Dame Mary Douglas, DBE, FBA (25 March 1921 – 16 May 2007)
was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human cultureand symbolism, whose area of speciality was social anthropology. Douglas was considered a follower of Émile Durkheim and a proponent of structuralist analysis, with a strong interest in comparative religion.
She was born as Margaret Mary Tew in San Remo, Italy, to Gilbert and Phyllis (née Twomey) Tew. Her father was in the British colonial service. Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and Mary and her younger sister, Patricia, were raised in that faith. After their mother's death, the sisters were raised by their maternal grandparents and attended the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Convent inRoehampton. Mary went on to study at St. Anne's College, Oxford, from 1939 to 1943; there she was influenced by E. E. Evans-Pritchard.
She worked in the British Colonial Office until 1947, when she returned to Oxford to take up graduate study she had left. She studied with M. N. Srinivas as well as E. E. Evans-Pritchard. In 1949 she did field work with the Lele people in what was then the Belgian Congo; this took her to village life in the region between the Kasai River and the Loange River, where the Lele lived on the edge of what had previously been the Kuba Kingdom.
In the early 1950s, she completed her doctorate and married James Douglas. Like her, he was a Catholic and had been born into a colonial family (in Simla, while his father served in the Indian army). They would have three children. She taught at University College, London, where she remained for around 25 years, becoming Professor of Social Anthropology.
Her reputation was established by her book, Purity and Danger (1966). She wrote The World of Goods (1978) with an econometrician, Baron Isherwood, which was considered a pioneering work on economic anthropology. She published on such subjects as risk analysis and the environment, consumption and welfare economics, and food and ritual, all increasingly cited outside anthropology circles.
She taught and wrote in the United States for 11 years. After four years (1977–81) as Foundation Research Professor of Cultural Studies at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York, she moved to Northwestern University as Avalon Professor of the Humanities with a remit to link the studies of theology and anthropology, and spent three years at Princeton University. In 1988 she returned to Britain, where she gave the Gifford Lectures in 1989.