Douglas, Mary. "Symbolic Pollution." From Alexander, Jeffrey C., and Steven Seidman. Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Comparative religion struggles to apply modern medical understandings. Some argue that ancient rites have a hygenic basis. Others argue that a great gulf lies between our hygienic understanding and what ancients actually believed. Douglas suggests that the problem in both sides is that they fail to consider OUR ideas about hygiene and dirt. Guess what her article is about? Confronting our ideas about hygiene and dirt!
Douglas places dirt and hygiene within a broader conception of pollution: things that should not be in a certain place for their symbolic (often actual) threat to the individual and/or social order. She winds through various examples from various cultures, demonstrating how pollution is identified and dealt with. A corrupt politician is removed from office. A pregnant woman's unborn child has an ambiguous position between life and death because of the hazards of birth and infancy - thus many cultures treat the mother herself, carrying the fetus, as a danger to others around her.