Biographical Subjects

Patrick Laviolette, School of Visual & Material Culture, Massey University


Given the recent passing of Professor Dame Mary Douglas, I thought that some people might like read a review of Fardon’s intellectual biography of her. Even though the book is now somewhat dated, and I hear that he is planning more work on the impacts of her research, this volume is still a sophisticated tour de force on an important span of her career until about 10 years ago. As a West Africanist and one of her former students, Fardon is well qualified to produce what is a rich piece of scholarly work which, as a straightforward biography, would definitely be lacking in personal detail. Nonetheless, like Stanley Tambiah’s (2002) and Michael Young’s (2004) biographies of Edmund Leach and Bronisław Malinowski, Fardon’s profound contextual engagement with Douglas’s research is indicative of the erudite level that the reflexive history of anthropology can reach.
In this sense, like these other two biographers have done, Fardon situates himself biographically in the preface of the book, offering important insight into the ways in which ‘kinship’ networks can also exist as coherent disciplinary systems. Indeed, he even goes a step further by inferring that on occasion social anthropology can be rather incestuous intellectually – Douglas (1980) writes a biography of Evans-Pritchard; so does Burton (1992); Fardon reviews Burton’s book (1993) and writes his own about Douglas.
As a justification for providing an intellectual biography, Fardon acknowledges the idea of undermining the age-old maxim about describing the person as a means of understanding their work. Instead he follows the Viennese musician Hans Keller who reversed this truism to suggest that an in-depth knowledge of the work explains the person. This holds much truth. We come out from reading this powerful analysis of Douglas’s research as if we know her personally. And since we learn about the extent to which she has the habitus of a perpetual critic and perfectionist, it is easy to assume that she herself could never be one hundred percent happy with this text, although her abilities to find grounds to fault it were far superior to mine.
Fardon’s book is divided into four parts. Part 1 outlines Douglas’s Catholic boarding school upbringing, her education at Oxford and her initial African fieldwork. Part 2 analyses and deconstructs her two most internationally renowned publications. Part 3 looks at her post 70s years in America, away from mainstream British anthropology, when she ventured into new terrain that dealt with theories of consumption, risk and religion. Part 4 analyzes her conceptual ponderings on social institutions, modernism and Durkheimian classificatory systems. In examining her early years the author demonstrates that Douglas’s Catholic exposure at The Sacred Heart Convent added a dimension of non-spatial universality to her thinking. It would equally leave lasting impressions on her interests in symbolism, ritual, institutional hierarchy and security as well as what he suggests was one of her biggest achievements – helping anthropologists take seriously the study of Western societies. Analogously perhaps, his analysis of her regimented educational upbringing has textual resonances with the anthropological documentary filmmaker David MacDougall’s ethnographic series about the Indian public school system through the five films of The Doon School Chronicles (1997/2000). Both are accounts about class and normativisation, hence reinforcing the social facets so prominent in the imperial dimensions of British anthropology.

Professor Dame Mary Douglas at a party held at UCL in honour of her DBE, from UCL Events webpage

In examining the training of anthropologists at Oxford, Fardon makes a similar point to Roy Richard Grinker (2000) in his biography of Colin Turnbull by putting forth the argument that Evans-Pritchard and Franz Steiner’s influence on Douglas was such that she acquired most of the characteristics that were archetypical of post World War II British social anthropology. That is, an African field site and a curiosity about social structures particularly in terms of the formation of groups associated with kinship lineages (pp.40-41). Given this institutional structuring mechanism of social anthropology at Oxford, the question thus arises as to why both Grinker and Fardon each omit citing or mentioning the protagonist of the other’s biography in their own.
In a rather short twenty odd pages which are disproportionately represented by a plate of five fieldwork photographs, Fardon then looks at Douglas’s research amongst the Lele. Or rather, he mostly looks at her study of the Lele, the published outcomes of that work, elaborating very little on experiential encounters or methodological strategies for how she went about doing fieldwork. Owing to what is possibly a lack of letters and similar written archive materials for this period of her life, it is nonetheless a shame in terms of a reflexive history towards the process of fieldwork that this episode of initiatory ethnographic practice is so briefly examined. This must be for me the only real shortcoming.
The biggest single emphasis of the volume, however, is on the ten years that allowed Douglas to synthesise the ideas that would become her consistent theoretical stances and would turn her into an international figure. In deconstructing her two most well known books, Fardon here uses the clever reflexive technique of offering a ‘structuralist’ analysis of Douglas’s own structuralist work and prose style (p.84). That is, he gives us a pattern for the way she formulates her arguments in writing which is recurring and forms rhetorical foundation. He demonstrates that this is present from the linking of paragraph passages, all the way through to the way the overall chapter outlines of her books work as a sequence of thesis, antithesis and dismissal reinforcing initial thesis.
Fardon then goes on to explore Douglas’s attempts to establish theoretical pillars for supporting the understanding of universal forms of human behaviour as gleaned from comparative methods in social anthropology. “The juxtaposition of contemporary and exotic materials, often but not always African, has become a hallmark of her work on Western society […] Douglas’s juxtapositions derive from her desire to create a genuinely catholic, in the sense of universal, comparative social anthropology” (p.110). This ethos would fuel an incredibly diverse and prolific career based on her oft reworked but generally consistent conceptual grid-group model. Fardon unpacks its evolution as Douglas applied it to economics and consumption, risk analysis, religion and ritual as well as institutional thought. By looking at these periods of research in her life, he effectively demonstrates the multi-dimensionality of grid-group theory whilst nonetheless providing an overview of the ways in which is has been contested and opposed.
Such an analysis of the power dynamics at the core and near the peripheries of academia allows Fardon to address a most germane issue in terms of a disciplinary reflexive history – situating Douglas within the wider rubric of British social anthropology’s modernist movement. He concludes that as an inspirational systems builder she was destined to travel a liminal path towards recognition. Indeed, the book shows that in many instances the rationale for her writings has been to bring various theories and methods of social anthropology to their logical extremes, revealing ultimate strengths and weaknesses. This was Douglas’s vision beyond the applicability of specific models or frameworks and would undoubtedly be for many the mark of a truly significant social theorist.


  • Burton, John, W. 1992. An Introduction to Evans-Pritchard Fribourgh: Edition Universitaire
  • Douglas, Mary 1980. Evans-Pritchard New York: Viking & Fontana
  • Fardon, R. 1993. Review of Burton’s ‘An Introduction to Evans-Pritchard’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 56(2): 425-26
  • Grinker, Roy Richard 2000. In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • MacDougall, David 1997/2000 Doon School Chronicles, Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National Univ.
  • Tambiah, Stanley J. 2002. Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Young, Michael W. 2004. Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist, 1884-1920 New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

    Modified extract from Laviolette, P. 2008. Never mind the biographies, here’s the reflexive symbols. Reviews in Anthropology 37(2/3): 231 – 258