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Mary Douglas: How Institutions Think
(Syracuse University Press: 1986)


“Not just any busload, or haphazard crowd of people deserves the name of society: there has to be some thinking and feeling alike among members.... If this is literally true, it is implicitly denied by much of social thought...[and yet,] our intuition is that individuals do contribute to the public good generously, even unhesitatingly, without obvious self-serving.... Emile Durkheim had another way of thinking about the conflict between individual and society...[as,] for him, the initial error is to deny the social origins of individual thought. Classifications, logical operations, and guiding metaphors are given to the individual by society. Above all, the sense of a priori rightness of some ideas, and the nonsensicality of others, are handed out as part of the social environment. He thought the reaction of outrage when entrenched judgements are challenged is a gut response, directly due to commitment to a social group...[and that] the only program of research that would explain how a collective good is created would be work in epistemology. Durkheim’s thought is...still too good to be dismissed. Epistemological resources may be able to explain what cannot be explained by the theory of rational behavior.... [This would lead to] a double-stranded view of social behavior. One strand is cognitive: the individual demand for order and coherence and control of uncertainty. The other strand is transactional: the individual utility maximizing activity described in a cost-benefit analysis. In most of this volume, we will say little about the latter, which is already well represented in scholarly writing. The under-represented case is the role of cognition in forming the social bond.”
(Douglas, p.9-19)

Perhaps the major weakness in the ways of thought of social scientists - at least, to my mind - is their habitual glossing of the problem of “socialization”...ie, exactly how we become fully-fledged members of our cultures, leading directly to the one-sided approach lamented above. Interestingly enough, precisely the same question is also fudged by the dominant approaches in psychology, suggesting that, perhaps, we just might be seriously uncomfortable w/the implications of the question - whatever the discipline - and, in the main, simply prefer to leave it unanswered.

Thankfully, however, not all are so craven...and there do exist serious & well-supported approaches to this question from developmental psychologists and anthropologists - although sociologists, in the main, appear deaf to the question. This, unfortunately, tends to leave a gap in even the best-conceived sociological approaches (I’m thinking here, in particular, of that of W.G. Runciman), right at the foundations of ideological power. And, it is this general absence which the later works of Mary Douglas directly address...

Mary Douglas was best known for Purity & Danger - her 1966 monograph on the anthropology of dirt/pollution - however, it is her later work which is of the most importance, offering as it does a crucial link between rational choice approaches and the sociology of commitment - as well as between social theory and developmental questions - thus bridging key divisions in our intellectual landscape. Moreover, she does so w/a keen eye for nonsense, and a kind of educated common-sense (read: wisdom) all too rare in the social sciences, most prominently on display when she attacks the conventional arguments in favour of a separate/different sociology of religion:


“Religion does not explain. Religion has to be explained.”
(Douglas, p.36)

“Whenever religious organizations have had access to coercive powers, or have been able to offer selective rewards of wealth or influence to their most dedicated individual members, their religions have had a stable and flourishing career. And whenever these have been absent, for whatever reason, the history is one of continual friction and schism.”
(Douglas, pp.23-4)

“Human history is studded all the way from the beginning with nails driven into local coffins of authority.”
(Douglas, p.95)

Similarly, Douglas treats w/contempt another double-standard on offer in the social sciences, which exempts small, face-to-face social groupings from Rational Choice arguments for highly dubious reasons. Instead, she easily shows how such arguments can substantially contribute to our understanding of these groups, and how this extension of the theory also forces us to face up to its greatest weakness: the totally individualistic (and simplistic) psychology which underlies it...


“In most wandering bands of hunters, it is true, equality and participation are well exemplified. But in these hunting bands, it is not specifically smallness of scale but other factors that create the conditions favorable for a non-coercive communal life. Sparsity of population, abundance of the wherewithal to satisfy wants at a low level, plus easy movement between bands allows conflict to be diffused by separation.... These are very like the conditions in which [Mancur] Olson’s theory expects latent groups to abound: nothing much for an individual to gain or lose by staying with the group, easy switches of allegiance, easy resistance to attempted coercion by threatening to secede.... In the perspective of anthropology, the favorable factors have less to do with scale, and more to do with the ratio of population to resources, together with the possibility of satisfying wants without engaging anyone in the hard, monotonous, sustained kind of work that tempts some to coerce the service of others. Yet it would be quite wrong to write those communities down as latent groups in Olson’s sense. They really do form persisting and effective moral communities. Something else is happening that does not defy analysis, and has nothing to do with scale, but which is overlooked because of the false plausibility of scale effects.”
(Douglas, pp.26-7)

