the purity codes in our own society, as Hanson points out.

Works Cited
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger; an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. New York: Praeger.
Hanson, K. (2007, April 10). Blood and Purity. Publications of K.C. Hanson. Retrieved April 15, 2014, from
Summary of Chapter 7: "External Boundaries". (n.d.). Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Chapter 7: "External Boundaries". Retrieved April 15, 2014, from

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