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Mary Douglas Memorial Lecture 2014

12 August 2014

We are pleased to announce the Inaugural Mary Douglas Memorial Lecture to be held at Harrie Massie Lecture Theatre, UCL on Thursday 23 October 2014 at 6pm.

The annual lecture, in memory of Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007), is sponsored by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford, and the Department of Anthropology at UCL.

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Civil Wars From The Perspective Of An Institutional Theory Of Culture

Professor Paul Richards
Njala University (Sierra Leone)

Mary Douglas

Post-Cold War armed political conflicts have been called many things: asymmetric wars, insurgency, terrorism, new barbarism. These are civil wars where group values rather than national interests are at stake. Such conflicts, Mary Douglas thought, were especially hard to resolve because any compromise appears to the parties a threat to their continued social existence. What then should be the peacemaker's approach to civil wars? Douglas departed from the mainstream in pointing out that violent political conflicts are often irreconcilable through bargaining approaches. She advocated two analytical moves in such circumstances. The first was to undertake a cultural audit, in order to pinpoint the institutional roots of non-negotiable social values. The second move, as exemplified in her late work, was to return to ethnography, to understand how civil wars do eventually end. This threw a spotlight on the importance of complex (so-called "clumsy") institutional arrangements in post-conflict settlements, and drew renewed attention to ritual ordering as a means to "compose" the unprecedented social taxonomies required by such durable settlements. For Douglas, "listening to the enemy" was a way to allow radically different social taxonomies to mesh, and not a tool for bargaining-based compromise. The lecture applies this perspective to three concrete instances of civil wars and their aftermath: the Dutch revolt, the "culture wars" in France at the end of the 19th century, and the recent civil war in Sierra Leone.

For any queries about the lecture, please contact Martin Holbraad (


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