Recognizing secular defilement: Douglas, Durkheim and housework

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Duschinsky, Robbie (2014)

Mary Douglas is generally regarded as a faithful disciple of Émile Durkheim. Yet her classic work Purity and Danger ([1966] 2002. London: Routledge) is best understood as premised upon a fundamental disagreement with Durkheim, who she accused of conflating purity with “the sacred” and impurity with “the profane”. Key to this disagreement was the theoretical status of the “busy scrubbings” of everyday housework. This disagreement has had a substantial legacy since, in turning her attention to purity and impurity in their specificity, Douglas bequeathed anthropology and sociology a theory of purity and impurity that has remained an important, perhaps even dominant, paradigm. This paradigm has been identified as an exemplar of synchronic analysis. Yet this paradigm itself is the product of a specific historical and intellectual context, little recognized today. Attending to this context holds open possibilities, which have otherwise tended to be neglected, for theorizing purity and impurity in their specificity.
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    -- (1980) 'Purity and Danger Revisited' Times Literary Supplement, 19th September

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