Lecture 5– October 12, 2011
SOC483Y1– Mary Douglas and ClaudeLevi-Strauss
What is useful about these readings? Today other than Durkheim, it is the first time we
encounter readings talking about classifications, concepts and categorization. These are
important concepts for the course over the year.
- Why is it we have a need to classify? Both Douglas and Strauss want to tackle this
question of why this tendency is there, why the need to classify? – this is a
o Why do we classify
o What leads us to classify things in certain ways?
Both anthropologists – foundational figures – both structuralist anthropologists
Strauss- first to study cultures in a structuralist way – similar to how Saussure understood
Levi-Strauss was French born in Belgium (1908-2009?)
- The first to look at cultures in a different way
- The Savage Mind 1962 published in France
- Up till him, anthropologists studied cultures in 2 ways:
o 1. Historical development
o 2. Or like Durkheim in a functionalist way – things exist in a society because
they serve a function (Mary Douglas does this)
- L.S took a different view- he took a structuralist view
- Like how Saussure understood language and understood words in relation to other
words- that is how he understood a conceptual system
- A culture is a system of symbolic communication according to L.S – resonates
- Some examples- one major work traced a myth from Antarctica to south Africa-
same structure would exist. He wrote about food, thought raw and cooked were 2
categories that existed in every food society and was an essential dichotomy and
later turned it into a tripartite structure, not just raw and cooked, but rotten and
cooked. (rotten= natural, cooked= human driven transformation)
o Would go on to argue every society has the same structure
- There was thus an attempt to get find similar structures in different groups Mary Douglas (1921born to British parents in Italy – 2007)
- Clear connection to Durkheim!
- Also a preoccupation with order and look at certain structures
- Structures there only in so they serve a function
- If we have notions of taboo, uncleanliness – it is because they serve a function of
showing what is clean and not clean
*Primitive Societies- unborn child seen as dangerous
- Fear is manifested in different ways today – perhaps the topic of abortion may make this
more clear, one side still unclear about whether the child is human – etc. there is ambiguity
– emotional intensity
- Religions having practices around women’s menstruation = considered a dangerous state
- The marginalized or those in transition have power in terms of boundary maintenance
because we need those people to show what the boundaries are – which side is good and
which side is bad- marginal people serve function of showing boundaries, what is deviant,
polluted and unclean. Thus the marginal have a very limited potential in allowing us to
keep that boundary maintenance and to keep order. To keep order you must show people if
they disrupt that order bad things will happen.
- Classification is the main function that serves keeping symbolic boundary maintenance –
are things dangerous beyond the fact they can disrupt order? – They are by in large
dangerous for Douglas because they can disrupt order! – Ex: witchcraft and magic is
dangerous because it can attack society!
Connection to Simmel’s Stranger – in order to maintain group boundaries you need a
threat, thus the stranger occupies position which serves to maintain boundaries (source of
functionality for society in terms of boundary maintenance and danger) – it is also a
structuralist view in that the person in relation to the structure view- stranger is inside and
outside – the stranger can only have that *special perspective- because only he is inside and
- Disrupting order is the dangerous thing
o Example- dirt is dangerous – sometimes used metaphorically, sometimes not.
– Is there a fear of dirt? –
- Maybe we are not so different from primitive people, maybe more similar than led
to believe – despite scientific understandings
- US – Canada- there is fear of dirt, not in metaphorical sense, government forces us to
put anti-bacterial soap in public buildings – valid for societies, things may have shifted in form but there is still a lot of fear of dirt, just as there was before-
- What explains what animals are clean and what animals are unclean? = an ideal
type of form of locomotion for each type of animal in the water, air, earth.
- General theme- things that do not fall neatly into one category
- Douglas argues against 2 typical explanations of Leviticus
1. Prescriptions about eating only had to do with a show of religious devotion.
Simply to demonstrate you were a good religious person by following arbitrary
2. Typical explanation used by most people to this day, for example pigs not good
to eat because they had dirty habits.
o Douglas says some did not have pigs around and thus would not know they
o Many other animals Jewish people could not eat – not just because they were
Wild game – not blessed from God – different than cattle which were protected by the
Covenant – cattle are domesticated, blessed and protected. The wild game resembled cattle
but was wild and unfit, unclean and bad for you
- There is also an argument of different kinds of magic for people of different
societies- what belongs in society and what belongs outside- social component in
terms of social organization – cattle domesticated vs. wild game are on the wrong
side of the boundary, not blessed by God, not protected
With regards to theritualsof separation, dowe separate, purify and demarcate to impose
orderon an inherently untidy experience (life)? Examples today?
» Ex: rituals, transition rites mark moving from one stage to another – example
graduation, marriage. This may be a way of separating different periods in our life
» Marriage legitimizing sex and child-bearing – ritual of marriage brings all those
things in a pure and clean form
» Ex: Marriage in Mexico and proposed temporary expiry date- due to 50% divorce
rate. Some Muslim marries for one day just to have clean sex. Levi-Strauss
- Argument he makes: argues against functionalist understanding of culture,
concepts, categorizations – in that things are their words because they serve a
function because Strauss understands culture in terms of system of words and signs.
Cultures are systems of symbolic communic