“The first difficulty...[any] latent group encounters is that its members, by definition, have not got any strong personal interest in remaining in it.... Consequently, the affairs of a latent group will tend to be conducted by veto, and backed by threats of withdrawal. Leadership will be weak, because of a tendency for the great to be dominated by the small.... On the other hand, if making coercion impossible counts as an achievement, it has achieved a certain amount.... The threat to secede can be indirectly controlled, [however,] by a strong boundary [insisting on equality and 100 percent participation]...which automatically ensures that exit will be costly. [But,] only oblique political action is possible; hence, there is the tendency to check exploitative behavior by accusing incipient faction leaders of principled immorality. There is nothing else that they can be accused of, since there are no other rules. The activity of accusing, X, reinforces the belief, Y, in outside conspiracy, but Y maintains X. Instead of using the beliefs to explain the cohesion of the society, we have used the society to explain the beliefs, and they certainly needed a better explanation than by reference to real cosmic conspiracies, and satanic dangers.... This analysis demonstrates that the problem starts with the wavering commitment, and not with the external danger.... [Furthermore,] the members of the latent group did not intend to construct the thought style that sustains the form of the organization: it is a collective product...[and] the only assumption necessary was the minimal one, that they would like to see the community survive, without giving up their individual autonomy. The constraints in the situation only afford certain solutions. By adopting the easiest strategy, they start to move together along a path that ends in their joint construction of a thought style.... [Moreover,] the jointness in the construction...disguises from each member of the thought world the consequentiality of his own small action. [And so,] each will be accusing his neighbor of treachery, without suspecting that a commonly shared belief pattern is thereby strengthened.”
(Douglas, pp.38-41)

By teasing out the full implications, over time, of such basic social orderings, Douglas shows us how recurrent situational logics drive groupings towards certain basic thought-styles, and that these help construct & validate our traditional approaches to classification:


“The earliest social interaction lays the basis for polarizing the world into classes. Survival depends on having enough emotional energy to carry this elementary classificatory enterprise through all the hard work needed to build a coherent, workable world.... [And] individuals, as they pick and choose among the analogies from nature those they will give credence to, are also picking and choosing at the same time their allies and opponents, and the pattern of their future relations. Constituting their version of nature, they are monitoring the constitution of their society. In short, they are constructing a machine for thinking and decision-making on their own behalf.... [And] the commonest social analogies are always there, resisting change. They stand ready to fill the gaps in causal chains when the demand for close reasoning is not strong enough to call forth complex classification. Thanks to the weight of institutional inertia, shifting images are held steady enough for communication to be possible.”
(Douglas, pp.62-3)

By this stage, I suspect, the general shape of Mary Douglas’ argument should be evident to those amongst you who have seriously investigated these reviews - as should its counterparts amongst the other disciplines. Arguably, what she is offering here - without, apparently, any genuinely detailed knowledge of modern developmental psychology (or, indeed, biology)  - is the anthropological/sociological counterpart of interactionist developmental psychology as, say, Katherine Nelson practices it. Unfortunately, there appears to be little or no useful communication between these disciplines - to the impoverishment of both, as far as I can see - despite the fact that their understandings of human beings have so much in common.

However, should a reader chance - as I did - to read Nelson & Douglas in parallel, he/she will rapidly find that they tend to cross-fertilize each other...the social and psychological evidence together providing a much more rounded understanding of what we are. Because, without seeing how institutions (in the broadest sense) group and structure our understandings - something that developmental psychology typically stops short of - we cannot make the full leap into the social world...and, that leap is extremely important:


“Institutional structures [can be seen as] forms of informational complexity. Past experience is encapsulated in an institution’s rules, so that it acts as a guide to what to expect from the future. The more fully the institutions encode expectations, the more they put uncertainty under control, with the further effect that behavior tends to conform to the institutional matrix.... They start with rules of thumb, and norms; eventually, they can end by storing all the useful information.”
(Douglas, p.48)

