There are two distinct Durkheimian traditions in contemporary social science, and so it is important to clarify which Durkheim is under discussion before exploring modern feminist responses to his work. There is the mainstream sociological Durkheim, promulgated by Parsons, who is an empiricist, a positivist and a conservative. Then there is the Gallic Durkheim of anthropology, whose legacy through Mauss and Van Gennep and Levi-Strauss gives us structuralism. That is a powerful tool for contemporary feminist thinking. There is little or nothing for feminists in the classic sociological Durkheim, fed into Anglophone
sociology via Parsons. That Durkheim appears to be a biological deter – minist, an evolutionary thinker who sees the division of labour by sex to be a mark of civilisation. The other Durkheim, however, is a rich source of feminist analyses.
In France the legacy of Durkheim was carried forward by Mauss and Van Gennep, in a version of structuralism that led through Levi – Strauss to Bourdieu today. This French tradition is much more influential in Britain in anthropology than in sociology, with the exception of Basil Bernstein’s work (Atkinson, 1985, 1995). Only those sociological feminists who have adopted Bernstein (Arnot, 2001) could be seen as heiresses of Durkheim in British sociology.
It may seem odd, even perverse, to offer a structuralist perspective, rather than a poststructuralist or postmodern one. I make no apology for it here. Traditional structuralism offers enormous insight, is a powerful analytic tool for feminist sociology, and should be much more widely taught to, understood by and used by feminist sociologists than it has been.
One of the leading exponents of the Gallic Durkheim in structuralist anthropology is Mary Douglas, a woman theorist. She has not written explicitly as a feminist, nor commentated on feminism, nor focused her research on gender or women. Douglas may or may not be a feminist: she has not published explicitly feminist work. She is, indubitably, a Durkeimian, who has taken the Gallic Durkheim and built an elaborate theoretical framework (group and grid) that provides ways of exploring feminist themes.
In her first general theoretical work, Purity and Danger (1966) Douglas showed how dirt is ‘matter out of place’, ‘disorder’. As we organise our environment we try to eliminate dirt and disorder, both physical and symbolic. We classify as dirt or disorder, as pollution, as outrages against moral or religious order, everything which is out of place. So, for example, shoes are not inherently polluting, but in Britain we do not place them on a table unless we have redefined it as a work space to clean them. We call the placing of shoes on the table unlucky or unhygienic. Cigarette ash is tolerated in an ash tray, but revolting and repulsive suspended in the jellied consomme we serve for dinner. Nail varnish is pretty or striking on our nails, but a stain, needing stain removal, on our best skirt. As with physical pollutions, so too with moral ones. A relatively harmless fornication becomes a serious sin, and an illegal act, if the sexual partners are siblings. A fight becomes a potential parricide if the combatants are actually father and son. It is not the act itself which has absolute value, but the social classification of it. Much of Douglas’s (1966) book was concerned with exploring why ambiguous and anomalous things are so disturbing for many cultures, many individuals, many systems. The solutions to the problems
posed by ‘anomalous beasts’ and ‘fearsome monsters’ occupy much of the monograph. She outlined five solutions to the problems posed by anomalies (firm categorisation, physical control, avoidance, pollution beliefs, celebration in art). Douglas was herself interested in pollution beliefs: (1) about bodily emissions and invasions; (2) reinforcing social boundaries; and (3) arising from conflicting aims in a culture.
When Douglas moved on she developed two dimensions, called group and grid, to help us understand different types of cultures, societies or organisation (Douglas, 1970). Group is about membership. Strong groupings are hard to enter, are exclusive, and demand high commitment and loyalty. In the UK the Royal College of Surgeons is located at the strong end of the group continuum, whereas the AA is at the weak end of the group continuum. Grid refers to the degree of social control or regulation exercised over members or participants: so prisoners are subjected to strong grid, while new age travellers are attempting to live in a weak grid. In her later work on group and grid she developed a typology of organisations or cultures, where each could be high or low, giving four types (a. strong group weak grid; b. strong group strong grid; c. weak group weak grid; and d. weak group and strong grid). In each of these the pollution beliefs are different, and their strength/importance also varies. In cultures where grid and group are both weak, there is little concern with pollution, where both are strong, there are fiercely held and enforced pollution beliefs, both at the boundaries and protecting the hierarchies. The explanatory power of the group/grid mapping for feminist analyses is explored at length in Delamont (1989b), and applied to the myths about the Chicago School in Delamont (1992a).
In the same tradition is Shirley Ardener, an anthropologist who has published feminist work (1985) and edited the work of others on feminist themes (1975, 1978, 1981; Callan and Ardener; 1984; Dube et al., 1986; Macdonald et al., 1987). Unlike Douglas, Ardener is little known in sociology but her work has enormous analytic power.
Shirley Ardener (1975) is also a Durkheimian, and developed a theory about the ways in which societies, cultures or organisations will have dominant and muted groups. The models of the society, culture or organisation held by the dominant group will have more coercive power than the models held by subordinate, or muted groups. Muted groups have to use the dominant group’s model to survive, because it has the power of the dominant group. In Delamont (1989b) I used this idea to explore male and female models of adolescent sexual behaviour. Later work by Holland et al. (1988), The Male in the Head, uses the same idea, though without citing Shirley Ardener at all.
Alongside Douglas and Ardener the structuralist Durkheimian tradition is found in Bernstein and in Bourdieu, both of whom wrote
thought provokingly on women. Through 25 years of feminist scholarship I have used this Durkheimian tradition to analyse a range of phenomena, from wedding meals (Delamont, 1983, 1994), through life on a gynaecology ward (1987b), the gender stereotypes in pupils’ urban legends about secondary school (1991), the myths of the Chicago School (1992a), the role of sociology of education in British sociology (2000a) and most consistently, the ways in which the feminist pioneers of women’s education constructed their ‘forgotten safeguards’ against the dangers both they and their critics saw threatening the health, reputations and marriage prospects of the pupils and teachers (Delamont, 1978a, 1978b, 1989b, 1993).