Works that Shaped the World: Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966)

In her Purity and Danger (1966) Mary Douglas begins with the fundamental rule of any classification system: that certain things must be kept apart. Classificatory systems always produce anomalies that cannot readily be placed into given categories. Residua potentially pollute the purity of the system itself, and so must be dealt with carefully.  Most people who have heard of Mary Douglas already know that, and perhaps are already familiar with some of the illustrative dietary rules upon which Douglas drew to establish her claims. But Douglas’ work is also very important to our understanding of COVID 19. In this paper, I draw public health advisements, breathing, the air itself, the domestic enclosures of the indoors, the public sites of the outdoors, and national and international movements of consumables into concert to talk about the importance of temperature during COVID 19, and the relevance of Douglas’ 1966 work to our understandings of and dealings with it.

Presenter: Professor Simone Dennis (ANU)

My research interests coalesce around phenomenologically informed anthropological theories of embodiment, the senses, and power. I have explored these interests in a range of ethnographic contexts, including among police, immunologists and virologists in labs, on Christmas Island and with daily drinkers at the pub, and among smokers. Of these, I am best known for my work on tobacco use and my critical assessment of Anthropology’s operations in the public arena. With a colleague, Alison Behie, I won the prestigious Public Anthropology prize for a book examining the ways in which women-only university mentoring can unintendedly conserve and extend the conditions of patriarchal dominance, and how we might use the stark visibility of those very conditions to address it.

Date & time

Thu 25 Nov 2021, 5pm




Professor Simone Dennis


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