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Speaking Volumes: Purity and Danger

Leonore Davidoff on Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger .

The reason why one voice speaks to another remains a mystery but my sense of the world was undoubtedly deeply effected by Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). Douglas was covent-educated, quintessentially English, a generation older, an established anthropologist; I an expatriate American, a secularised Jew, behind me only an unpublished MA in English social history.

In the early 1970s I was struggling back to historical research after a dozen years of full-time childbearing, rearing and housekeeping when I discovered the paperback edition. In both substance and the odd throw-away personal note - the introduction admits that one reason for Douglas's initial engagement with the subject was her husband's low tolerance for household dirt and disorder - her insights resonated. The notion that dirt was merely matter out of place hit me like a force nine gale, sweeping away received notions imbibed from older female relatives, experts and cultural expectations.

While the book had first appeared coincidentally with the upending of much received wisdom about middle-class life, Mary Douglas would have been shocked at association with popular notions of the "swinging sixties". Yet giving sustained and serious attention to our own everyday practices in the same terms applied to either historical/theological systems or the beliefs of non-literate, non-Western peoples was both unsettling and liberating.

However the book's impact was not only in making sense of many of the household tasks I had been performing. The focus of my research was 19th- and early 20th-century domestic service, the role filled by more than one and a half million people, and by far the largest single employer of women and girls. But historians had almost all ignored these workers. Service was relegated to the supposedly timeless, mainly female world.

I found that the role of domestic servants had changed a lot from the early 19th century. But the assumption that the increasingly complex middle-class English home was connected to scientific advances, the link between dirt and bacteria, was not congruent with the timing of more household routines. These seemed more a product of evangelical religious beliefs and claims to respectable status, introduced long before any germ theory of disease existed. In analysis of Biblical cleanliness and dietary rules Purity and Danger demolished such simplistic "medical materialism" as explanation.

The paraphernalia necessary to separate spaces and times for various activities, the elaborate routines of meal service, the division of the house into backstage for servants and children with front space open to visitors, the marking of strict boundaries at the front door, the rituals of paying formal calls and leaving of cards as well as the respectable working class scrubbing and whitening of front door steps must have had a purpose.

In Purity and Danger the importance of boundary markers and the use of pollution beliefs in total meaning systems was emphasised. Often as metaphor, such beliefs and rituals played a key role in the way political and economic resources were deployed. I began to understand how they were central to the incorporation of new forms of wealth into English society originally based on the dominance of land ownership. Douglas also never doubts the moral and religious elements in rituals and beliefs which play a key role in legitimatising claims of superior status.

Long before the insights of feminist analysis, Douglas noted how symbolic systems were centred upon notions of masculinity and femininity and layered upon the human body. Without doubt, 25 years of feminist work has enlarged understanding of gender issues beyond the insights of even such an original thinker as Mary Douglas. Nevertheless, many of the ideas which have sprouted since can be found in this slim, controversial and still highly relevant volume.

Leonore Davidoff is research professor in social history, University of Essex.

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