douglas 1979a (taboo)

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  • 7/28/2019 Douglas 1979a (Taboo)


    TabooMary DouglasDne of th e most dif icult tasks anthropologists face intheir stu dy of non- Western cultures is isolating thebases for rules of right conduct. In thefollnunngarticle, Mary Douglas succinctly demonstrates thatunlike modem industrialized nations, which haveshared common experiences for centuries , primitivecultures have remained separatedby distance and[nnguage and have developed unique worldviews.Pointing out, for example, that Westerners'sqarationof the natural and the supernatural is peculiar to us,Douglas explains how our reality and , therefore, ourtaboos are so diffment from thoseof the non-Westemworld.Douglas's functional analysis uf taboos showsthat they underpin social structure euerywhere.Anthropologirts, studying tabws over extensiveperiods of time, have learned that tabm systems arenot stat ic and forever inuiolate; on the contrary, theyare dynamic elements of learned behavior that eachgeneration absorbs. Taboos, as rules of behavior, nrealways part of a whole system and cnnnot beunderstood outside their socinl context. Douglas'sexplanation oftaboos holds as much meaningfor us mfhe understanding of ourselves as it does for ourunderstanding of rules of conduct in the non-W esternworld. Whether considering the taboos surrounding aPolynesian chief's tn an a or the changing sexualtaboos in the Western world, it is apparent that taboosystems functw n to maintain cultural systems.

    A TABOO (SOMETIMES SPELLED TABU) IS A BAN ORprohibition; the word com es from the Polynesianlanguages where it means a religious restriction,to break which wo uld entail som e autom atic pu n-ishmen t. As it is used in English, taboo ha s little tod o with religion. In essence it generally implies arule which h as no meaning, or one which cannotbe explained. Captain Cook noted in his log-bookthat in Tahiti the wom en were never allowed toeat with themen, an d as the men nevertheless en-joyed female company he asked the reason forthis taboo. They always replied that they ob-served i t because it was right. To the outsider thetaboo is irrational, to the believer its rightnessneeds no explaining. Though supernatu ral pun-ishments may not be expected to follow, the a l e sof an y religion ra te as taboos to outsiders. For ex-ample, the stria Jewish observance forbids thefaithful to make an d refuel the firr, or light lam psor pu t them o ut during the Sabbath, an d it alsoforbids them to ask a Gentile to perform any ofthese acts. In his book A S o h Address, C haimLewis, the son of poo r Russian Jew ish immig rantsin London's Soho at the beginn ing of this cenhuy ,de sa ibe s his father's qua nda ry every win ter Sab-bath: he did n ot w ant to let the fire go out and hecould not ask any favor outright. Somehow hehad to call in a passerby an d d ro p oblique hintsuntil the stranger understood what service wasrequired. Taboos always tend to land their ob-

  • 7/28/2019 Douglas 1979a (Taboo)


    to Europeans, were the result of false sri-ence, leading to mistaken hygiene, and faulty medi-cine. Essentially the taboo is a ban on touching oreating or speaking or seeing. Its breach wil l unleashdangus, while keeping the rules would amount toavoiding dangers and sickness. Since the native t h eory of taboo was concerned to keep certain classes ofpeopleand thingsapart lest misfortune befall, it wasa theory about contagion. Our scholars of the lastcentury contrasted this false, primitive fear of conta-gion with our modern knowledge of disease. Ourhygiene protects from a real danger of contagion,their taboos from imaginary danger.This was a com-fortably complacent distinction to draw, but hygienedoes not correspond to all the rules which are calledtaboo. Some are as obviously part of primitive reli-gion in the same sense as Friday abstinence and Sab-bath rest. European scholars therefore took care todistinguish on the one hand between primitivetaboo with a mainly secular reference, and on theother h a d ruler of maglr which infused the practiceuf orim~tive vlieion.hev made i t even more diffi-"cult to understand the meaning of foreign taboos byimporting a classification between true religion andprimitive magic, and modern medicine and primi-tive hygiene; and a very complicated web of defini-tions was based on this misconception.

    In the Eye of the BeholderThe difficulty in understanding primitive tabooarose from the difficulty of understanding our owntaboos of hygiene and religion. The first mistake wasto suppose that o w idea of dirt connotes an objec-

    ing is so basic to thwc who live by it that no piece-meal explanation can be given. A native cannot ex-plain the meaning of a taboo because it forms part ofhis own machinery of learning. The separate com-partments which a taboo system constructs are theframework or instnunent of understanding. To turnround and inspect that instrumenl may seem to bean advanced philosophic exercise, but it is necessaryif wem to understand the subject.

    The nineteenth-cenhuy scholars could not under-stand taboo because they worked within the separatecompartments of their own taboo system. For themreligion, magic, hygiene, and medicine were as dis-tina as civilized and primitive; the problem of taboofor them was only a problem about native thought.But put in that form it was insoluble. We approach itnowadays as a problem in human learning.

