Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology’

Douglas: Natural Symbols

August 29, 2022

Natural Symbols
Mary Douglas
(Penguin, 1973) [1970]
216 p.

When, in the course of my reading, a particular book is cited by a number of different authors, I begin to think about peering into it, and such was the case with Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols, a work of anthropology that develops a framework for understanding how social restraints and social roles are interrelated. I think. She said the book was “an attempt to develop Durkheim’s programme for a comparative sociology of religion,” which doesn’t sound like the same thing, and is probably why I was baffled much of the time.

The title sounds contradictory; aren’t symbols, almost by definition, conventional signs that vary with social context? She argues that certain basic features of human life, however, such as our bodily reality and our fundamental social relationships (to children; parents, friend, authority, etc.) provide a basis for a fundamental set of natural — that is, based on these basic features of life — symbols that govern human societies. That’s an interesting argument that I’m not in a position to evaluate.

My primary reason for interest in the book turned out to be somewhat peripheral to its main lines of argument. In her discussion of social controls she argues that certain social contexts give rise to anti-ritualism, and one of her case studies for anti-ritualism is the tide of reforms that overtook the Catholic world after Vatican II. She argues that the clerical and academic class were driving the anti-ritualist push, often against the grain of the ordinary churchgoer. The anti-ritualist reforms were promoted as a means of heightening commitment to the faith, but Douglas points out that an attachment to ritual is itself a form of commitment, and that a precipitous effort to undo the ritual risked undoing the commitment as well, which is indeed what happened, at least in some cases.

Ritualism is not a shining word for us; indeed, our leading churchmen sometimes use it as a term of abuse, but for Douglas ritualism is a positive capacity, “a heightened appreciation of symbolic action”. Ritualism, she argues, is absolutely essential for a sacramental religion, which relies on symbolic (and more than symbolic) acts throughout. Lose the ritual, and a strong sense of symbolic power, and you will start to lose the sacramental sense too.

Where ritualism is strong, and symbols are valued, external actions are considered important, and, for instance, what counts as a sin is specified clearly in terms of acts; but where ritualism withers everything moves to the interior, and people will talk instead about internal dispositions and intentions. This internal focus has arisen every time I have asked a priest about the difference between mortal and venial sins.

She identifies three phases in the migration from ritualism in religion: first, a contempt for ritual forms; then, an internalization of religious experience; and finally, a move to humanist philanthropy. On bad days I worry that Pope Francis is already in phase three, but I hope I’m wrong about that.

A main idea of the book, which I’m skirting around here, is that the degree of ritualism in a society is closely tied, by mutual influence, to the structure of social groups in that society, and in particular to the strength of social ties. She gives various arguments for this, and presents various case studies drawn from the anthropology literature to support the claim; all of that is too complicated for me to go into here.

An interesting and provocative corollary of her theory is that anti-ritualism, and indeed outright irreligion, is not at all a disposition unique to modernity, but arises whenever certain social conditions obtain:

Secularization is often treated as a modern trend, attributable to the growth of cities or to the prestige of science, or just to the breakdown of social forms. But we shall see that it is an age-old cosmological type, a product of a definable social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or modern science… The contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life.

In a similar way, she sees our contemporary anti-ritualism — a general preference for casualness and a sense that formality is foreign or fake — as a consequence of larger social forces that have weakened social roles and social stability.

Interestingly, she argues that anti-ritualism is typically a posture of protest, raised against a prevailing symbolic order, and that, when it is successful at weakening or overthrowing that order, anti-ritualism fades out as a new set of symbols and rituals assert themselves. Were I adept at thinking, and seeing, like an anthropologist, I might be able to assess whether this is likely to happen, or has already happened, to us.

She argues also that anti-ritualism is usually accompanied by a heightening of ethical sensitivity. In religion it has not been at all uncommon that churches in which dogma and doctrine soften adopt instead a commitment to social reform, etc., so there may be something to this idea. It is consistent with the notion that ritualism tends to focus on external actions, and its negation to involve an inward turn toward motivation, intention, and so forth. A ritualist can find purpose in life through conscientious performance of set practices, but an anti-ritualist feels a burden of conscience and must do something in the world.

Moreover, a trend to anti-ritualism affects religion in other ways as well. For an anti-ritualist, for instance, the person’s relationship to God is conceived as an intimate, inward one, rather than as an objective one governed by rituals. But at the same time the idea of God, because it is captured in the orbit of “friendship” or “personal relationship”, tends to be drained of glory and power. One doesn’t typically find the Pantocrator in an evangelical revival church.

As a case study in the decline of ritualism, or the attack on ritualism, she takes the Catholic custom of abstinence from meat on Fridays. After Vatican II this obligation was nuanced: no longer a strict obligation, Catholics were given the option to replace the long-standing practice with a personal act of charity. It sounds harmless enough, perhaps, but the result was the wholesale collapse of the custom. Why did that happen? She argues that it was foisted on ritual-oriented Catholics by well-meaning but symbol-blind clergy, who did not understand what they were doing. The clergy wanted their people to deepen their faith, and considered the Friday fast to be “mere externals”, mere habit, without the religious depth that they thought preferable. But Douglas argues that any custom strongly adhered to is serving some important purpose, and can be tampered with only by the bold or careless. As Chesterton said, a fence should not be taken down until you understand why it is there. Undermining the symbolic order tied to the Friday fast, whatever it was, sowed confusion that reverberated in that space where Catholics related to the Church, and to one another. The Friday fast disappeared, but not because everybody was conscientiously doing good deeds. It was just gone. But even if they had been conscientiously carrying out acts of charity, something basic would have nonetheless changed:

Friday no longer rings the great cosmic symbols of expiation and atonement: it is not symbolic at all, but a practical day for the organization of charity. Now the English Catholics are like everyone else.

It might be worth noting that many Catholics whom I know, myself included, have returned to the Friday fast, albeit without much encouragement from our pastors and bishops. I won’t try to specify exactly what purpose it is serving, but that there is one I do not doubt.


There is a great deal more to this book than these notes would indicate. As I said, I didn’t understand most of it. I suppose what I take from the book are a few things. First, as a general observation, the way anthropologists see things is quite intriguing; the conceptual framework, and the habit of perception it makes possible, was unfamiliar and felt kind of exciting and kind of dubious at once. Second, I was surprised by her claim that the drift from religious sensibility to irreligious isn’t at all a peculiarly modern one, but rather a commonplace in the anthropological literature in all sorts of contexts. Third, the specific association she makes between formality, ritualism, religion, hierarchy, and strong social structures on one hand, and anti-ritualism, irreligiosity, and weak social structures on the other looks, in retrospect, rather plausible and even obvious, but it’s an association I hadn’t seen fully made before. Finally, I found that the application of her ideas to the post-Vatican II Catholic Church valuable insofar as they cast new light on a much-mulled phenomenon.

I also learned two new words from this book: cachinnation and eleemosynary. Perhaps you already knew them, but let’s not have any cachinnation, even in an eleemosynary spirit, on that account.