Reflection on Mary Douglas’ chapter ‘If the Dogon…’ by Karina Dearden

Douglas starts by comparing the research techniques of French and British anthropologists. She notes that the French are best as literary and aesthetic investigation, whilst the English are more interested in primitive politics and kinship. This leads her to wonder whether the material we have on the Dogon, studied by the French, and the Nuer, studied by English Evans-Pritchard, would be different if anthropologists from the other culture had conducted research with them, or if a fusion of British and French techniques had been adopted. This suggests that there is not one method of study involved in anthropology and that different techniques can garner different understandings of the same culture.


In terms of Dogon beliefs, they consider their universe to be divided between Nommo and Yourougou (the Pale Fox). They consider Nommo to be a heavenly power which represents right, reason, society, ritual, order and formal appearances, whereas the Pale Fox represents enigma and disorder. However, truth, that is, speech which predicts the future and sifts the truth from lies, is associated with the Fox, which Douglas believes to mean they recognize that oracular truth is beyond formal appearances.


This reading makes me think about where the expression ‘as sly as a fox’ came from and when it arose in ‘Western’ culture. Sly means secretive or furtive, and this is often how foxes are portrayed in literature. I thought that the idea that foxes are sly was universal due to their hunting and luring tactics, but it appears that the Dogon believe foxes have different characteristics. Whilst the Pale Fox may be considered to be an unsavoury character due to his incest with his mother, foxes, rather than being seen as furtive, are considered to be able to divine the truth and reveal this to men. This is a distinction between Dogon and ‘Western’ beliefs.


Throughout the paper Douglas strives to defend British anthropology which has been repeatedly criticised over the years. Whilst the British are often seen to simply record informants’ views, Douglas states that what they are actually doing is building up information from which they can find truth and reasoning. That is, the truths that they are seeking to reveal are not known to the informants themselves. To me, this suggests that it would be most difficult to study one’s own society as growing up in it and being surrounded by it means one cannot separate one’s self from it in order to observe and divine reasoning. It would mean having to shed many assumptions and taken-for-granted understandings held since birth.


The idea that anthropologists are seeking to reveal truths that are unknown to the people studied makes me question the role of anthropology. If certain societies are content living their lives as they do, why does it matter how others interpret their behaviours, language or social structure? What benefit can the studiers or studied gain from anthropological research? Is it merely for the benefit of the studiers, to understand that their way is not the only way and to attempt to appreciate the differences across societies? Or is it simply to gain knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Perhaps it is a method of building relationships and assisting in communication between vastly different social groups. I know that anthropologists have recently been employed in Australia to assist in legal disputes relating to construction in places sacred to native Aboriginal people. However, from reading the works of early anthropologists I am not convinced that relationships and communication have always been the purpose of the discipline. This suggests that it has the ability to evolve, just like societies.


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