Douglas, Mary, 1921-2007Alternative names
Social anthropologist Dame Mary Tew Douglas was born March 25, 1921, in San Remo, Italy, daughter of Gilbert Charles Tew and Phyllis Twomey. She was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton, England. Douglas attended Oxford University where she earned the degrees of B.A. (1943), M.A. (1947), B.Sci. (1948), and Ph.D. (1951). That same year she married James A.T. Douglas, an economist for the Conservative Party Research Department. The couple had three children: Janet, James, and Philip.
From 1943 to 1947 Mary Douglas was employed at the British Colonial Office. She did field work in 1949-51 in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) preparing an ethnographic survey of Nyasaland, to which she returned for further research in 1953. From 1951 to 1970 she lectured in anthropology at University College, London, and from 1971 to 1978 was Professor of Social Anthropology there. She also held visiting lectureships at the Sorbonne (1967), the University of Illinois (1969), the University of Chicago (1969), New York University (1978-79), Columbia (1979-80), and Yale (1980-81). She came to New York in 1977 as director of research on culture for the Russell Sage Foundation. In 1981 she was named Avalon Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University, with joint appointments in the departments of anthropology and history and literature of religions. She retired from this position in 1985.
Douglas was internationally known for her scholarship and was considered the one of the foremost social anthropologists of her generation. Her early work dealt with the Lele of the Kasai in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and with concepts of pollution, hygiene, and taboo in Africa, Europe, and the Near East. She was an innovator in the application of anthropological methods to the study of modern societies with her work on social factors in classification systems, and on the anthropology of food, of consumption, and of risk assessment.
Two of her most influential books were Purity and Danger (1966), a study of taboo, and Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (1970). Her other works include The World of Goods (with Baron Isherwood, 1979), a work of economic anthropology; Edward Evans-Pritchard (1980), a study of the distinguished anthropologist with whom she studied; Risk and Culture (with Aaron Wildavsky, 1982), a controversial analysis of environmentalism; In the Active Voice (1982), a collection of essays; How Institutions Think (1986); In the Wilderness (1993), a study on the construction and context of the Book of Numbers; Missing Persons (1998); Leviticus as Literature (1999), a revision of her own earlier work on Jewish dietary codes in Purity and Danger; and Jacob's Tears (2004), which addressed the editorship of the Pentateuch. She edited several books and was the author of numerous articles and reviews which appeared in such publications as the Times Literary Supplement, New Society, and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute . Her many honors and awards included a term as vice president of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1974-77), election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1974), election as a fellow of the British Academy (1989), Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1992), and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2007).
Mary Douglas died on May 16, 2007.
From the guide to the Mary Douglas (1921-2007) Papers, 1948-1985, (Northwestern University Archives)