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According to Mary Douglas, purity or clean versus dirty or impure represent the boundaries of a society, and is a manifestation of the society’s fears. Douglas examined the use of blood as a means of purification and as a source of contamination that must then be purified in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in a variety of African groups. Douglas emphasizes the symbolic meaning of purification rituals, and how they are manifested through ritual and daily practice. In essence, Douglas argues that the concept of purity enforces a society’s structure.
Douglas sees the practice of ritual sacrifice as being one example of purity determining the ‘boundaries’ of a community. For example, the Dinka tribe, a group mostly present in the South Sudan, have been known to slaughter a beast lengthwise and through the sexual organs in order to counteract an act of incest. If that beast were cut across the middle, it would signify a truce, and a variety of other circumstances leads to the use of trampling or suffocation (Summary of Chapter 7: “External Boundaries””). Ritual sacrifice was used to establish what is and what isn’t acceptable, and to maintain an equilibrium in the society, as in the case of sacrifice for incest. Similarly, ritual sacrifice is used to signify major shifts in the community, such as a truce with another group. Ritual sacrifice is used to codify a group’s values and limits.
As ritual sacrifice is used to define the boundaries of the society, the concept of purity enforces the rules of the society on an individual level. An excellent example of this is the use of blood in the Bible. Blood can be either cleansing detergent, or a polluting contaminant. For example, the blood of a murder victim stains and taints the earth, as described in the Book of Numbers. For that earth to be purified, the murderer’s blood must be spilled (Hanson, 2007). This is another example of purity being used as a set of laws, essentially. The concept of the unclean or dirty is what, in part, maintains a society’s values and rules. As Douglas states in Purity and Danger, “Dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder… Dirt offends against order.
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One obvious illustration that the binary concepts of pure and dirty have served to enforce hierarchical societal structures are the ideas regarding vaginal discharge, specifically that of menstrual blood. Menses is treated in a variety of ways across the world: there are groups who believe it increases the earth’s fertility, there are groups who believe it to be a natural, neutral process of elimination. In many groups, however, women are unclean during the time of menstruation. Leviticus explains that anything a woman lies on or sits on is unclean, as is anyone who comes in contact with her or anything she has made unclean, and that both her and anyone who has intercourse with her is unclean for seven days (Hanson, 2007). Turkish Muslims have extremely similar interpretations of the menstrual cycle. “In this case, the gender-division of traditional Middle Eastern cultures is expressed in the fear and control of women's bodies and sexuality. So the “order” for which purity codes strive sometimes results in the restraint, marginalization, or oppression of some of the society's members; this, then, relates directly to social hierarchy and power. This may prompt a further reflection on how our own culture's purity codes manifest our fears of and desire to control “the other,” whether the other is defined in terms of gender, sexual orientation, disease, religious affiliation, age, or even homelessness.” (Hanson, 2007).
Mary Douglas’ work on the binary concepts of purity and dirt not only illuminated the use for ritual sacrifice and purification in ancient societies, but helped to lay the foundation for an examination of the purity codes in our own society, as Hanson points out.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger; an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. New York: Praeger.
Hanson, K. (2007, April 10). Blood and Purity. Publications of K.C. Hanson. Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/blood.html
Summary of Chapter 7: "External Boundaries". (n.d.). Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Chapter 7: "External Boundaries". Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://www.jcu.edu/Bible/101/Readings/Ritual/Douglas7.htm
2. Explain functionalist theory as advanced by Bronislaw Malinowski in Supplemental-Essentials of the Kula. In what ways did his study in the Trobriand Islands reflect this theoretical perspective?
Bronislaw Malinowski subscribed to functionalism, but made it a point that his was different from that of Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown’s theory of functionalism. Functionalism is based in Durkheim’s organic analogy’ Radcliffe-Brown’s theory looked at how individual pieces of a society make up the whole utilizing this analogy. Malinowski, on the other hand, believed that humanity’s basic biological needs created and built culture and society. The initial biological needs of humanity, like that of reaching nutritional loads and reproducing, result in basic responses, like collecting food or having sex. In the process of fulfilling this basic response, another level of cultural needs are introduced, which Malinowski calls instrumental needs. These result in instrumental responses, which then create integrative cultural needs, resulting in integrative cultural responses. This amassing of needs and cultural responses eventually builds the complexity of a culture.
“The degree to which psychological functionalism is actually represented in Argonauts is unclear. On the one hand, it is true that the Kula does serve at least some of the seven psychological functions Malinowski enumerated in 1939: It increases their safety by setting up networks of trading partners and allies and may allow for movement and growth. On the other hand, Malinowski does not address these issues anywhere in Argonauts, and there is little evidence he had them in mind as he was writing this book.” (Maliknowski, 1922). While there is evidence of Kula fulfilling specific biological needs, as Maliknowski’s version of functionalism is based on, Maliknowski himself doesn’t point this out or discuss it at all.
