How do beliefs about pollution and dirt relate to systems of classification?

A mudman from Asaro with his unique clay mask
Mary Douglas (2002, pp.2) argues that “dirt is essentially disorder”, meaning that it is matter that falls between the categories of a socially constructed system of classification. So in terms of definition it “exists in the eye of the beholder”; due to different systems of classification, what may be considered ‘dirty’ or ‘pure’ from a western perspective may not be in other cultures. In this essay I am going to discuss different beliefs about pollution and dirt in relation to systems of classification in various cultures. I will look at what is meant by systems of classification, how dirt and pollution are classified, religious classification, how this affects food classification, and discuss how the ethnographic examples address how dirt and pollution are integrated (or aren’t) into systems of classification. To explain these ideas in the context of a culture quite different to the Western world, throughout this essay I will refer to the people (the Hua, among others) of the Papua New Guinea Highlands to illustrate my points.

First I would like to look at systems of classification, which are an important knowledge component of all societies, as they allow us to mentally structure our surroundings in order to achieve an understanding of the world. In an anthropological sense, this means separating people, animals, objects and other phenomena into socially pre-defined categories and types (Eriksen, 1995, pp.246). Classification itself is learned at a very young age, even before language, as we begin to categorise people, places and things etc. based on cultural knowledge and experience. However, it’s believed that classification is socially constructed, and different cultures have different systems, a famous example of which is the Cassowary of Papua New Guinea. In a Western system it would be a bird (it has feathers and lays eggs), however to the indigenous Karam, it is not a bird because it cannot fly. On the other hand, the Karam classify bats with birds for their ability to fly (Bulmer, 1967, pp.7-8).

Now I am going to explore views of dirt and pollution and how they are defined (and affect classification) from two different perspectives; the Hua and the Japanese. If we look at the Hua concept nu (we may interpret it as a 'vital essence'), they believe most of the transactions in social life involve the sharing of nu. Nu is thought of as substances including sexual fluids, faeces and urine, breath and body odours, sweat, body oil, hair, saliva, fingernails, and flesh and blood; however nu can be seen as good or bad depending on the social source (Meigs, 1983, pp.99). Since much of their food is classified in order to avoid the ingestion of these substances from the wrong sources (I will talk about these food rules in the next paragraph), the Hua concept of siro na (literally 'dirty thing') can be identified through their social interactions rather than just the substances themselves. For example, in contrast to Western beliefs, Hua men do not classify vomit as dirty if it is produced by his real or classificatory father, in fact it is rubbed into the body to promote growth and vitality (Meigs, 1978, pp.308). The Japanese similarly convey their idea of dirt in the form of baikin, or 'germs', which are closely associated with the spatial 'outside'. They (like the Hua) believe that these 'germs' are exchanged through personal interactions and classify the 'outside' as hitogomi (literally people-rubbish), meaning the crowds that populate the streets, shops etc. Therefore they take measures, such as gargling water, to purify themselves of these baikin when moving from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984, pp.21-22). It is argued that the way we deal with household dirt forms a symbolic protection, that shields the 'inside' from disorder, whilst the 'outside', where one meets strangers, can be "rubbished" (Chakrabarty, 1991, cited in Beall, 2006).

Ideas of hygiene therefore are learned; a product of classification based on ideas of dirt and purity that have evolved in different cultures, and we could argue that these ideas have been created over time by rituals and religions. Hua males undergo an initiation period between the ages of seven and eleven, and during this time the world around them is classified with new restrictions, put in place to avoid pollution from bad nu. Certain slow growing foods (such as some species of yams) are classified as polluting to their nu during initiation, as they would stunt growth (Meigs, 1983, pp.137-138). In a similar context, Mary Douglas (1996) explores the Jewish dietary rules and restrictions from the Bible that classifies animals as ‘pure’ and ‘impure’. For example, animals that crawl are considered dirty due to their proximity to the ground, becoming a metaphor for sloth and gluttony; this makes eating an act of worship, but also introduces an entire system of classification to the Jewish community. This classification isn’t restricted to food; after gold was discovered at Mt. Kare in New Guinea, many people moved there to try and find gold, however due to the cold, damp conditions people easily became ill. The mountain had previously been considered a sacred place inhabited by spirits, but after these illnesses started to spread, the mountain was associated with Satan (the Christian image was due to mission influence). Therefore the gold became classified as ‘dirty money’, which could harm a man and his family, so could only be used for the purchase of luxuries such as alcohol (Clark, 1993, pp.744-745). So we can see that when religion and ritual in societies begin to make purity and pollution symbolic, there are large (and sometimes seemingly random, even for people within the society) changes in systems of classification.