“To acquire legitimacy, every kind of institution needs a formula that founds its rightness in reason and nature...some stabilizing principle to stop its premature demise. That stabilizing principle is the naturalization of social classifications. There needs to be an analogy, by which the formal structure of a crucial set of social relations is found in the physical world, or in the supernatural world, or in eternity, anywhere, so long as it is not seen as a socially-contrived arrangement. When the analogy is [then] applied back and forth, from one set of social arrangements to another, and from these back to nature, its recurring formal structure becomes easily recognized, and endowed with self-validating truth.... Thus, the institutions survive the stage of being fragile conventions: they are founded in nature and, therefore, in reason. Being naturalized, they are part of the order of the universe, and so are ready to stand as the grounds of argument.... [And] that is why founding analogies have to be hidden, and why the hold of the thought style upon the thought world has to be secret. But let us be disabused of the idea that these analogies are based on haphazard resemblances, [for] their formal mathematical properties are the basis for the rich variety of constructions put upon them.... [So] by using formal analogies that entrench an abstract structure of social conventions, on an abstract structure imposed upon nature, institutions grow past the initial difficulties of collective action.... [For] mutual convenience in multiple transactions does not create enough certainty about the other person’s strategies. It does not justify the necessary trust.”
(Douglas, pp.45-55)

“Analogies can be seen anywhere, and everywhere. But when an analogy matches a structure of authority or precedence, then the social pattern reinforces the logical pattern, and gives it prominence. Two efforts, one social and one intellectual, mutually sustain each other. [And] patterns of authority or precedence enjoy a privileged status because, as Tomas Schelling has well said, their smallest indivisible parts are persons...[and] at some point, there is an end to possible rearrangements of patterns involving persons. [Moreover,] patterns of authority or precedence are also privileged because we are social animals, trained from childhood to recognize the elementary materials of metaphor and analogy in our own social experience. Like so much bric-a-brac, these proto-theoretical pieces lie around, ready to be pressed into service to promote the thinker’s deepest social concerns, or simply to be leaned on and used whenever energy for independent classificatory work runs out.”
(Douglas, pp.65-6)

“Once a social system has been founded in reason and nature, we can see how cognitive energy is saved by tracing the career of a successful theory. First, on the principle of cognitive coherence, a theory that is going to gain a permanent place in the public repertoire of what is known will need to interlock with the procedures that guarantee other kinds of theories. At the foundation of any large cognitive enterprise are some basic formulae, equations in common use, and rules of thumb.... The anchoring of a set of theories in one field imparts authority to a set elsewhere, if it can be anchored by the same procedures. This is just as true for social forms of validation as it is for scientific ones.”
(Douglas, pp.76-7)

Another parallel - most evident at this point - would be Lakoff & Johnson’s approach to metaphor in language & cognition. However, Douglas’ arguments are actually much stronger, in that hers (very properly) incorporate social dynamics into the process, thus proffering a viable mechanism underpinning the selection of metaphors and the extent of their application in any given society. Without such, as Douglas argues, the endless proliferation of metaphors - in themselves - can offer us no understanding...whereas, once we admit the full implications of ourselves as social beings, the issue comes into focus. Moreover, we can also see how Douglas’ approach makes sense of intellectual contagion, without requiring the falsely atomistic assumptions of memetics, not to mention the overly modular assumptions all-too-common in evolutionary psychology. In short, this is an approach with a lot to offer, in a whole variety of areas where premature & foolishly narrow sets of ideas currently reign supreme, as well as bridging the gaps between sadly divided disciplines. This may appear a lot to ask of one (short) book, and yet it’s  a fully justified conclusion, I feel...


“The successful formula is predatory. Sheer consistency of use endows it with might, and it will swallow up competition.... [Conversely,] one well-instituted tool can easily ruin the career of a theory that cannot use it. [And] one well-connected unifying method can drive out an idea that does not depend upon its accredited formula.”
(Douglas, pp.73-89)

“Every ten years or so, classroom text books go out of date. Their need to be revised is in some part due to new work in science, or to the deeper delving of historians.... [But] the revisionary effort is not aimed at producing the perfect optic flat. The mirror, if that’s what history is, distorts as much after revision as it did before. The aim of revision is to get the distortions to match the mood of the present times...[for,] when we look closely at the construction of past time, we find the process has very little to do with the past at all, and everything to do with the present. Institutions create shadowed places where nothing can be seen, and no questions asked. They make other areas show finely discriminated detail, which is closely scrutinized and ordered. History emerges in an unintended shape, as a result of practices directed to immediate, practical ends, [and] to watch these practices establish selective principles that highlight some kinds of events and obscure others, is to inspect the social order operating on individual minds. Public memory is the storage system for the social order. Thinking about it is as close as we can get to reflecting on the conditions of our own thought. We can trace the logical operations, but it is extremely difficult to think about them critically. Are we using an exhaustive set of the public categories on which the logical operations are performed? Are they the right categories for our questions? What does rightness of categories mean? And, apart from those we have put into analysis, what should we say about the ones we have left out? ...There is no way of directly confronting these questions. We can avoid insoluble riddles, and still get an answer by examining the processes of public memory, [as] some patterns of public events get stored there, others get rejected.... [And] certain things always need to be forgotten, for any cognitive system to work. There is no way of paying full attention to everything.”
(Douglas, pp.69-76)