    First, discard he idea that we have anytlung likea true, complete view of the world. Between whatthe scientists know and what we make of theirknowledge there is a synthesis which is our ownrough-and-ready approximation of rules about howwe need to behave in the physical world. Second,discard the idea that there can ever be a finalandcorrect world view. A gain in knowledge in one di-rection does not guarantee there will be no loss ordistortion in another; the fullness of reality wdl al-ways evade our comprehension. The reasons for thiswill become clear Learning is a filtering and orga-nizing process. Faced with the same events, twopeople will not necessarily register two identicalpatterns, and faced with a similar environment, twocultures will construe hyo different sets of naturalconstraints and regular sequences. Understanding islargely a classifylng job in which the dasslfylng

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    inorganic (~ncludingocks, stars, rivers) and organic(vegetable and animal bodies, with rules governingtheir growth, lifespan and death); secondly, humanbehavior; thirdly, the interaction between these twogroups; fourthly, other intelligent beings whetherincorporeal like gods, devils and ghosts or mixturesof human and divine or human and animal; andlastly, the interaction behveen this fourth group andthe rest.The use of the word supematu~alhas beenavoided. Even a s d mount of reading in anthro-pology shows how very local and peculiar to owown civilization is the distinction between naturaland supcmatwal. The same applies even to such aclassification as the one just given. The fact that it isour own local classihcation is not important for thisa r m e n t as the present object is to make clear howtacoos should beinderstood. Taboosare rules aboutourbehavior which restrict the human uses of thines"and people. Some of the taboos are said to avoidpunishment or vengeance from gods, ghosts andother spirits. Some of them are supposed to produceautomaticauy their dreaded effects. Crop failures,sickness, bunting accidents, famine, drought, epi-demic (events in the physical maim), they may all re-sult from breach of taboos.

    The Seat ofManaTaboos can have the effect of expressing politicalideas. For example, the idea of the state as a hierar-chy of which the chief is the undisputed head andhis officials higher than the orduxuy populace easilylends itself to taboo behavior. Gradings of pow- inthe political body tend to be expressed as gradingsof freedom to approach the physical body of the per-son at the top of the system.As Franz Steiner says, in

    It could, for example, be so important to avoid step~ i n aver people's heads that thp vew architectureka;mvul;ed 'the arrangements of the sleepingnmm.;shmv ~ c hn adaptahon m rhc Marqunnr1he commoner's back or head a thw nor wthclutits importance in certain contexts. But the real sig-nificance of this aading seems to have been in thepossibilities it p&videLfor cumulative effects n as-sociation with the rank system. The head of a chiefwas the most concentratedmana object of Polyne-sian soci~ty,nd was hedged mund with the mosttemfylng tabooswhich operated when things wereto enter the head or when the head was being di-minished; in other words when the chief ate or hadhis hair cut.. . . The hands of some great chiefswere so dangerous that they could nntbe put doseto the head.

    Since the Polynesian political systems was verycompetitive and chiefs had their ups and downs,great triumphs or total failures, the system of taboowas a kind of public vote of confidence and registerof current distributions of power This is importantto c o m d our tendency to think of taboo as a rigidlyfixedsystem of respect.

    We will never understand a taboo system unlesswe understand the kind of interaction between thedifferent spheres of edstence which is assumed in it.Any child growing up learns the different spheresand interactions between them simultaneouslyWhen the anthropolopist anives on the scene, hefinds the system df knowledge a going concern. It isdifficult for him to observe the chanees beine made.u "so he gets the wrong impression that a given set oftaboos is something hard-and-fast handed down thegenerations.

    In fad, the classifying process is always activeand changing. New classifications are being pushedby some and rejected by others. No political innovn-tion takes place without some basic reclassification.

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    Rules of theGamePerhaps the easiesl approach is to hy to imaginewhit sodal life would be like without any dassifica-tion. It would be like playing a game without anyd e s ; no one would know which way to run,who ison his side or against him. There would be no game.1t is no exaggeration to describe social life as theprocess of building classification system. Everyone$ trying to make sense of what is happening. Ile ishying to make sense of his own behavior, past andpresent, so as to capture and hold some sense ofidentity. He is hying to hold other people to theirpromises and ensure some kind of regular future.He is explaining continually, to himself and toeveryone else. In the process of explaining, classifi-cations are developed and more and more meaningssuccessfully added to them, as other people are per-suaded to interpret events in the same way Cradu-ally even the points of the compass get loaded withsocial meanings. For example, the west room in anIrish farmer's home used to be the room where theold couple retired to, when the eldest son marriedand brought his wife to the farm. West meant retire-ment as well as sundown. In the Buddhist religion,east is the high status point; Buddha's statue is on ashelf on the east wall of the east mom; the husbandalways sleeps to the east of his wife. So east meansmale and social superior. Up and down, right andleft, sun and moon, hot and cold, all the physical an-titheses are able to carry meanings from social life,and in a rich and steady culture there is a steady coreof such agreed classifications. Anyone who is prr-pared lo support the social system finds himself im-pelled to uphold the classification system which getsmeaning from it. Anyone who wants to challengethe social system finds himself up against a set of

