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

20 May 2014 - 21 May 2014

Jesus College (Upper Hall), Jesus Lane, Cambridge, CB5 8BL

Register online via the link at the top right hand side of this page
Conference fee: £50 (full), £25 (students) - includes lunch and tea/coffee
Deadline: Friday 16 May 2014


Daniel Weiss (Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge)

Simone Schnall (Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge)

Robbie Duschinsky (Northumbria University)


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?


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), and the Polosnky-Coexist Fund.

Accommodation for speakers selected through the call for papers and non-paper giving delegates

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University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk

DAY 1 - Tuesday 20 May






Richard Fardon (SOAS): More danger than purity




Simone Schnall (University of Cambridge): Notions of Purity and Contamination in Moral Psychology


Jonathan Klawans (Boston University): Was Kristeva Right… about Qumran? Methodological Implications of a Theoretical Coincidence




Ben Campkin (UCL): Placing “Matter Out Of Place”: Purity and Danger as Evidence for Architecture and Urbanism


Holger Zellentin (University of Nottingham): Gentile Purity: From the Decree of Jesus' Apostles to the Qur'an




Jonathan Benthall (UCL): Puripetal force versus social entropy at the intersect between Islam and humanitarianism

DAY 2 - Wednesday 21 May


Valerie Curtis (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine): The Biology of Purity and Pollution




Jesse Lee Preston (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): Psychology of Religious Disgust


Mila Ginsburskaya (University of Roehampton): Between Freud and Mary Douglas: Death, Sex and Identity in the Hebrew Bible




Aaron Belkin (San Francisco State University): Spoiling for a Fight: Purity, Pollution and American Military Masculinity


Simon Blackburn (University of Cambridge): Disgust as a moral sentiment: good or bad?




Daniel Weiss (University of Cambridge): Possibilities for non-eliminationist approaches to impurity in biblical and early rabbinic literature


Closing discussion

Simon Blackburn (University of Cambridge): "Disgust as a moral sentiment: good or bad?"

My talk will first describe the disgust reaction, and the way it can be transferred, so felt towards other objects than those for which it is, presumably evolutionarily adapted. I argue that this is not a merely metaphorical transfer, but can result in other people, for instance, being regarded with real disgust. Disgust then becomes potentially a very dangerous moral emotion. I compare it with other emotions of aversion, and non-emotional ways of moralising.

I then turn to purity and impurity. Drawing on Adam Smith and Bernard Williams I describe the situation of a person who is “piacular” (in a state requiring expiation), and describe how this attends the breaking of taboos, as well as more direct cases of causing harm. I see the phenomenon as one instance of something more general: the way in which a history of good or harm invests objects and people with an aura, and determines many practical consequences.

Simon Blackburn is the retired Bertrand Russell Professor of philosophy at the University of Cambrdge, and remains a Fellow of Trinity College. He is part-time Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Professorial Fellow at the New College of the Humanities. He is an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the British Academy. His most recent book is Mirror, Mirror: the Uses and Abuses of Self-Love

Aaron Belkin (San Francisco State University): "Spoiling for a Fight: Purity, Pollution and American Military Masculinity"

Especially since the expansion of American overseas ambitions after 1898, the production of masculine US warriors has required those who embody masculinity to enter into intimate relationships with its unmasculine foils, not just disavow them.  Thus the creation of a masculine armed force has required a surprising degree of engagement with unmasculine foils that masculinity seems by its definition to be defined against. It is not just any contradictions that have structured American military masculinity.  More specifically, it has been structured by contradictions associated with U.S. empire.  Ironically, scapegoats who have been excluded from the warrior community have helped make empire seem unproblematic by reinforcing the heroic status of military masculinity, a site where they have been demonized viciously.  In this sense, scapegoats who cleansed the troops helped produce empire’s benign façade.  These arguments are elaborated in a case study of filth and cleanliness among U.S. troops in the Philippines.

 Aaron Belkin is a scholar, author, activist and dancer who has written and edited more than twenty five scholarly articles, chapters and books, the most recent of which is a study of contradictions in American warrior masculinity and the ways in which smoothing over those contradictions makes U.S. empire seem unproblematic Since 1999, Belkin has served as founding director of the Palm Center, which designed and implemented much of the public education campaign that eroded popular support for military anti-gay discrimination, and which is currently researching transgender military service. He is  professor of political science at San Francisco State University. 

Jonathan Benthall (UCL): 'Puripetal force versus social entropy at the intersect between Islam and humanitarianism’

This presentation derives from an attempt to analyse the various practical intersections between the discursive tradition of a world religion, Islam, and an ideological movement, humanitarianism. Islam, like other religions, is suffused with concepts of purity. Humanitarianism – together with its congeners, ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy’ – has been much concerned with demarcating itself from the forces of the market, politics, the military and sometimes religion. Within each of these movements one can discern rigorist tendencies: for example, in the case of Islam, the Salafi-Hanbali or Wahhabi school; in the case of humanitarianism, the International Committee of the Red Cross with its devotion to Geneva law.

