Purity and Danger

As I prepare a presentation for my field’s international scientific conference next month (Society for the Social Studies of Science, or 4S), I’ve been thinking about the articles, books, and ideas that I was deeply engaged with a year ago when I was just launching my dissertation project.

Image from goodreads.com

One of the writers who helped me get started was a British anthropologist named Mary Douglas. Writing from the 1950s through the early 2000s, Douglas talks about how notions of purity and danger crop up in many cultures around the globe, and how they become embedded in social structures and rituals. Her books that I read (parts of) last year while planning my project include 
Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory, and Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers.

In science studies, her work is useful because she points out that complex social systems for avoiding danger and keeping things pure exist in modern, technocratic societies just as they do within religious communities. When we talk about religion, we call these systems theories of pollution or taboo; when we talk about science and technology, we call these systems risk-benefit calculations. Douglas contends that there are more similarities between these modes of controlling dangerous objects or influences than there are differences.

This is the connection I see between her work and my research on (both food and environmental) allergies. For people with food allergies a lot of time, energy, and money goes into buying and making foods that do not contain even traces of an allergen. Folks who also have asthma or environmental allergies have the additional concern of keeping pollen and animal dander out of their homes and using tools like mattress and pillow encasements to keep dustmites inside the barrier and away from their respiratory passages while they sleep. Managing allergies is largely an issue of keeping the wrong things out of the home and the body.

I’ve hesitated to write this post for a while. I don’t want to be misconstrued: I am not saying that using Douglas’s framework means that allergies are somehow less “real,” simply a matter of “belief” like religious beliefs. (Of course, anthropologists would say that the hard-and-fast boundary between “believing” and “knowing” is maybe more porous than many Euro-American people believe, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.) I am also not saying that people are anything other than justified in being very vigilant and cautious about avoiding substances they are allergic to. This post, rather, is meant to show how big, philosophical ideas that seem very remote from the everyday experiences of people with allergies have inspired me to ask specific, concrete questions about how allergies are managed and how the management of allergies brings people together around a common goal.

What Douglas does is point out how cultures are good at sorting out the “pure” and good from the “dirty,” polluted, or dangerous. People in societies come up with rules and procedures that govern how to handle dirty things: how to separate them from clean things, how to treat people who (inadvertently or on purpose) come in contact with too many dirty things, how to determine the “dirtiness” threshold for different materials, how to clean up dirty things. The most interesting exposition of these ideas, I think, is when she and her colleague Aaron Wildavsky write about different modern societies’ methods of managing environmental pollution. Different cultures’ make-ups – specifically, the degree to which they are organized hierarchically – determine their tolerance for pollution, the kinds of experts they trust to tell them how to fix it, and the amount of resources the society is willing to dedicate to fixing the problem.

Within the “culture” of food allergy, I see (and sometimes personally practice) rituals, habits, and techniques for avoiding the dirtiness of an allergenic substance. Buying particular brands of packaged food, instituting rigorous handwashing rules for the siblings of allergic kids, and providing information to restaurant waitstaff verbally or using a restaurant card are all activities that are intended to keep polluting substances away from the sensitive allergic body. I’ve also observed that the threshold for error is very low – understandably, since an error might cause serious illness. Support groups and allergy conferences offer a way for those who are experts on how to live with food allergies – people with allergies, parents of allergic kids, and those few wonderful medical researchers who study how to live safely with allergies – to share their expertise and rituals with others embedded in the food allergy culture.

Together, such groups are trying to garner more awareness about and support for the difficulty of managing food allergies from the broader public. The ultimate goal is to get others in society (in the case of my research, the broader public of the United States) to share some of the responsibility of keeping different kinds of foods separated, or at least easily identifiable.

Douglas’s work doesn’t translate perfectly to the study of food allergies. However, it has kept my eyes and ears open to the ways that people with allergies keep their homes and bodies free from potentially dangerous allergens. It’s a theme I want to develop further, but I’m not sure how. I would love to hear any questions, comments, or suggestions you may have!

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