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Death of Mary Douglas, an Obituary.

Igor de Garine

I have had the privilege of collaborating with Mary Douglas in the framework of the International Commission for the Anthropology of Food (ICAF) since 1978, but our paths first crossed much earlier, in 1962 when she was a member of the International African Institute. She evaluated my work on the Massa of Cameroon.

Mary Douglas will be remembered for her masterly theoretical works such as “Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo”, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966. She is known as a representative of the Structuralist school but it should also be recalled that she has worked as an authentic field worker. Her study among the Lélé from Kasai (London, Oxford University Press, 1963) qualifies her as representative of the British school of anthropology alongside Evans Pritchard, Meyer Fortes and Daryl Ford. During her USA period, in the framework of the Russel Sage Foundation and Northwestern University, she developed her focus on food symbolism, not only among traditional societies but also in our contemporary Western civilisation, taking into consideration applied research as well (see, for instance “Food in the Social Order: Studies of food and festivities in three American communities”, New York, Russel Sage Foundation, 1984).

From 1978 to 1985 she chaired, together with Ravindra Khare, the ICAF and gave a strong impulse to the Anthropology of Food, stressing the need for interdisciplinary collaboration in this field. If it appears today as a well-established subdiscipline in anthropology, this is largely due to her efforts. Together with Ravindra Khare, we worked as travelling salesmen in Europe to develop National Committees. She never hesitated to get down to the grindstone. I vividly recall the efforts she deployed in Italy to convince the reluctant manager of a fashionable restaurant in Piazza Navona to serve an adequate meal to Ravindra Khare, who is a practising hindouist.

Unlike many high-ranking anthropologists, she cared about the people and wanted to help in improving the food situation worldwide. She wrote in “The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption” (Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, London, Allen Lane, 1978: 204-205) “...We have also tried to produce a tool, still clumsy but suggestive, which would uncover the deep discontinuities in social class which are disguised to the economist’s eye by the smooth gradation of income distribution across all social classes... The poor are our kith and kin. Not all our relatives are likely to be among the well-to-do. If we do not know how the poor live, it can be only that we have selected against them in the constituting of our consumption rituals, and have declined invitations to join their celebrations.”

She was an outstanding scientist and also a kind person. We miss her already.

Igor de Garine
International Commission for the Anthropology of Food