What most interests Mary Douglas in the work of British social anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) is his...



What most interests Mary Douglas in the work of British social anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) is his success in reconciling the mystical and the rational, or thought and action--which she attributes to what she has chosen to designate his ""theory of social accountability,"" i.e., his explanation of how different (African) peoples deal with misfortune. This is heavy, heady stuff; and quite different from (though not inconsonant with) a conventional description of Evans-Pritchard's place in social anthropology. It is even irregular for the highly unstandardized Modern Masters Series: the biographical note is a skeletal chronology; any further reference to Evans-Pritchard's career or personality is incidental to Douglas' reconstruction of his study of primitive mentality; those of his contributions that do not fit within her scheme are unnoted. But for the venturesome reader--presumably a graduate student to whom Douglas (Purity and Danger, Natural Symbols) will be as well known as Evans-Pritchard--this is a book of exciting possibilities. One is first immersed in ""the exotic ideas. . . invented by Europeans to account for the newly discovered beliefs of other people beyond the Judeo-Christian heritage""; and then extricated from them via Evans-Pritchard's insistence that, in all societies ""common sense [must] be compared with common sense, ritual with ritual, theology with theology."" All of us, in short, are logical--and illogical; the question that then arises is what sustains a system of beliefs? For the Azande, Evans-Pritchard discovered, witchcraft provided a way of settling grudges and exacting retribution; it supplied a ""system of accountability"" that kept society functioning. Among the Nuer, claims were settled by a transfer of cattle. But their ""hard reasoning"" extended further--into elaborate calculations of cattle-claims among distant kin. At the level of theology, Evans-Pritchard found Nuer religion comparable to Protestantism (""or advanced religion"") in its concept of a just, all-knowing God; for the Nuer, ""God upholds the moral law where no human has a private claim."" Douglas also takes up the problem--recognized but not squarely faced by Evans-Pritchard--of living with contradiction: between the one God of the Nuer and their many spirits; between Catholicism's one God and many saints. And this is appropriate to her view of the fertility of his work--as is her concluding discussion of Piaget, Levi-Strauss, and Chomsky in connection with it. Special; but especially rewarding.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 1980

ISBN: 0415291100

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1980