Mary Douglas on why discourses succeed

As I said in a previous post, I’ve been trying to get to grips with Mary Douglas’ ‘How institutions think’ and finding my usual problem with her stuff. There are some very good individual insights, but it’s hard to work out the overall shape of her argument. (It also doesn’t help that she’s not very good at defining her terms). But I’m increasingly coming to think that the book might most usefully be understood as a way of thinking about discourses without using Foucault’s ideas. (She does refer to Foucault, but only in passing).

If Douglas’ ‘classification’ corresponds to the idea of a discourse (and it’s a bit hard to be certain on this, because she doesn’t define the term), then two of her key questions become: why are there discourses, and why are discourses of some types and not others? After all, why should individuals decide to share a particular way of thinking/speaking, and how do particular ideas win in a marketplace of them? If you’re Foucault (or Edward Said or the like) at this point you bring in power. Power produces a discourse and forces it on others, classifying people into criminals, madmen, homosexuals, wily Orientals, etc.

Mary Douglas, however, is implicitly interested in groups (which she tends, rather confusingly, to call institutions) which don’t have this kind of coercive power. A lot of her examples are from tribal societies, scientific communities and egalitarian religious sects, none of which can get too coercive without a subgroup breaking away and going off to found a new tribe, science or religion. So why do some, but not all discourses succeed here?

On the ‘why discourses’ question, her answer is basically for cognitive ease: institutions and classifications/discourses are useful shortcuts to avoid extra thinking for oneself. At this point it’s easy to start thinking that it’s only the intellectually lazy who do this, but in fact it’s frequently convenient for all of us. As one minor example, I probably save 5-10 minutes every morning by limiting my consideration of what I should eat for breakfast to ‘suitable’ breakfasts, rather than the totality of foodstuffs in my house. At a more abstract level, I remember getting told early in my mathematics degree that original mathematical thought was like a cavalry charge – very expensive in resources and to be reserved for emergencies. It’s almost always better to adapt an existing technique than invent one from scratch. And as Douglas herself points out, such institutions/classifications aren’t just used for trivial decisions: in times of famine, in most societies available food gets preferentially distributed to those classified as ‘most important’, without frantic efforts by the marginalised to preserve themselves.

As to why particular discourses, Douglas’ view is that the classifications that seem ‘natural’ are the most effective, and most likely to be accepted. I put natural in quotes, because her point is that such ‘natural’ analogies are actually the projected reflection of existing institutions. So kingship is justified by the relation between the head and the rest of the body. But seeing the relation of the parts of the body in this way is not inevitable: it is the dominant image because it ‘makes sense’ in a hierarchical society. In this way, institutions and practices are justified by hidden circular reasoning. This use of natural analogies is particularly prevalent in gendered ideas, for example. Culture is to nature, as mind is to body, as man is to woman, as human is to animal, etc, etc.

She also points out how institutions are responsible for remembering and forgetting for individuals, which is a less novel idea for historians. Though she does have a nice point about institutional memory generally being shorter in competitive groups/societies, because memory gets rewritten each time another faction gets to the top. This is one of several points where she looks at whether particular social structures are particularly prone to some kinds of thinking. And her preferred groups for discussion (tribal societies, scientific communities and religious sects) would obviously fit into her schema of grid-group, though she doesn’t mention that concept in the book at all. (There is a short piece by her on grid-group theory that I have found useful on the web).

Apart from the lack of grid-group stuff, the book does seem to be a summary of many of her earlier interests: the classification theory and its social purposes underlies a lot of ‘Purity and Danger’, and the stuff on natural analogies is also in ‘Natural Symbols’. And the whole principle that traditional and/or small-scale and/or religious social groups are actually much like ‘moderns’ in their thought processes is basic to all her work. Whether there is any change in her understanding of these ideas, I’m less sure – because she’s sometimes vague about ideas and terminology, it ‘s hard to be certain about shifts.

How useful is Mary Douglas for the Middle Ages? Her work seems to have led Eamon Duffy to become an ethnographer of medieval Catholics, which is a benefit in term of providing thick descriptions, and a loss in terms of any attempts at historical objectivity.

The two big problems with her style of functionalism remain: it ignores the issue of power and it requires ‘knowing better’ than your subjects: ‘you may think that you’re doing this because of X, but actually you’re doing it because of Y’. (For this reason, her ideas about pollution pissed off some environmentalists a lot). A related problem with ideas of ‘natural symbols’ is that because of structuralism, it’s easy to think it’s all just about binaries. But though the pairs of man/woman, mind/body, sacred/profane often seem to line up in the expected way in medieval thought, medieval society isn’t as simple as that in practice and other institutions presumable get naturalised in other ways. If we’re using Douglas, we’re going to have to be careful and not just assume that any reference to the body politic, for example, means exactly the same.

But I also think that Douglas’ ideas have some interesting current applications. If I get round to it (among other posts and the stuff I’m actually meant to be writing), I want to look at Mary Douglas’ ideas and the current US debate on gay marriage. (Now there’s a teaser for you…)


One thought on “Mary Douglas on why discourses succeed

  1. Interesting post. I’m familiar with Purity and Pollution and found some of Douglas’ concepts in that book useful for thinking about medieval sexuality, but I haven’t read much of her later work.
    You make an important point about the need to think beyond simple binaries. My experience working with material from the later Middle Ages is that when you start unpicking those binaries, they actually are much more complex and intertwined than they initially seem, and they are serving multiple (and sometimes contradictory) purposes.


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