Writers

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Mary Douglas

1921-2007

Dame Mary Douglas, (25 March 1921 – 16 May 2007) was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism, whose area of speciality was social anthropology. Mary Douglas was the first child of Phyllis Twomey and Gilbert Tew, who worked for the Indian Civil Service. Her parents were on leave and travelling home from Gilbert’s posting in Burma when Mary was born in San Remo, Italy. When their parents returned to India, Mary and her sister were sent to live with their maternal grandparents in Totnes, an historical market town in Devon, in the south west of England, until they were old enough to attend boarding school. They then went to Sacred Heart Convent in London. Mary went on to Oxford University after school, followed by working in the Colonial Office during World War II.

It was while she was serving in the Colonial Office that Mary Douglas became intrigued by anthropology, and she went back to Oxford in 1946 to take up the subject. She commenced her PhD in 1949, doing her fieldwork in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

In 1966, Douglas published Purity and Danger, the best known of her work. She argued that humans divide the world into binary categories, eg, clean and dirty, things that should be on the floor and things that shouldn’t. Things/people out of place are considered dangerous.