Thinking in Circles An Essay on Ring Composition Mary Douglas

The Terry Lectures Series
Publication date:
28 Sep 2010
Yale University Press
192 pages: 210 x 140mm
14 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

Exploring beyond the usual boundaries of social anthropology, a leader in the field shows why our readings of ancient literary texts may be off the mark

Many famous antique texts are misunderstood and many others have been completely dismissed, all because the literary style in which they were written is unfamiliar today. So argues Mary Douglas in this controversial study of ring composition, a technique which places the meaning of a text in the middle, framed by a beginning and ending in parallel. To read a ring composition in the modern linear fashion is to misinterpret it, Douglas contends, and today’s scholars must reevaluate important antique texts from around the world.

Found in the Bible and in writings from as far afield as Egypt, China, Indonesia, Greece, and Russia, ring composition is too widespread to have come from a single source. Does it perhaps derive from the way the brain works? What is its function in social contexts? The author examines ring composition, its principles and functions, in a cross-cultural way. She focuses on ring composition in Homer’s Iliad, the Bible’s book of Numbers, and, for a challenging modern example, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, developing a persuasive argument for reconstruing famous books and rereading neglected ones.

The late Mary Douglas was professor of social anthropology at University College London. After her retirement she was an honorary research fellow there.

"Over the course of her career Ms. Douglas has become a master at discerning order in unexpected forms and surprising places. In an unassuming way, without pretense or revolutionary claims, she reveals the logic behind the varied customs of a society."—Edward Rothstein, New York Times


"The scope of Mary Douglas's syntheticising thought is admirable. Her relaxed observations across the centuries and cultural boundaries are stimulating reading for anyone interested in the patterns of narrative, a field which is often characterised by narrow tunnel vision rather than intercultural and interdisciplinary desire."—Päivi Mehtonen, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Succinct, unpretentious, wise and, best of all, reconstructive. . . . [A] valuable contribution to cultural studies in the widest sense of the term, making one wish the term were more often stretched this finely. . . . a sagacious field guide, pleasing and teasing our tastes for turnings."—Jennifer Formichelli, Essays in Criticism