Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Thought Styles: Critical Essays on Good Taste

Mary Douglas
London: Sage
ISBN 0 8039 7656 9 (pb); 0 8039 7655 0 (hb)
£12.95 (pb)
xviii + 222 pp.

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'Thought Styles' collects together a number of Mary Douglas' comparatively recent essays. The range of topics addressed is in some ways diverse, although the central theme that runs through many of the pieces, and the analytic approach and sensibility that are deployed throughout, give the collection coherence. Douglas sets out to give an anthropological explanation of a range of cultural phenomena, most of which involve some kind of preference; the central question that she is concerned to answer is how preferences are formed, and how they come to be organised, patterned or standardised. Her argument, Durkheimian in spirit and in some of its detail, is that preference and taste can be seen to emerge from social relations. The book also constitutes a sustained advocacy of the value of an anthropological approach to topics which may be thought to fall within the province of other disciplines such as psychology, literary criticism and (certain forms of) sociology.

The book includes a discussion of the problem of interpreting texts from a culturally distant position, and the possible explanatory utility of degrees of bodily intimacy or formality; four chapters dealing directly with the question of consumer preference in relation to forms of medical care, aesthetic judgements, and shopping; two chapters which reconsider the problem of classification in relation to anomalous and edible animals, given the realisation that resemblance is not a property of things but a construct; a chapter on risk which suggests that cultural formation accounts for some of the difficulties of mobilising environmental protest; and a final chapter on interpreting Leviticus, which contains some fascinating reflections on the relation between anthropology and religion.

Douglas uses a four part model of 'cultural types' to explain the formation of preferences. This typology is based upon the social organisation of lifestyles: hierarchical, individualist, enclave and isolate. These are said to 'co-exist in a state of mutual antagonism in any society at all times'(p. 43). The typology is invested with considerable explanatory power and used throughout the book: from the identification of a particular cultural type, predictions can be made about a range of choices that an individual might make. The typology is based upon forms of social solidarity and relations to them but, unlike Durkheim, Douglas stresses the oppositional nature of the categories, and suggests that identity and choice are forms of cultural alignment at the heart of which is a decision to show what one is not (as neatly summarised in the chapter title 'On not being seen dead: shopping as protest').

Like much of Douglas' best work, the book moves back and forth between different cultures and historical periods and uses the supposedly exotic to provide insights into 'ordinary' modern western culture. It espouses an explicit and well argued cultural relativism, but retains universalist explanatory resources, such as the typology of cultural types. The latter element may be problematic for some. For instance, there is little theoretical justification for why these four types have been identified and used, beyond the claim that there is a need for 'a starting point with anchorage' (p. 175). Similarly, some of Douglas' analysis appears to rely a little more upon her own classificatory work than she would probably claim. However, if the approach's legitimacy is judged in terms of the sheer interest of the ideas that are generated, then its value is not in doubt. Mary Douglas is one of those rare authors whose insight and imagination compel admiration even from readers who may be sceptical about her theoretical framework. In any case, the theoretical framework could be used to account for such scepticism: therein lies, for this reader, both its appeal and its difficulty.

Geoff Cooper
Department of Sociology
University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997