Natural symbols; explorations in cosmology

by Mary Douglas

Paper Book, 1973



Call number

BL48 .D67 1973


New York, Vintage Books [1973]


First printed in 1970, Natural Symbols is Douglas' most controversial work. It represents a work of anthropology in its widest sense, exploring themes such as the social meaning of natural symbols and the image of the body in society. This work focuses on the ways in which cultures select natural symbols from the body and how every natural symbol carries a social meaning. She also introduces her grid/group theory, which she sees as a way of keeping together what the social sciences divide and separate. Bringing anthropology in to the realm of religion, Douglas enters into the ongoing debate in religious circles surrounding meaning and ritual. The book not only provides a clear explanation to four distinct attitudes to religion, but also defends hierarchical forms of religious organization and attempts to retain a balanced judgement between fundamentalism and established religion. Douglas has since extensively refined the grid/group theory and has applied it to consumer behaviour, labour movements and political parties.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
Mary Douglas did anthropology in a structuralist vein, and this book probably had its greatest significance for the discipline in her introduction of the idea of "group and grid" defining a coordinate plane on which to position the social-symbolic dispositions of different cultures. She arrived at
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this form in the process of attempting to apply the socio-linguistic theories of Basil Bernstein to the medium of ritual and ceremony.

An inquiry driving the development of this model concerns the varying affinity of different cultures for ritual expression and magical postulates. Douglas identifies the sacramental perspective rather explicitly with the magical one (26), and nicely deflates the secularization hypothesis regarding contemporary societies. There is nothing essentially religious about the "traditional or primitive," nor is secularism either predictable of or peculiar to modernity (36).

The chapter on "The Two Bodies" is concerned with "the human body ... as an image of society" (98), which put me especially in mind of the O.T.O. instruction that "in True Things, all are but images one of another; man is but a map of the universe, and Society is but the same on a larger scale." As expressed in the traditional doctrines identifying macrocosm with microcosm, this notion undergirding Douglas's structuralism is melothesia. There were also a few points in this chapter where I wondered if it might bear comparison with certain notions in Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism.

It was a little surprising and gratifying to see the Exclusive Brethren raised repeatedly as an example, and correlated positively with tribal societies preoccupied with witchcraft (140 ff.)! These Plymouth Brethren were not only doctrinal forebears of the greater part of 20th and 21st-century Anglophone fundamentalist Christianity, but the Exclusive stripe also accounted for the childhood religious environment of Aleister Crowley.

An especially interesting passage is the one in the "Test Cases" chapter on "co-varying ideas of sin" (131). Douglas delineates two types, which she supposes are the poles of a comprehensive continuum. These types are, however, merely the first two of three in the dialectic presented in section 32 of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, where he calls them "pre-moral" and "moral." The notion of Nietzsche's "post-moral" (and the consequent puzzle regarding its fuctional relationship to and distinguishability from the pre-moral) does not arise. Thelemites may wish to read the referenced Nietzsche in connection with the Aeons of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, but the bridge to Douglas's socio-cultural typology (however incomplete) is certainly intriguing.
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Original publication date


Physical description

218 p.; 19 cm


0394719425 / 9780394719429


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