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An interview with Mary Douglas

conducted by John Clay
2001, newly edited 2008


The celebrated anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921–2007) devoted her career to explaining, in terms generous enough to include all peoples and refined enough to be meaningful, what humans do. What indeed are we doing? Billions of us, running around, busying ourselves about billions of tasks, weaving in and out of harmony with our world and with each other? What we think and do is sometimes called culture. Cultural anthropology traditionally has been absorbed in describing the specific cultures of specific social groups in certain times and places: the important work of data-gathering. Douglas' special contribution was to greatly further the fundamental discussion of why and how human beings do culture at all. Drawing on data from specific groups, she explored the shared journey of being human. She suggests that human beings, in all their variety, essentially are busying themselves about two tasks: trying to make meaningful sense of the world and trying to coordinate their lives with the people around them.

Professor Douglas graciously allowed me to pursue a topic in this interview which, as she put it, didn't grab her at all: the Postmodern movement's paradox of "structure and agency". "Structure" here means a preprogrammed pattern or order; "agency" means the ability of human individuals to take action. Postmodernist scholars want to believe that a social group's culture governs and limits the beliefs and behaviors of all the groups members. Human individuals, in this view, can do nothing but follow a script consisting of their group's cultural code. The coded cultural structure makes everything happen. This is not the only way to describe social behavior; it is the way the Postmodernists want to describe it. But the Postmodernists also want to believe that individuals can think and feel, that they can take action, make changes, rebel. If we cannot but robotically follow our preprogrammed code (structure), then how can we claim to think and feel and take action (agency)? The Postmodernists arrive at a paradox because they want to believe in two mutually contradictory ideas. This is their problem of structure and agency. I feel the premise about structure is wrong and is the cause of the paradox. Douglas' theory, which interprets structure differently from the Postmodernists, fully resolves the problem. One purpose of this interview was to discover Douglas' own view of the problem, since her published books do not refer explicitly to "structure and agency". Some anthropologists and sociologists who adhere to the paradox actually cite Mary Douglas to support their own work—for these Postmodernist fans of Douglas, her answers in the interview below will come as a shock. I also wanted to know more about her experience writing her 1999 book Leviticus as Literature.

This interview was conducted by postal mail and email in 1998 and 2001. Two passages not previously published here have been added as of January 2008. One is from a short interview I conducted with Douglas in 1998, originally published in the print zine Blurr. The other is from a July 2001 email from Douglas which was chiefly business but which also contained gems of wisdom. Now integrated into the interview below, both passages give additional breadth to the discussion.


CLAY: Can you tell me how you came to write Leviticus as Literature, published in 1999?

DOUGLAS: It follows on Purity and Danger, 1966, Natural Symbols, 1970, and all the intervening years writing about the relations between symbols and values on the one hand and social life on the other. After In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers, 1993, it was inevitable to go on to Leviticus. It started as an attempt to read Leviticus as an anthropologist would read a sacred text. I never expected it [the biblical text] to turn out to be such a consummate work of literature, and the most exciting research I have ever done.

CLAY: What made the project so exciting?

DOUGLAS: I will say that it is always a great excitement to discover something important about how a sacred book was composed some 2000 years ago. I found that the book is designed as a projection of the Tabernacle. I also find a completely different book there, in a sense the very foundation of Christianity.

CLAY: Would it be fair to say that, where much past biblical scholarship has found Leviticus to be a prescription for ritual exclusion, you have in some sense found it to represent a vision of universal inclusion and coordination?

DOUGLAS: No, it is not about universal inclusion in every respect.... you won't want to get me in trouble with the rabbis! All I can say is that it much more open and assimilationist than has been assumed after being mined by a persecuted people to justify the exclusions they want to make. For instance, the Mosaic dietary laws are for the people of Israel, not for everyone. I would like to say a lot more about its accomplished literary form, which has to be read according to antique rhetorical conventions.

CLAY: Sociologists have long been struggling with what they call the "problem of structure and agency": If we suppose that human behavior follows the outlines of cultural structures, i.e. the ways and worldviews of cultural groups, then who causes the actions of a human individual—the individual herself or the cultural structures? Your own work, Professor Douglas, dives into the thickest points of the debate, from the concepts of grid and group and four cultural types to the concept (particularly in How Institutions Think) of culture produced aggregately by individuals rationally choosing their ways and beliefs to meet practical needs for cognitive coherency and social coordination. My question is, where do you see your own work standing in the context of the structure and agency problem?

DOUGLAS: I have never been able to understand why it is a question at all, still less one taken so seriously. Especially in sociology, where we study the way that society is constructed upon the notion of accountability. If people are just pawns of their structures, they can't be held accountable. So it is a very complicated notion, close to self-contradiction to be able to turn our minds around and argue that we are not thinking, the structure is doing it for us.

CLAY: Would you agree that your theory of culture produced aggregately, as individuals rationally choose their ways and beliefs to meet practical needs for cognitive coherency and social coordination, completely resolves any structure and agency issue?

DOUGLAS: Yes, that is what I think. I certainly don't assume that the coherence is successfully achieved, ever! But it is true that the structure and agency topic never grabbed me at all, and I still can't think why it has become so much acclaimed. Unless, could it be that the sociologists are so anxious not to make waves politically, (so long as everyone can be assumed to be PC, of course), that they choose a really pointless scholastic topic to exercise their minds upon, like how many angels on a pin!

CLAY: If stability and change are the two ends of a spectrum, then, using your concept of culture produced aggregately through individual rational choice, we can explain both stability and change. Your theory explains that a certain amount of cultural stability is acheived, first, because individuals generally find they can meet their needs and hopes more effectively by building alliances and working together than by going up alone against the rest of society. And, second, because individuals can build alliances more efficiently by joining already-established groups, or by forming new groups which invoke already-established beliefs and goals, or by claiming that new beliefs and goals are a good fit with old ones—rather than by striking out in a unique direction with no apparent relation to the status quo. Individuals thus use analogy to build a shared cognitive view of the world which allows them to socially coordinate with others. And your theory explains, conversely, that change occurs as individuals creatively interact with each other and with a changing physical environment, strategically adjusting their ways and beliefs to cope with new challenges, thereby causing—intentionally or not—gradual migrations in their society's organization and its corresponding symbols and beliefs. The grid and group typologies then can help us predict likely correlations between changes in social organization and changes in cognitive worldview.

DOUGLAS: This is the crucial idea in the theory. People mostly think of worldview or culture as existing independently, nothing to do with problems of coordination. But I feel wary of saying too much about "stability". It is not something that happens very often! Not to be taken for granted. Stability is what we seem (some of us, some of the time,) to want... but cultural conflict is focused largely on who wants stability and who wants change.

CLAY: And finally: What's in store? What is on the horizon as your career opens onto the new millenium?

DOUGLAS: The horizon! Whither does an 80 year old anthropologist plan to go in the future? The ideas churned up by the Leviticus study will keep me going. At present it is the question of analogic thinking.

© 2001, 2008 John Clay.