    according to how they behave. This gives three waysof classifying animals which could each place thesame beasts in different classs. Classed by behavior,using walking, swimming or flying as basic types,penguins would be nearer to fish; classed by bonestructure and egg laying, penguins would countmore dearly as buds than would flying fish, whichwould be birds in the other classification. Animallife is much more untidy and difficult to fit into aregular system of classification than at first appears.Human social life is even more untidy Girls behavelike boys, there are adults who refuse to grow up.every year a few are born whose physical make-upis not clearly male or female. The rules of maniageand inheritance require clear-cut categories but al-ways the^ will be some cases which do not fit theregularities of the system. For human classificationsare always too crude for reality. A system of tabooscovers up this weakness of the classification systemIt points in advance to defects and insists that no oneshall give recognition to the inconvenient fads or be-have in such a way as to undermine the acceptabilityend clarity ol the system as a whole. It stops awk-ward questions and prevents awkward develop-ments.

    Sometimes the taboo ban appears in ways thatseem a long way from their point of origin. For ex-ample, among the Lele tribe, in the Kasai dishict ofthe Congo, it was taboo to bring fishing equipmentdirect into the village fmm the streams or lakeswhere it had been inw.AU round the village fish-ing traps and baskets would be hung in treesovernight. Ask the Lele why they did this and theyreplied that coughs and disease would enter the vil-lage if the fishing things were not left out one night.No other answer could be got from them exceptelaboration of the danger and how sorcem could

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    is the point where all illusions are stripped away andevery thing is seen as it really is. When everyone cansee what is on everyone's fork, nothing is classed asedible. Meat can be animal or human flesh, caterpil-lars, worms, or bugs; soup is equally urine, lentils,scotch broth, or excreta; other people are neitherfriends nor enemies, nor is oneself different fromother people since neither has any very clear defini-tion. Identi tie and classificationsaremerged into aseething, shapeless experience. This is the potentialdisorder of the mind which taboo breaks up intoclasses and rules and so judges some activities asright and proper and others as horrifying.

    This kind of rationality is the justification for thetaboos which we ourselves observe when we sepa-rate the lavatory from the living room and the bedfrom the kitchen, injecting order into the house. Butthe order is not arbitrary; it derives from social cate-gories. When a set of social distinctions weakens, thetaboos that exprased it weaken too. For this reasonsex taboos used to be sacred in England but are nolonger so strong. It seems ridiculous that womenshould not be allowed in some dubs or professions,whereas not so long ago it seemed obviously right.The same for the sense of privacy, the same for hier-archy. The less we ourselves are forced to adoptunthinking taboo attitudes to breaches of theseboundaries, the easier it becomes to look dispassion-ately at the taboos of other societies and find plentyof meaning in them.

    In some tribal societies it is thought that the shed-ding of blood will cause droughts and other envi-ronmental disasters. Elsewhere any contact withdeath is dangerously polluting, and burials are fol-lowed by elaborate washing and fumigation. Inother places they fear neither homicide nor deathpollution but menstrual blood is thought to be very

    dangerous to touch. And in other places again, adul-tery is liable to cause illness. Some people are thicklybeset with taboos so that everything they do ischarged with soaa l symbolism. Others observe onlyone or two rules. Those who are most taboo-mindedhave the most co m~lex et of social boundaries to~preserve. Hence their investment of so much energyinto the control of behavior.

    A taboo system upholds a cultural system and aculture is a pattern of values and norms; soaal life isimpossible without such a pattern. This is thedilemma of individual freedom. Ideally we wouldlike to feel free to make every choice from scratchand judge each case on its merits. Such a freedomwould slow us down, for every choice would haveto be consciously deliberated.On the one hand, edu-cation tries to equip a person with means for exercis-ing private judgment, and on the other hand, thetechniques of education provide a kind of mechani-cal dedsion-making, along well-oiled grooves. Theyteach strong reactions of anxiety about anytlungwhich threatens to go off the track. As educationtransmits culhup, taboos and all, it is a kind of brain-washing. It only allows a certain way of seeing real-ity and so limits the scope for private judgment.Without the taboos, which turn basic classificationsinto automatic psychological reflexes, no thinkingcould be effective,because if every system of classifi-cation was up for revision at every moment, therewould be no stability of thought. Hence there wouldbe no scope for experience to accumulate intoknowledge. Taboos bar the way for the mind to visu-alize reality differently. But the barriers they set uparenot arbitrary, for taboos flow from social bound-aries and support the social struchup. This accountsfor their seeming irrational to the outsider and be-yond challenge to the person living in the sodely.