Whereas some scholars have applied the concept of the ‘sacred’ to explore these commonalities, it will be argued here thatpurity-seeking – which one may imagine as ‘puripetal force’ – is a more fundamental concept than sacralization and hence more useful for comparative analysis. Purity is at its most basic the maintenance of boundaries. Whereas in Newtonian physics ‘centripetal force’ draws bodies towards a central point, and is always balanced by centrifugal force, we may envisage puripetal force as a culturally universal resistance to social entropy or anomie. Schematically, these ideological movements can be mapped as spherical bodies interacting in multi-dimensional space. Ethnographic data will be offered to illustrate the model, in the tentative hope moreover that it may be found applicable to the relations between other religions (as well as Islam) and other ideological movements (as well as humanitarianism), such as socialism and environmentalism.

Jonathan Benthall is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. He was formerly Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and Founding Editor of Anthropology Today. His publications includeDisasters, Relief and the MediaThe Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (with Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan),Returning to Religion: Why a Secular Age is Haunted by Faith, and Gulf Charities and Islamic Philanthropy in the “Age of Terror” and Beyond (co-edited with Robert Lacey). He reviews regularly for the Times Literary Supplement.

Ben Campkin (UCL): "Placing “Matter Out Of Place”: Purity and Danger as Evidence for Architecture and Urbanism"

This paper revisits Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo(1966). A survey of this theory in architecture in the late-twentieth century reveals how it focused attention on relationships between dirt, cleanliness, and the design and organisation of space—an area previously neglected in architectural thought. Dirt remains an important focus within architectural and urban theory, with implications for practice. Yet, the intersections that scholars of the 1980s and 1990s made between Douglas' work and critical theory, feminist and psychoanalytic writings elicited problems with her structuralist approach that remain unresolved. These are apparent in considering relationships between dirt and cities—indeed, the aphorism Douglas invokes, “dirt is matter out of place”, originates in discussions of nineteenth-century urbanisation. To better understand dirt's relationships with modern and late-modern capitalist cities, Douglas' insights can be productively read alongside post-structuralist accounts, including the psychoanalytic notion of the abject and recent neo-Marxian scholarship on the production of urban nature.

Ben Campkin is Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory and Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He is the author of Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture (IB Tauris, 2013) and co-editor of Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination (IB Tauris, 2007, paperback 2012) and Cities Methodologies (IB Tauris, forthcoming). Ben is also co-editor of Urban Pamphleteer (2013-) and his work has recently appeared in journals such as Architectural Theory Review (2013), The Journal of Architecture (2007), Architectural Design (2010) and the Centre for Education of the Built Environment: Transactions (2009), and anthologies including Urban Constellations (2011), Camera Constructs: Photography, Architecture and the Modern City (2012), and The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London's Olympic State (2012).

Val Curtis (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine): "The Biology of Purity and Pollution"

Purity and Pollution are folk categories with complex and contested histories. Controversy is rife. For example, how does what, at first sight seem like a simple dirty/clean distinction, come to have moral force? Is pollution a by-product of cosmological ordering, as suggested by Douglas? Are the pure and the polluted innate or culturally constructed categories? Are purity violations a distinct moral category, as proposed by Haidt? I will argue that the evolution of disgust provides the thread to unravel this knot. As an ancient parasite avoidance system, disgust underpins our hygiene, our manners and our morality, as well as the related folk categories of the pure and the polluted.

Dr Val Curtis is Reader in Hygiene at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Director of the Hygiene Centre. Trained as an engineer, epidemiologist and anthropologist, her research centres around sanitation and hygiene, in particular on the design of interventions to improve behaviour. She is co-founder of the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, which unites the marketing abilities of the private sector with the reach of the public sector and the science of academia in large-scale national handwashing programmes. She teaches and consults on behaviour change with governments, international organisations and industry. She has published widely on hygiene, behaviour and disgust and her book: Don’t Look Don’t Touch, the Science behind Revulsion came out with OUP in September 2013.

Richard Fardon (SOAS University of London): "More danger than purity" 

Almost half a century since its publication, More danger than purity reassesses the intellectual sources of Purity and Danger and its place in Mary Douglas's project. Why was it easier for Mary Douglas to write about danger than about purity in the anthropological tradition she absorbed? Is it easier to compare ideas of danger than it is ideas of purity?

Richard Fardon (Head of the Doctoral School at SOAS University of London) is a social anthropologist, and an ethnographer of West Africa specializing in Nigeria and Cameroon about which he has written several books, most recently on art and performance. His anthropological works include biographical writings on Mary Douglas, one of his teachers, and Franz Baermann Steiner, one of her teachers. As Mary Douglas's literary executor he edited the final two volumes of her collected essays that were published in 2013:  Mary Douglas. A very personal method: anthropological writings drawn from life. and Mary Douglas. Cultures and criss: understanding risk and resolution. London: Sage.

