Risk And Blame Essays In Cultural Theory Mary Douglas

The idea of risk has recently risen to prominence in political debate and in matters of public policy. Cognitive psychology treats decision-making as a private personal act. But in real life dangers are presented in standardized forms which pre-code the individual's choices. This collection follows on from the programme for studying risk and blame that was implied in Purity and Danger and has been developed in subsequent publications. Its first six essays argue that any analysis of risk perception that ignores cultural and political bias is worthless. For the sake of a mistaken idea of objectivity, research on risk perception tries to avoid politics, but the idea of nature is inherently politicized. The study of risk needs a systematic framework of political and cultural comparison. The next five essays range over questions in cultural theory. A culture is viewed as a way of life which standardizes concepts and values. It is held steady by the institutions in which it is articulated. Questions of autonomy, credibility and gullibility, the social origins of wants, and the recognition of distinctive thought styles are at present only beginning to be treated systematically in a framework of cultural analysis. Now that risk is moving centre-stage as the dominant idiom of policy analysis, many other key topics, such as the notion of the self, will need to be radically revised. In Risk and Blame, Mary Douglas argues that the prominence of risk discourse will force upon the social sciences a programme of rethinking and consolidation which will include the anthropological approaches studied in these pages.

Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (first published 1992) is a collection of essays by the influential British cultural anthropologistMary Douglas.


The collection contains sixteen lectures and essays, grouped in three parts: "Risk and blame" (six pieces) on the cultural theory of risk; "Wants and institutions" (five pieces) applying cultural theory to issues other than risk; and "Believing and thinking" (five pieces) on the cultural determinants of individual production of and response to ideas.

The final piece in the volume, "The Hotel Kwilu: A Model of Models", recounts a return to Lele territory four decades after first undertaking fieldwork there. It was originally delivered in 1988 as the Distinguished Lecture at the 87th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.


After hardback publication in 1992, the collection was brought out in paperback in 1994, and reissued in 1996. In 2003 it was published as volume 12 in Mary Douglas: Collected Works (ISBN 0415291151)


  • Zygmunt Bauman in British Journal of Sociology, 45:1 (1994), pp. 143–144.
  • Robert Paine in Current Anthropology, 37:4 (1996), pp. 721–722.
  • T. O. Beidelman in American Anthropologist, New Series, 95:4 (1993), pp. 1065–1066.
  • Elaine Draper in Contemporary Sociology, 22:5 (1993), pp. 641–644.


  • Richard Fardon, Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography (London: Routledge, 1999).
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