‘If the Dogon…’ by Mary Douglas

During this article, Douglas reflects on how French and English approaches differ in the study of Dogon cosmology. Since the Dogon were situated in French colonial territory, the study of the Dogon was carried out by French anthropologists, who brought their own interests to bear on their research. She points out that French preoccupations with the ‘literary and aesthetic’ (:125) meant that Dogon cosmology was analysed in these terms, which shaped the view of Dogon cosmology as highly abstract and symbolic, almost French in its outlook. She contrasts this with the British approach, which in studies of the Nuer, a British territory, was focused on the more concrete elements of politics and kinship.

She goes on to argue that the British approach would enrich the understanding of the Dogon by reading language not just as symbols but also as actions, and showing how Dogon society generates their cosmology, rather than the cosmology simply being a reflection of the society (:131). Furthermore the British passion for linguistics would in the case of the Dogon equally give importance to what is suppressed as to what is actually said or what ‘symbols’ are projected.  As the Dogon have an unusually wide symbolic code to describe their experiences, the study of their language is particularly important.

This approach mirrors the way the Dogon deal with ideas of truth, through the two key figures of Nommo, the heavenly power, and the Pale Fox, his outcast brother. Although Nommo is responsible for the formal rites and rituals, it is the Pale Fox that represents real truth and is used for divination. In this way the Dogon recognise the gap between the world of appearances  and real truth in the way that, according to Douglas, British anthropologists do in their studies, allowing her to assert a ‘special claim’ over the Dogon.  

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