Abstract: The Uses of Goods by Mary Douglas

Posted on October 1, 2011 by

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Abstracted by Brian J. Delas Armas

The chapter by Mary Douglas is a theoretical exploration of the idea of consumption and how meaning is made through consumption.  She supports her assertions thru anecdotes, exchanges, and hypothetical situations common in her Westernized social context, a context in which I participate.

For Mary Douglas, the Capitalist society assumes that consumption is a private matter and thought of mostly in terms of commerce.  This society assumes two things:  1)  that a consumer’s choice is one made by his/her own will and 2)  that consumption  begins only when the item bought leaves the retail outlet.  This perception of consumption leaves tribes that do not have a commerce system decidedly outside of the definition of “consumption” and therefore, for Douglas an “Anthropology of Consumption” cannot be adequately pursued.   Against this Capitalist, “westernized” backdrop, Mary Douglas defines consumption as the use of material possession beyond commerce and free within the law.

She argues that “consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape.”  For example, a housewife comes home from shopping with various things, a duster for the house, chocolates for her father, candy vines for her guests.  Those various things are used to “vitalize” one activity or another, whether it’s dusting the house, entertaining her father, or entertaining her guests.  Ultimately, these choices of goods by the housewife reveal moral judgments that she might hold:  what a woman should do with her house, how she should entertain her father, how she should entertain her guests.

Consumption is an active process in which all social categories are being continually redefined.  For example, in our society, we make a sharp distinction between cash and a gift.  We have come to expect to pay cash for professional exchanges, and give gifts for personal exchanges.  Upholding these societal expectations of cash for business and gifts for personal relations are why it’s acceptable to send flowers to your aunt in the hospital, but never alright to send cash, telling her to “buy herself some flowers.”  It is mainly in this domain of personal gifts where we begin to see and make moral judgments of each other.

Our judgments are ways we make meaning in “our” Westernized every day lives.  If we happen to be the guest of a housewife, we might be served candy vines, and we would think “candy vines are not what a housewife should give to her guests.”  In this case, we are using the goods of candy vines to make a judgment of what a housewife should serve her guest.  In this case, we are using the candy vines as a visible marker to say that she isn’t being a good housewife.  Candy vines are simply goods served, to which we have attached a meaning, that it isn’t suitable for houseguests.   Humans attach a multitude of meanings to goods;  the meanings of actions and items change with shifts in context, the passage of time, and vary from individual to individual.

Against this backdrop of extreme variation in meanings attached to goods, Douglas explores what might hold up a society or culture: rituals.  A ritual is a way we make visible the boundaries of different categories.  For example, a potential fraternity brother along with others  might have to consume 40 oz. of alcohol en route to being considered a “fraternity brother.”  Throughout the process, he remains in a liminal state, he is not considered a brother, but rather a “pledge.”  If the individual lasts through this rite and other rites, and is judged by other fraternity members to be successful, he becomes a fraternity brother.  The ritual of consuming 40 oz of alcohol in this case is a public definition of something that must be done in order to “become” a fraternity brother.  In this case, the good of alcohol, and whether or not the 40 oz are consumed is a marker of  whether or not the pledge can become a brother.

Without this ritual, the fraternity might perceive itself as not have as strong a group identity.  Maybe the ritual is what defines the group.  “To manage without rituals is to manage without clear meanings and possibly without memories,” Douglas notes.  Consumption, then, is a ritual process whose primary function is to make sense of an inchoate flux of events.  Goods consumed are a visible part of culture arranged in vistas and hierarchies.  In the case of the fraternity, the good of alcohol during the ritual becomes something of heightened importance, and perhaps, cerebral to the identity of the frat member.  Performing the ritual is a way of reducing disorder and making the universe more intelligible.