“Just as each different kind of social system rests on a specific type of analogy from nature, so the memories ought to be different too. As [Robert] Merton...shows, competitive social systems are weaker on memory than ascriptive ones. This must be so, because the competition drives out some players and brings upstarts to the top, and with each change of dynasty, public memory gets rearranged. By contrast, a complex hierarchical society will need to recall many reference points in the past. But the list of founding fathers will only be as long as the list of social units they have founded...[for] coherence and complexity in public memory will tend to correspond to coherence and complexity at the social level. That is what [Maurice] Halbwachs taught. The converse follows: the more the social units are simple and isolated, the simpler and more fragmentary the public memory will be, with fewer benchmarks, and fewer levels of ascent to the beginning of time.... [Moreover,] the more the social organization is a latent group, conscious of the organizational problems...the more its members will invoke a history of persecution and resistance. The competitive society celebrates its heroes, the hierarchy celebrates its patriarchs, and the sect its martyrs.”
(Douglas, p.80)

Here, we can also see an intimation of Mary Douglas’ “Grid and Group” typology of cultures/values - central to the bulk of her later work, and yet How Institutions Think lacks any explicit discussion of this. Why? Well, Douglas here is attempting to make the most general & parsimonious argument she can for the social nature of cognition and, in consequence, may have preferred not to erect any more specific theory on top of same - even if said theory was her own. For there is a lot of spadework to be done at precisely this level of generality, and Douglas may have been wise to stick to it here:


“When institutions make classifications for us, we seem to lose some independence that we might conceivably have otherwise had. This thought is one that we have every reason, as individuals, to resist. Living together, we take individual responsibility, and we lay it upon one another. We take responsibility for our deeds, but even more voluntarily for our thoughts. Our social interaction consists very much in telling each other what right thinking is, and passing blame on wrong thinking. This is indeed how we build institutions, squeezing each other’s ideas into a common shape, so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent.... Institutions systematically direct individual memory, and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize. They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardized pitch on standardized issues. Add to all this that they endow themselves with rightness, and send their mutual corroboration cascading through all the levels of our information system. No wonder they easily recruit us into joining their narcissistic self-contemplation. Any problems we try to think about are automatically transformed into their own organizational problems...[so,] if the institution is one that depends on participation, it will reply to our frantic question: ‘More participation!’ If it is one that depends on authority, it will only reply: ‘More authority!’ Institutions have the pathetic megalomania of the computer whose whole vision of the world is its own program. For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon our mind.”
(Douglas, pp91-2)

“To analyze our own collective representations, we should relate what is shared in our mental furnishing to our common experience of authority and work. Unfortunately, all the classifications that we have for thinking with are provided ready-made, along with our social life.... [So,] how can we possibly think of ourselves in society, except by using the classifications established in our institutions? If we turn to the various social scientists, we find that their minds are still more deeply in thrall. Their professional subject matter is cast in administrative categories, art separated from science, affect from cognition, imagination from reasoning.... [Moreover,] at the same time as institutions produce labels, there is a feedback of Robert Merton’s self-fulfilling kind. The labels stabilize social life, and even to some extent create the realities to which they apply...from people making institutions, to institutions making classifications, to classifications entailing actions, to actions calling for names, and to people and other living creatures responding to the naming, positively and negatively.”
(Douglas, pp.99-102)

“The high triumph of institutional thinking is to make the institutions completely invisible.”
(Douglas, p.98)