Mila Ginsburskaya (University of Roehampton): "Between Freud and Mary Douglas: Death, Sex and Identity in the Hebrew Bible"

Purity and impurity ideas occupy an important place in ancient Jewish thought. Yet the conceptual rationale behind these ideas continues to be debated. Why certain things are considered to be impure, while others can be neither pure nor impure? Is there an underlying logic behind biblical purity laws? In her seminal book Purity and Danger (1966) Mary Douglas has offered a general definition of dirt as “matter out of place,” however when studying biblical texts she applied this principle only to the laws concerning the clean and unclean animals. In the present paper I attempt to apply Douglas’ principle of deviation from a norm to investigate the rationale for impurity originating with human persons. I look at impurity that accompanies physiological cycle of life (mainly, sexual activity and death) as well as at impurity that has to do with a factor of agency (the so-called ‘moral impurity’).

I put forward a proposition that purity and impurity concepts in biblical thought serve to delineate the boundaries between human beings (in particular, the people of Israel) and God thus enabling the functioning relationships between them. In addition to Douglas, I draw on Freud’s psychological and anthropological considerations to elucidate the role that sexual drive and what Freud called a ‘death drive’ play in formation of human identity, and the part of social laws in this process. In my discussion I look at Genesis 3 as a paradigmatic story with regard to the question of identity and establishing the clear distinction between God’s nature and human nature and their places in the cosmic order. 

Mila Ginsburskaya’s main research interests are relationship between ritual and ethics and the question of identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Following her master studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem she came to Cambridge where she did MA in Jewish-Christian Relations and then PhD in Biblical Studies. In her doctoral thesis she sought to offer a fresh perspective on the connection between the so-called 'ritual impurity' and 'moral impurity' in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Her post-doctoral work at the University of Birmingham explored the question of sectarian identity in Qumran writings. She is currently doing MSc in Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Roehampton while practising as a therapist. She is interested in anthropological, sociological and psychological approaches to the study of religions.

Jonathan Klawans (Boston University): "Was Kristeva Right… About Qumran? Methodological Implications of a Theoretical Coincidence"

It is well established that Julia Kristeva's understanding of purity (in Powers of Horror) has been widely rejected (or ignored) by biblical scholars. But the implications of her work for post-biblical Judaism has rarely been considered. This paper will establish a striking correspondence between Kristeva's approach to purity and the approach in evidence among the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls. Then this paper will probe the methodological implications arising from this coincidence.

Jonathan Klawans is Professor of Religion at Boston University, and is a specialist in Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism. Klawans received his PhD from Columbia University in 1997, and is the author of three books: Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2000), Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2005), and Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Jesse Preston (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): "Gross Gods and Icky Atheism: Disgust Responses to Rejected Religious Beliefs

Concepts of purity and impurity are central to many religious practices and beliefs, connecting physical and spiritual cleanliness.  Here I present research   on disgust responses to rejected religious ideas, as a means of avoiding spiritual contamination.   First, exposure to cleanliness concepts was shown to activate religious goals, and vice versa. Second, Christians felt disgust after copying Atheist or Islamic texts, rating a lemon drink as more “disgusting”. Finally, people reported more disgust  after thinking rejected religious beliefs, but facial EMG was consistent with anger response. I conclude with a discussion of disgust as a literal or metaphorical rejection of  spiritual contamination.

Jesse Preston earned a B. A. in Psychology from the University of Winnipeg in 1999, and a PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard University in 2005. Since 2007, she has worked as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the psychology of religion and morality, her favourite colour is red, and her favourite cheese is gouda.

Simone Schnall (University of Cambridge): "Notions of Purity and Contamination in Moral Psychology"

How do people tell right from wrong? It used to be assumed that moral decisions are based on rational thought, such that people determine based on objective facts and logical analysis what is morally acceptable behaviour. More recently, however, empirical findings suggest that decisions about morality and ethical behaviour are far from rational, but are often guided by emotional and other intuitions. I will discuss my research showing that one particular feeling that is highly relevant in moral contexts is a sense of contamination, or the reverse, a sense of purity. Thus, as is the case for many other kinds of judgments, morality is guided by factors that operate on an intuitive level, often outside of conscious awareness.

Simone Schnall is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Cambridge where she directs the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory. Her work combines insights and methods from social psychology and cognitive science to understand how various processes related to cognition and emotion interact. In particular, she is interested in how people’s bodily cues shape their internal states and their judgments of the external world. Recent topics have included the effect of emotion on morality, and the role of physical ability on perceptual judgments. Simone’s findings routinely receive coverage in the popular press, including the New York Times, Economist and New Scientist and she is committed to sharing research findings with the general public.

Holger Zellentin (University of Nottingham): "Gentile Purity: From the Decree of Jesus' Apostles to the Qur'an"

Often neglected in scholarly discussions, the role of ritual purity may contain one of the keys to situating the Qur’an within Late Antique discourse. Considering its emphasis on ritual purity, in turn, shows the Qur’an to be an invaluable source for the study of Late Antique Judaism and Christianity. This presentation describes the development of Jewish and Christian teachings on the purity requirements for gentiles from the first through the seventh century C.E., with special emphasis on the Acts of the Apostles, the Clementine Homilies, and the Qur’an.

Holger Zellentin has taught at Rutgers and Berkeley and is currently Lecturer in Jewish Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Nottingham. His publications include The Qur’ān’s Legal Culture: The Didascalia Apostolorum as a Point of Departure (2013), Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish and Christian Literature (2011) and the edited volume Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity (2007).