Daughters, Dress Shirts, Spotted Dick

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes about an anthropology of consumption

An anthropologist friend despairs at his subject. It has, he says, collapsed into the assertion of necessary relations between brothers-in-law and beavers. It is obsessed with classification. He barely exaggerates. Its history, as Douglas and Isherwood proudly recall,[*] has been one of ‘continuous disengagement’ from the ‘intrusive assumptions of common sense’. It is therefore scarcely surprising that perhaps the most insistent claim throughout this history, and at no time more insistent than now, is that the common sense of daily life itself, vernacular thoughts and actions, are not what they seem, that they contain within them or in some sense reveal a pattern, a structure, even a logic, which their agents do not know and which it is the task of the anthropologist to uncover, infer, impute, to in some way make plain.

The claim has been pressed in many ways. Its two classical protagonists have been French. Emile Durkheim and his collaborators in the équipe of the Année Sociologique started from the strong assumption that societies were coherent, argued that this coherence lay in their morale and suggested that this morale could be seen in the correspondence between forms of organisation and categories of belief. What the correspondence was, exactly, remained unclear, but the Durkheimians’ explanation seemed to be that the sentiments engendered in a collective life crystallised into a cognitive frame which had moral force. Forty years later, Claude Lévi-Strauss turned this argument around. If sentiments played any part at all, he asserted, it was as the consequence and not the cause of cognition. Cognition is its own explanation. It has an irreducible and invariant ‘structure’ which shapes contingency in any environment and which can be seen in them all in patterns of myth, marriage and culinary practice.

Neither account is obviously true. To have to choose between them is to have to choose between an implausible reduction of thought to feeling and an extravagant assertion of its exhaustive powers. Neither is even immediately intelligible. No one, still, is sure what Durkheim believed, and Lévi-Strauss’s work has had innumerable commentators almost all of whom have suffered rejection by the master and a subsequent loss of faith. Nevertheless, it is his which proposes the less preposterous mechanism and promises the more expansive explanations. Even those averse to common sense have found it the more seductive of the two. Mary Douglas is one.

In Purity and Danger, she used a weak variant of it to argue that the pure was to the impure, the ‘sacred’, as Durkheim had set up the more general opposition, to the ‘profane’, not as the patently clean was to the patently dirty but as order was to disorder. Dirt, as she put it, was matter out of place. She equivocated, though, about whether the hostility to its disorder was cognitive or emotional. In Natural Symbols she retained the equivocation and proceeded to elaborate her classification of cultural places with the simple machinery of ‘group’ and ‘grid’. Societies of ‘strong group’ are societies in which individuals are not constituted as discretionary individuals at all but as prescriptive statuses in various sorts of corporation. Societies of ‘weak group’ are ones in which individuals are constituted as individuals, or at least as members of less demanding collectivities whose relations with other such collectivities are themselves discretionary. West African lineages are an example of the first. Mediterranean villages are an example of the second. Societies of ‘strong grid’ are societies in which the lines defining exchange and communication are sharp and strictly maintained. Societies of ‘weak grid’ are ones in which this is not so. Indian villages, perhaps, are examples of the first. De Tocqueville’s America, at least in its early stages, would be an example of the second. Now, in The World of Goods, she turns this machinery to try to explain consumption.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood. Allen Lane, 193 pp., £6.95, 22 November, 0 7139 1163 8.