“Institutions survive by harnessing all informational processes to the task of establishing themselves. The instituted community blocks personal curiosity, organizes public memory, and heroically imposes certainty upon uncertainty. In marking its own boundaries, it affects all lower level thinking, so that persons realize their own identities and classify each other through community affiliation. Since it uses the division of labor as a source of metaphors to affirm itself, the community’s self-knowledge and knowledge of the world must undergo change when the organization of work changes.... But individual persons do not control the classifying. It is a cognitive process that involves them in the same way as they are involved in the strategies and payoffs of the economic scene, or in the constitution of language.... First, the people are tempted out of their niches by new possibilities of exercising or evading control. Then they make new kinds of institutions, and the institutions make new kinds of labels, and the labels make new kinds of people. The next step in understanding how we understand ourselves would be to classify kinds of institutions, and the kinds of classification they typically use.... [For example,] classifications emanating from administrative institutions have a territorial base, while those emanating from manufacturing institutions focus on production. What the classifications are devised for, and what they can and cannot do, are different in each case. A classification of classificatory styles would be a good first step towards thinking systematically about distinctive styles of reasoning. It would be a challenge to the sovereignty of our institutionalized thought style.”
(Douglas, pp.102-9)

As we progress through Douglas’ argument, the stakes are - gradually- raised, higher & higher...until, at last, we venture upon the most fraught terrain of all - that of morality & the sacred...wherein lie our least defensible - and most fervently defended - judgements. Here again, we encounter Emile Durkheim and - in particular - his most notorious idea...upon the role of the sacred in the social order. As thoughout this book, however, Douglas is not interested in defending his ideas so much as substantially re-working/re-inventing them in light of the best evidence we have. The result, as always, is both highly persuasive - founded, as it is, on fact - and deeply disturbing to our individualist assumptions...


“A comforting but false idea about institutional thinking has gained some recent currency. This is the notion that institutions just do the routine, low-level, day-to-day thinking.... There is no reason to believe in any such benign dispensation. The contrary is more likely to prevail. The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions, while busying himself with tactics and details.”
(Douglas, p.111)

“All the other controls exerted by institutions are invisible, but not the sacred. According to Durkheim, the sacred is to be recognized by these three characteristics. First, it is dangerous. If the the sacred is profaned, terrible things will happen; the world will break up, and the profaner will be crushed. Second, any attack on the sacred rouses emotions to its defense. Third, it is evoked explicitly. There are sacred words and names, sacred places, books, flags, and totems. Such symbols make the sacred tangible, but they in no way limit its range. Entrenched in nature, the sacred flashes out from salient points, to defend all the classifications and theories that uphold the institutions. For Durkheim, the sacred is essentially an artifact of society. It is a necessary set of conditions, resting on a particular division of labour which, of course, produces the needful energy for that kind of system.... [And David Hume’s] idea that justice is a necessary social construct is exactly parallel to Durkheim’s idea of the sacred, but Hume clearly refers to us, ourselves. He brings our idea of the sacred under scrutiny...[for] justice is the point that seals legitimacy.... Fabricated precisely for the purpose of justifying and stabilizing institutions....no single element of justice has innate rightness: for being right, it depends upon its generality, its schematic coherence, and its fit with other accepted general principles. Justice is a more or less satisfactory intellectual system, designed to secure the coordination of a particular set of institutions.”
(Douglas, p.113-14)

The most challenging section of Douglas’ book is the last, wherein she reflects upon the anthropological evidence re societies in extremis. But, as she so rightly says:


“One cannot always expect to like the results  when starting to explain the origin of the social order.”
(Douglas, p.41)

And such evidence is - in truth - the hardest of all possible with regard to such questions. For, if institutional thought were to reliably break down under such strain, it could not be robust enough to undergird our social orders. But, the evidence - tragic as it is - is that it can...and does:


“The preferred assumption, which implies that humans are not essentially social beings, is strong enough to prevent us seeing how they actually behave. What happens when law is abrogated? Does nature take over? We have been saying that nature is culturally defined, that individual minds are furnished with culturally-given attitudes. So, what happens? ...Strongest and most numerous do not always take all when the tragic crisis arrives, [for] history shows that famine does not automatically revoke conventions. It does not usher in something like a natural law of equal rights. By adopting such an assumption, we naturalize our own ideas of equity; it is as if we assume that when nature takes over, she does what we knew we ought to have done all along, that is, to distribute equally. [But] crisis behavior depends on what patterns of justice have been internalized, what institutions have been legitimated.”
(Douglas, p.122)

