Great Diagrams in Anthropology: Mary Douglas Edition

Deciphering a MealMary Douglas is my all time favorite anthropologist. Sometimes this surprises me. Much of her anthropology was informed by political and social sensibilities much at odds with my own. Douglas liked hierarchy and she liked institutions, as has been noted in some of her recent obituaries. Yet, her analysis of the politics of risk was greatly helpful to me as an undergraduate, when I wrote my B.A. thesis on ways in which the putative purity of the U.S. blood supply and its bureaucratic regulation revealed much more about attitudes towards the socially marginal than they did about the ‘actual’ risks. I have always admired two aspects of her work: its rigorous but clever manner of presentation, and the promiscuousness of the subject matter. It seems there was almost no aspect of social life that she could not subject to a brilliant and punchy little anthropological analysis.

Above I present one of the many diagrams from her essay, ‘Deciphering a Meal.’ Douglas was a prolific diagrammer. Sometimes this created difficulties. Natural Symbols, for example, is a notoriously deceptively clear account of body symbolism. This website presents the different versions of the grid/group diagram published in different editions of Natural Symbols and some of the difficulties engendered by the various versions of the diagrams.

Douglas explains the diagram above:

Obviously the meanings in our food system should be elucidated by [close] observation. I cut it short by drawing conclusions intuitively from the social categories which emerge. Drinks are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen, and family. Meals are for family, close friends, honored guests. The grand operator of the system is the line between intimacy and distance. Those we know at meals we also know at drinks. The meal expresses close friendship. Those we only know at drinks we know less intimately. So long as this boundary matters to us (and there is no reason to suppose it will always matter) the boundary between drinks and meals has meaning. There are smaller thresholds and half-way points. The entirely cold meal (since it omits a major contrast within a meal) would seem to be such a modifier. So those friends who have never had a hot meal in our home have presumably another threshold of intimacy to cross… It would be simplistic to trace the food categories direct to the social categories they embrace and leave it at Figure 16.1 [above]. Evidently the external boundaries are only a small part of the meaning of the meal.

Here Douglas puts an analytic frame around common sense: sharing a meal expresses shared social identity and relationship. The essay of course goes on to decode the sharing of food and food categories through a range of social circumstances. Critics of Douglas have often seized upon her penchant for reducing cultural meaning to statements about social life, where social life is largely understood to be a matter of structuring forms of inclusion and exclusion. (See pages 117-120 in this book.) Critics of Douglas may be right. Nevertheless, her style of analysis can yield groovy results. Even the grid/group analytic, something of a blunt instrument, can be fun to play with. It has been used to understand the cosmological biases informing everything from millenarian movements to marketing strategies.

Below I juxtapose her ‘original’ grid/group diagram and New York magazine’s brilliant ‘approval matrix.’ To me, the approval matrix is like Douglas + Bourdieu for hip New Yorkers. Convince me, in fact, that the particular combination of taste and status (highbrow/lowbrow, brilliant/despicable) diagrammed each week does not in fact describe perfectly Douglas’s understanding of the way that grid and group work.

Douglas 1970 - GG1.jpgmatrix070611_740.jpg

5 thoughts on “Great Diagrams in Anthropology: Mary Douglas Edition

  1. Bravo. I am glad to find another “Strong” admirer of Mary Douglas here. Geertz, Levi-Strauss, Vic Turner and Jim Fernandez have all been inspirations to me, but Douglas is the theorist to whom I return over and over again when I want to move beyond methodological discussions to substantive hypotheses. She is very good to think, indeed.

  2. Strong’s comment about Douglas’s deciphering a meal reminded me of a talk she gave to the anthropology department at the University of Chicago in the early-mid 70s, when I was a graduate student there. The department had recently lost its only female faculty member, and was bringing in notable women anthropologists in an effort to find a good colleague of the right gender. Douglas gave a talk, entitled “The Meaning of Meals” or something quite similar, drawing upon her work on meals and eating in the U.K. She offered a compelling analysis of the structure of meals, persuading us all that meals did, in fact, have structure, but at the end of the presentation Michael Silverstein quickly raised the question – what, exactly, was the “meaning” alluded to in her title? Douglas was notably thrown by the question, and seemed not to have given the issue of “meaning” much thought. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes, she finally concluded, rather weakly, that the “meaning” was that this event was, in the end, a “meal.” Someone scoffed that this was a fairly over-determined meaning, but Douglas was unable to offer much more. Many of us assumed that her failure to get a job offer was due, in part at least, to her poor performance with that question – though I have to confess that I was not privy to the smoked-filled room deliberations. Nancy Munn was ultimately hired. And I should add that I am reporting the recollections of a grad student more than 30 years later – all of the usual qualifications apply….

  3. Thank you for the story about Mary in Chicago. I find that really fascinating. Imagine how anthropological history might have changed if Douglas had been hired. Or, imagine this, if *both* Douglas and Munn had been hired.

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