Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Catholic Sociobiology -- The Solidarity of Shared Classifications: Emile Durkheim and Mary Douglas (part 2)

[first published June 7, 2016]

by Dr. David Pence

Mary Douglas [who died in London in 2007] wrote Purity and Danger "as a treatise on dirt and contagion." She promised to develop two themes:

1) Taboos protect the local consensus on how the world is organized;
2) There is great cognitive discomfort caused by ambiguity.

"Rules that maintain taboos will be as repressive as the leading members of society want them to be. Taboo is a spontaneous coding practice which sets up a vocabulary of spatial limits and physical and verbal signals to hedge around vulnerable relations.  There are specific dangers if the taboo is broken and some of those spread harm indiscriminately on contact. Feared contagion extends the danger of a broken taboo to the whole community."


When her book was published (1966) she recounts there was a concerted effort by anthropologists not to "feed into racism" by painting societies as primitive and savage. Thus she had a commitment to treating taboos and purity codes as whole systems as likely to be found in modern society as the Lele of the Belgian Congo. She devotes a chapter to the abominations of Leviticus in a similar spirit. A book explaining the universal need for taboos and for clear boundaries to better establish "patterns of organizing the world" was not well received in those turbulent '60s. The youth rebellion flourished and adult insight was ignored. Only many years later did her work become famous, and that was because she applied her study to evaluating risk and danger in the literature of the environmental movement. Purity and Danger is full of insights, but as she admitted there was not the coherence of argument that would come with her later books.

Some of her insights:
         Dirt on the living room floor must be removed but once it is thrown out on the front lawn it is no longer "dirty."  "Dirt is that which must not be included if a PATTERN is to be maintained." It is like a weed. Being out of place is what defines it.  What is a corn stalk in a bean field?  It is a weed.
      "Pollution is breaking of a boundary that unleashes danger for someone -- it does not have to be intentional, but "a polluting person is always in the wrong." Internal social pollution and breaking down of internal boundaries and classifications are much more dangerous to a social system than external attack. This reminds us that well-intentioned people out of place in ritual enactments pollute the collective consciousness. They need no malevolence to do harm.  
      "Ritual shapes attention and produces a pattern believed about the universe in a local space-time experience."
        Douglas was scornfully critical of James Frazer of Golden Bough fame. He pontificated about primitive religion centered on rituals, which then evolved to those more advanced religions of conduct regulation and ethics. She judged his book and whole philosophy as a "baneful approach." Such analysis explained neither how conduct is really regulated, nor the role of ritual in establishing a coherent form of contact binding nature, the group, and God.
    "Ritual focuses attention by framing; it enlivens memory and links the present to some relevant past. In all this it aids perception. In fact, it changes perception because it changes the selective principles (of attention). Ritual can permit knowledge of what would otherwise not be known at all. It modifies experience by expressing it. This is true of language as well. There can be thoughts, which have never been put into words. Once words have been framed, the thought is changed and limited by the words selected. So the speech has created something, a thought that which might not have been the same."

From How Institutions Think she summarizes her agreement with Durkheim that:
"The sacred comprises shared classifications -- deeply cherished and violently defended."


She understood all of this in a living way that Durkheim did not. She lived a long life of marital fidelity and Catholic practice. She thought the first thirty years of post-Vatican II liturgical changes were an anthropological disaster. She and others thought it particularly galling that the leveling of formality was done by clerics who considered themselves intellectually superior to the rubes who resisted the heresy of formlessness. She was a good-humored critic though. Unlike most of her anthropology colleagues (but much like the peoples she cared for and studied) she was all her life involved in those sacred acts of worship that expressed the pattern of the universe. In her later works she could be more explicit about the reality of sacred as well as the community bound in worship. She proposed three truths about the sacred:

1) The sacred was dangerous. If it were profaned, the whole world would break up.

2) The sacred must be defended, and not only by polite discourse hoping the barbarians will comply.

3) The sacred must be evoked explicitly a) by a hierarchy of Names b) by a hierarchy of sacred spaces and place and c) by a hierarchy of specific sacred actions.

When Mary Douglas was asked if women should be priests, she laughed with a bit of disdain and said no. She believed that certain women should comprise a "court of reputation," and there heap shame on those men who do not fulfill their sacral duties. That was her example of how to exercise female authority in defense of the sacred, while maintaining the sexual roles of sacral hierarchy.

There is a great wisdom about Catholic Sociobiology to be learned from the non-believing French "Father of Sociology" and the Catholic British anthropologist. Emile Durkheim and Mary Douglas direct our attention to the larger social organisms which bind us to the realities of nature, history, and God. They teach us that we have not constructed the communal identities of Church and nation. They teach us that unless we perform our prescribed duties and safeguard our classifications of solidarity, we will forfeit those communal identities.

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