Regardless of if Maliknowski made the connection, there is some evidence that Kula helps to fulfill some biological needs. As he mentions in “Essentials of the Kula”, “the natives carry on ordinary trade, bartering from one island to another a great number of utilities, often unprocurable in the district to which they are imported, and indispensable there.” (Maliknowski, 1922, 1). Though Maliknowski doesn’t give any examples of the ‘unprocurable and indispensable’ items which are traded during the Kula, if they really so hard to find and so necessary to their lives, then the Kula is clearly filling some biological need, or at least facilitating it. It is further noted in a footnote by editors that “It increases [the people’s] safety by setting up networks of trading partners and allies and may allow for movement and growth.” It is stated in the same footnote that Maliknowski did not connect these to his theory of functionalism at all through the larger work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. “It is a vast, inter-tribal net of relationships, a big institution, consisting of thousands of men,- all bound together by one common passion for Kula exchange, and secondarily, by many minor ties and interests.” (Maliknowski, 1922, 9). While Maliknowski describes the Kula and its benefits psychologically and physically/economically, he does not directly tie it at any point to functionalism.
While Maliknowski’s functionalism can’t be seen in his actual work on the Kula, it can be seen in the parts of the work discussing himself. He says he experienced a “feeling of hopelessness and despair” (Erickson, Readings for A History of Anthropological Theory, 204). Though he again does not make the link, Maliknowski’s basic needs were not being met when he first left his own culture and took root in another. Maliknowski does actually make the connection in his diary, where, according to him, “he suffered because his basic biological needs were not being satisfied in a “foreign” culture”.” (Erickson, A History of Anthropological Theory, 127).
While Maliknowski hinted at how functionalism could be applied to his work on the Kula, he does not incorporate it into his actual work.
3. Max Gluckman utilizes a different type of functionalism in Readings- Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Africa. What is his premise and how does it differ from Malinowski?
According to Gluckman, rituals and symbolic practices are the lynchpin to the existence and maintenance of societies. Malinowski’s version of functionalism saw culture as a build up of responses to biological and psychological needs, like nutrition and reproduction. Gluckman instead looks at how symbolic rituals maintains a societal structure, specifically how the ritual of rebellion allows the existence of a repetitive social structure. Gluckman attempted to examine the social role of ritual ceremonies, and the intellectual patterns which composed them. His premise is that what he calls rituals of rebellion allow for an institutionalized form of protest and release of tension, which in turn renews the unity and strength of the social system.
Gluckman’s functionalism attempts to establish why a particular ceremony takes place, and why it is structured the way it is. In this process he especially pays attention to the Zulu agricultural rituals. These rituals serve to release and express tensions instigated by the societal system in a way that protects the system itself.
Women are largely marginalized and oppressed in Zulu society. Women were mostly restrained to their houses, and moved from their natal home to join their husband’s family, where they would subsequently live under restrictions and taboos (for a time, at the very least). A woman was considered equivalent to a child for the entirety of her life, always subordinate to her brother, father, and then husband. Women were seen as naturally having an evil spirit, which is why they did not become spirits in the afterlife; it was feared that rather than being satisfied after a sacrifice, a woman’s spirit would capriciously continue to torment her descendents. “The standardized beliefs and practices of the Zulu stressed the social subordination and the inherent ambivalent position of women… For while the group’s continuity and strength depended on its offspring by these women, its very increase in numbers threatened that strength and continuity. A man who has two sons by his wife produces two rivals for a single position and property, and his wife is responsible for this dangerous proliferation of his personality… Hence the role of women in producing children both strengthens and threatens to disrupt the group,”. While the number of wives and children was a source of stress for men, women were affected even more greatly. “Though marriage was the goal of all women, in the years of courtship Zulu girls were liable to suffer from hysterical attacks, which were blamed on the love-magic of their suitors. When a girl married, cattle moved into her home to replace her, and her brother used these cattle to get his own bride. The stability of her brother's marriage, established with these cattle, depended on the stability of her marriage and on her having children’ for theoretically if she were divorced, or if she were barren, her husband could claim the cattle with which his brother-in-law had married. The cattle thus came to symbolize not only the manner in which a girl became a wife, but also the conflict between brothers and sisters, with the brother heir to his sister’s marriage as well as to the group’s cattle.” (Erickson, Readings for A History of Anthropological Theory, 236).
The stressors of the domestic situation are balanced by the Bacchic style ceremony. This ceremony occurs at the beginning of the harvest, which is a time of increased work and stress for women. Young girls dress up as men and herd cattle through the village, while their brothers stayed in the home, as girls typically did. Married women planted a field in honor of the goddess, and then sang and behaved lewdly. This inversion of the normal social structure allowed for a release of the sort of tension that results in revolution, like suffragettes. These women want to marry and bear children, they are content in their role, despite the stress involved. The structured and regulated release of the ritual ceremony allowed the society to continue its structure as was.
4. How is structuralism as understood by Claude Levi-Strauss related to cultural linguistics? Why is this important to the study of culture?
Claude Levi-Strauss subscribed to a version of structuralism based in binary oppositions learned from the Prague School of structural linguists. Binary oppositions are dual mental constructs that are the basis for social meaning. An example of this would be the opposing concepts of nature (heredity) versus nurture (culture), or life versus death. With binary oppositions, the relationship created between the ideas is as important as the ideas themselves to the society. “In structuralism, binary oppositions are part of an integrated system of logically connected categories of meaning that structure social activity and the way that activity is conceptualized.