The anthropologist Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, produced a framework for understanding society that should be part of the mental furniture of every educated adultby Geoff Mulgan / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Few thinkers have changed how we see the world; even fewer have changed how we think about how we see the world. Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, is one of the rare exceptions. Her field was culture, but she was as unlike the stereotypical cultural studies academic as one could imagine. A devout Catholic, she spent the last few decades in an extraordinary flowering of inquiry that is now providing insights in fields as diverse as the study of the Old Testament and the politics of climate change.
Douglas’s theoretical apparatus allowed her to think in original ways about almost any topic. In a lecture earlier this year at the Young Foundation, she discussed “enclaves,” the small groups which at their most extreme become terrorist cells. Where others emphasise their strengths, she emphasised their weaknesses: how prone they are to splits and sectarianism, and how hard it is for their founders to enforce rules. To survive, enclaves create around themselves what Douglas called a “wall of virtue”—the sense that they alone uphold justice, while all around them are suspect—yet the very thing that bonds them together encourages individuals within them to compete to demonstrate their own virtue and the failings of their peers. The only thing that can override this fragility is fear of the outside world—and so sects, whether political or religious, peaceful or violent, feed off the hostility of outsiders, using it to reinforce their own solidarity. The implication is clear for western governments: in the long term, defeating terrorism depends on ratcheting fear down, not up, dismantling the “walls of virtue” rather than attacking them head on with declarations of war.
Douglas’s work has set in motion important new schools of thought. Perhaps the most fertile of these is now being used to make sense of why so many well-intentioned policies fail, and why some others succeed even though they appear to work less well on paper. Her starting point is a deceptively simple framework she has repeatedly used to make sense of organisations and societies. It should be part of the mental furniture of any educated person, like the laws of supply and demand in economics, or the laws of thermodynamics.