“William Torrey is an anthropologist who has been studying responses to famine...where no foreign relief is available. This experience has led him to question whether the dire crisis is producing a breakdown of norms. Instead, he finds a community switching from its regular set of moral principles to its regular emergency set. The emergency system is not an abrogation of all principles.... On the contrary, the emergency system starts with a gradual tightening and narrowing of the normal distributive principles. It is foreseen that there will not be food enough for everyone, [and] the emergency system starts to give short rations to the disadvantaged, the marginal, the politically ineffectual. Protecting those in command and those already advantaged results in the skeletal institutions being preserved, and the usual channels of communication being kept open. The effect is to maintain some minimal level of operations. As the crisis deepens, and as he watches, he witnesses with horror a systematic destruction of certain categories of persons. He can recognize who is predestined to starve - and, so can the victims...[who] meekly accept their fate.... He has not witnessed a destruction of the social order, but its affirmation.”
(Douglas, pp.122-3)

“Justice has nothing to do with isolated cases...[for] the most profound decisions about justice are not made by individuals as such, but by individuals thinking within and on behalf of institutions. The only way that a system of justice exists is by its everyday fulfilment of institutional needs....[and] choosing rationally, on this argument, is not choosing intermittently among crises, or private preferences, but choosing continuously among social institutions. It follows that moral philosophy is an impossible enterprise, if it does not start with the constraints on institutional thinking.”
(Douglas, p.124)


Here, yet again, we find Douglas’ arguments in tune w/another of the most innovative and insightful approaches around...that of Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival. And, like Jacobs, she offers little comfort for those who would - in the name of false coherence/certainty - throw the baby out w/the bathwater...


“Tests of coherence and non-arbitrariness, complexity and practicality, are not subjective preferences. It is as straightforward to study human systems of justice objectively as it is to measure the length of human feet from heel to toe. Systems can be compared as systems. The one thing it is not possible to do is to pick a particular virtue, say kindness to animals or to the aged, or equality, and find a way of proving that it is always and ineluctably right and best.... Recognizing the social origin of ideas of justice does not commit us to refraining from judging between systems.”
(Douglas, p.121)

For, just as Douglas’ work offers us a stronger & richer alternative to some of the more narrowly-based approaches in the human sciences, so too does it touch on many of the problems so ill-posed in postmodernism...only to conclusively reject the relativist extremes played out in the academic Humanities. In this, her work fits well w/that of such New Humanities favourites as Charles Taylor & Mikhail Bakhtin...not to mention the best thought of the Sophistic Enlightenment & Renaissance Humanism. And, in such company, Mary Douglas has an honoured place, for her contribution is a vital one in re-linking the modern social sciences with older, broader notions of what it means to be human - and, without sacrificing those insights gained via narrower ways...


“The one idea we must explore, to understand why our self-knowledge is so elusive...is that the burden of thinking is transferred to institutions.... It is an inherently unstable idea, and we should surely expect as much, given what we know already about the difficulties of a self-reflexive program of enquiry.”
(Douglas, p.83)

Mary Douglas’ How Institutions Think is a genuinely multifaceted work, of great importance, which should be required reading for anyone w/intellectual curiousity. In origin, it was the (belated) foundation-stone of her Grid-Group Cultural Theory of Risk; in execution, it became the pivotal link between post-Durkheimian and Rational Choice conceptions of the social sciences; and in retrospect, I think we can also see it as the missing link in W.G. Runciman’s historical sociology, and the bridge between Vygotskian developmental psychology and the rest of the social sciences...not to mention a sane approach to the core materials of relativism...

For all of these reasons, the book is essential...but, it is also noteworthy for others. Mary Douglas may not have been a great prose stylist, however, she did have the mind to become one, had such been her intention. Incisive & sardonic in critique, she also had the ability to spot what was worthwhile in a flawed argument...and to build upon it. In short, she had wisdom, and it shows through in her books. As I noted earlier, however, as there is no single volume which covers the core of her late work, readers would be well advised to follow How Institutions Think w/the volume she authored w/Steven Ney, Missing Persons, for her definitive statement on Grid & Group typology she found the most useful way of treating cultural divides - as it forms the crucial next step in her late thought.

Meanwhile, Mary Douglas herself passed away whilst I was writing this - at the age of 86 - and, as the Irish might say, we shall not see her like again.

So, let us - at least - try to learn from her...


“Only by deliberate bias, and by an extraordinarily disciplined effort, has it been possible to erect a theory of human behavior whose formal account of reasoning only considers the self-regarding motives, and a theory that has no possible way of including community-mindedness or altruism, still less heroism, except as an aberration.... [But,] for better or worse, individuals really do share their thoughts, and they do to some extent harmonize their preferences, and they have no other way to make the big decisions, except within the scope of institutions they build.”
(Douglas, p.128)



John Henry Calvinist