One of the main ways in which religion and ritual classify the world is by designating certain foods as ‘pure’ or ‘impure’. In response to their ideas of siro na, the Hua classify their food with absolute and relative rules. The absolute rules being those that define a relation between the consumer and a certain type of food, which are observed ceremonially, for example foods with a red/reddish juice are classified as polluting during a male’s initiation, as it is associated with blood. The relative rules are those that prevent pollution of nu by sanctioning the relationships between the consumer and the producer, and are the rules that are observed more loosely as a part of everyday life (Meigs, 1983, pp.17-18). An example of a relative rule would be that Hua males don’t eat food prepared by menstruating females, as menstrual blood is siro na and will pollute their nu, so is classified as ‘bad cooking’ (Hage & Harary, 1981, pp.368). Alternatively, the Kapsiki of Cameroon believe that the taboo foods aren't themselves dirty, but the person that eats them is considered so. Therefore, in their society, blacksmiths are classified differently to other villagers because they have a very different set of taboo foods, and as such can be considered dirty for eating the foods tabooed by the rest of the society (van Beek, 1992, pp.41-42). However food rules aren’t exclusively created by religion and ritual, other factors such as language can affect classification. For example Americans categorise the edible parts of an animal by making distinctions between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. The muscle and fat become ambiguous, inferred by the general label ‘meat’, however the ‘inner’ parts are named (e.g. heart, kidneys etc.) and thus becomes easily associated with the human body (Sahlins, 1977, pp.175), leading to ideas of pollution that could be linked to the way we think of cannibalism.

Now I would like to discuss the way in which dirt and pollution are shown to relate to systems of classification in the previous examples. The authors seem to show us how dirt and pollution affect how things are classified, however there is little comment on how people within a society react to these classifications. They could have gone about this like James (1979), who looks at attitudes towards cheap sweets in northern England, where adults call them 'kets' meaning rubbish, but to the children these 'kets' and the youth culture surrounding them are a social refuge from adult authority. Also, I found that the authors only really looked at how views of dirt and pollution are a social construction. Alternatively, Curtis (2007, pp.660) explores how concepts of dirt and pollution aren’t just a product of social construction, but that they are embedded into our instincts too as an integral aspect of our survival mechanics. She gives evidence that looks at the attitudes of other animals' reactions to dirt, and hypothesises that humans won't have lost these instincts; they may be a contributing factor of current attitudes.

In conclusion, looking at the examples above, I agree with Mary Douglas that ideas of dirt and pollution are rooted in the social construction of a specific society. There are certain aspects (such as attitudes towards bodily exudations) that appear to a certain extent universal, and this may be due to a possible underlying understanding of dirt that links to our primal survival instincts. This means that different systems of classification may have similar attitudes to dirt in regards to potentially harmful substances, but I believe that the main way that dirt and pollution relate to systems of classification can be attributed to religion and ritual.

Beall, J. (2006). Dealing with Dirt and the Disorder of Development: Managing Rubbish in Urban Pakistan. Oxford Development Studies 34(1), pp.81-97.

van Beek, W.E.A. (1992). The Dirty Smith: Smell as a Social Frontier among the Kapsiki/Higi of North Cameroon and North-Eastern Nigeria. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 62(1), pp.38-58.

Bulmer, R. (1967). Why is the Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy Among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands. Man 2(1), pp.5-25.

Chakrabarty, D. (1991). Open Space/Public Space: garbage, modernity and India. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 14(1), pp.15-31.

Clark, J. (1993). Gold, Sex and Pollution: Male Illness and Myth at Mt. Kare, Papua New Guinea. American Ethnologist 20(4), pp.742-757.

Curtis, V.A. (2007). Dirt, Disgust and Disease: a natural history of hygiene. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61(8), pp.660-664.

Douglas, M. (2002). Purity and Danger: an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Eriksen, T.H. (1995). Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Pluto.

Hage, P. and Harary, F. (1981). Pollution Beliefs in Highland New Guinea. Man 16(3), pp.367-375.

James, A. (1979). Confections, Concoctions and Conceptions. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 10(2), pp.83-95.

Meigs, A.S. (1983). Food, Sex, and Pollution: A New Guinea Religion. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Meigs, A.S. (1978). A Papuan Perspective on Pollution. Man 13(2), pp.304-318.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1984). Japanese Germs. In Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan: an anthropological view. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.19-50.

Sahlins, M. (1977). Food Preference and Tabu in American Domestic Animals. In Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press, pp.170-179.

Image credit:
Asaro Mudman (flipped) - By Jialiang Gao (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Dirt - By normanack [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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