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Staying alive

Long life can bring with it the worst of all epitaphs: "I didn't know he/she was still alive." Thus it was for Mary Douglas, the anthropologist and social theorist whose obituaries last month reminded many of a time so distant - the 60s and debates around social meaning, taboos, boundaries - that its concerns have the appearance of some ancient theological debate in a dead religion.

Douglas's work was important because - at the height of the post-second world war belief that individual freedom and collective meaning could be maximised without contradiction - her books such as Purity and Danger reminded us that meaning not only resides in the system of codes and symbols by which a society lives, but that such processes are of greatest importance where they attach to the fundamental aspects of human existence: birth, death, gender, sociality and so on. Casually mess with these and you can play havoc with the whole cultural order.

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