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Purity & Impurity Across Anthropology, Psychology & Religious Studies: Contaminating Disciplines

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http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25030 Purity and Danger, published in 1966 by Mary Douglas, was judged by the Times Literary Supplement to be among the ‘hundred books which have most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War’. This text contested the common presumption that purity and impurity discourses are confined merely to ‘primitive’ or ‘superstitious’ cultures and societies, instead arguing that such themes. play an important boundary-drawing role in all human societies. In the wake of Douglas’s contribution, research into questions of purity and impurity has blossomed in the fields of psychology, anthropology and religious studies. However, further testing of Douglas’ particular claims has led to the now widely-held conclusion that her ‘thesis does not service the analytical needs of contemporary social inquiry’ and that new approaches to the question of purity are needed. We maintain that a key hindrance to further progress has been the relative lack of interdisciplinary engagement in relation to this topic. Even the main scholar to have attempted this integration, Julia Kristeva, has noted that ‘my investigation… picks up on a certain vacuum’.

Accordingly, in addressing the vacuum of interdisciplinary work noted by Kristeva, the central approach of the conference is to promote cross-disciplinary scholarly exploration and conversation on purity, impurity, and disgust. We aim to do so by bringing together scholars contributing to the fields of anthropology, psychology, and religious studies. Questions of purity have played a significant role in these disciplines in recent years, but each discipline, in accord with its dominant methodology, has taken a different approach to such questions. Thus, psychology asks: what can we learn about purity by studying the actions and reactions of individuals in particular scenarios? Are certain disgust reactions or moral and religious judgments of impurity triggered by certain primes, actions, or stimuli? Are there other stimuli that can lessen reactions of disgust? Conversely, anthropology, rather than studying individual reactions, tends to focus the ways in social and cultural structures may enact or reinforce structures of purity or impurity. What can the study of existing communal frameworks teach us about the ways in which human approaches to purity and impurity manifest themselves? Religious studies approaches, by contrast, tend to focus on textual and historical resources: how have themes of purity and impurity been presented in sacred texts and theological reflection, and what can these intellectual productions teach us about various patterns of human purity structures?

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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