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Mary Douglas (1921-2007), a British social anthropologist, is widely recognized for her book “Natural Symbols” and the culture theory. “Natural Symbols” gives a vivid description of the human culture in terms of natural cues and bodily symbols. …
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Download file to see previous pages According to Douglas, natural symbols are an important determinant of the nature of social and religious rituals practiced by all cultures worldwide. These natural symbols could be derived from “blood, breath or excrement” and each one of them has a social meaning and implication. Using these bodily symbols, the choices, preferences and perceptions of every culture can be studied. According to Mary Douglas, the way a person treats his/her body explains his/her perception of the society. The hierarchies existing in a society are very much similar to how a human treats his various organs. She explains: According to one, the body will tend to be conceived as an organ of communication. The major preoccupations will be with its functioning effectively; the relation of head to subordinate members will be a model of the central control system, the favorite metaphors of statecraft will harp upon the flow of blood in the arteries, sustenance and the restoration of strength. According to another, though the body will also be seen as a vehicle of life, it will be vulnerable in different ways. The dangers to it will come… from failure to control the quality of what it absorbs through the orifices; fear of poisoning, protection of boundaries, aversion to bodily waste products and medical theory that enjoins frequent purging. Another again will be very practical about the possible uses of bodily rejects, very cool about recycling waste matter and about the pay-off from such practices. The distinction between the life within the body and the body that carries it will hold no interest. In the control, areas of these society controversies about spirit and matter will scarcely arise. But at the other end of the spectrum … a different attitude will be seen. Here the body is not primarily the vehicle of life, for life will be seen as purely spiritual and the body as irrelevant matter. Here we can locate millennial tendencies from our early history to the present day. For these people society appears as a system that does not work. (Douglas 1996, 16-17) The Body, Religion and Anthropology In her book, Douglas explains how the ritualistic patterns of a culture can be derived through their body symbolism. This book examines religion from an anthropological perspective, explaining the ritualistic and socialistic norms existent in all cultures. Thus, in order to understand a culture truly, a thorough study of the natural symbols occurring in the society is mandatory. Sarah Coakley writes in Religion and the body: Anthropologists have long been interested in ideas about the body. Thus, in the nineteenth-century anthropology, the centrality of the notion of ‘race’ involved detailed studies of the bodies of ‘primitives’. European imperialism made possible, and evolutionary theories of progress encouraged and fed on, the detailed description and classification of types of European and non- European bodies.1 As is evident, the body forms an important element of all anthropological studies that aim at a proper analysis of a given culture. According to Coakley, by the end of the nineteenth century, studies focusing on the “symbolic aspects of the body in primitive cultures” became increasingly prevalent. It was believed that such a study would tell us “something profound of the human mind”2. Mary Douglas is not the only one to have elaborated on the significance of bodily symbols in anthropology. Many other works, like those of Benthall and Pohemus, Blacking etc. have brought out the importance of the “Anthropology of the Body”. However, Douglas’ work remains the most popular in terms of both its academic value and interesting notions. Harries (1993) interprets natural symbols as follows, By natural symbols, I ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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Terrific work done on the "MARY DOUGLAS' NATURAL SYMBOLS". I think it is the best example I have seen so far.
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