Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1921-) British anthropologist; professor emerita of University College, London, where she worked from 1951 to 1977. She has subsequently served as Research Director of the Russell Sage Foundation, as Avalon Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, and in various visiting appointments. Born in Italy, Douglas graduated from Oxford, where she studied under E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Originally an Africanist—her fieldwork was among the Lele in present-day Zaire—she soon became interested in comparative social life and gradually turned toward an anthropology of modern industrial society. Throughout her career, she has insisted that there is no great divide between "primitives" and "moderns": The same social processes are at work in all societies. Cultural patterns, however, can be quite different. The core of Douglas's work has been an attempt to specify what causes these differences and similarities—particularly on the level of belief.

Purity and Danger (Routledge 1966) was Douglas's first book to attract wide attention from scholars of religion. In it, she asked why some religions emphasize rules and others do not. She demonstrated that modernity is not the cause and that there is no necessary split between ritualism and theologizing. Indeed, ritualism can be seen as concrete thinking: as overt symbolism that both creates and expresses a meaningful universe. Her next book Natural Symbols , first published in 1970, tied ritualism and antiritualism to particular kinds of social structure and introduced the grid-group schema. (The 1970, Pantheon, and 1973, Vintage, editions are radically different from one another; the 1970 edition was reprinted in the 1980s.) "High-grid, high-group" societies were prone to ritualism; "low-grid, low-group" societies were prone to shun it. "Low-grid, high-group" societies were prone to witchcraft accusations and sectarianism. Douglas and others applied the resulting "grid-group" analysis to a series of religious, scientific, and other beliefs in Essays in the Sociology of Perception (Routledge 1982). Scholars of religion will also be interested in the essay collection Implicit Meanings (Routledge 1976).

Douglas's later work has continued these interests, although with less of a focus on religion. Risk and Culture (with Aaron Wildavsky, University of California Press 1982) used the grid-group schema to explain environmental groups' heightened concern over environmental risks. The World of Goods (with Baron Isherwood, Norton 1979) used a generalized version of it to reintroduce culture and choice to economics. Various essays in In the Active Voice (Routledge 1982) gave the theory an ethnomethodological turn. How Institutions Think (Syracuse University Press 1986) generalized the theory into a neofunctionalist account of the social origin of ideas—a topic that should be of particular interest to sociologists of religion. Risk and Blame (Routledge 1992) focuses on the social variability of risk avoidance.

James V. Spickard


M. Douglas, "The Background of the Grid Dimension," Sociological Analysis 50(1989):171-176

J. V. Spickard, "A Guide to Mary Douglas's Three Versions of 'Grid/Group' Theory," Sociological Analysis 50(1989):151-170

J. V. Spickard, "A Revised Functionalism in the Sociology of Religion," Religion 21(1991):141-164.

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