Talking shit, or comments on ‘Three Achievements of Dirt: Disgust, Humour, Emphasis’

On the 12th October Sjaak van der Geest (University of Amsterdam) presented his paper entitled ‘Three Achievements of Dirt: Disgust, Humour, Emphasis’ as part of the UCL Medical Anthropology Seminar Series, currently dealing with dirt and pollution. Rebecca Williams and Jed Stevenson comment below, followed by a response to both from Sjaak van der Geest. Images and captions are from Sjaak van der Geest. 

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Dog shit on my endive. Out of place? Would you eat the endive? 


Van der Geest on dirt and humour

Rebecca Williams

We recently had the pleasure, and it really was a pleasure, of hosting Sjaak van der Geest at our departmental Medical Anthropology seminar. Van der Geest spoke quite poetically about the place of faeces in society; notably British, German, Dutch and Ghanaian. We were offered rhymes, idioms and children’s stories as examples of faeces ‘out of place’ in public discourse. Dirt as ‘matter out of place’ was first theorised by the now renowned Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger. Whilst this study of the everyday, excluded and prohibited, initially went unrecognised in the discipline – a fact she later recalled her disappointment over – it went on to become an exemplar of the power of theory to cut across disciplines, methodological approaches, and intellectual positions; helping us to understand dirt in varied material and symbolic forms.

Whilst Van der Geest followed Mary Douglas’ original call to think through dirt at different scales, materially and in language and symbolism, he took issue with what he called her focus on ‘the physical’ and hoped to put the ‘social’ back into analysis with his address. And this he certainly did, as he recounted faeces in the social spheres of ‘disgust, humour and emphasis’. From his address, it was clear that the dirtiness of faeces is integral to its relation to these three qualities; and that this dirtiness was defined by its ‘intimate’ nature and varied between contexts. Through this, Van der Geest offered us an enjoyable and thought-provoking insight into the social life of shit. But, whilst this demonstrated the social life of faeces ‘out of place’ nicely, it didn’t address why it was out of place socially.

In Van der Geest account it was clear that, whilst the dirtiness of faeces varied, the only place faeces was considered truly inoffensive was in the ‘right place’ in the gut. Faeces, however, spends more time out of the body than it does in it – our bodies work only to expel it – so why does it not have a ‘place’ outside? A possible step towards answering this might be found in a study of its materiality. What became apparent in the questions some of the audience posed was that they wanted to know what it was about shit that made it so offensive and so dependent upon intimacy for this offence to be overcome. They wanted to know what the very stuff of shit, its materiality, meant for its social life; how did its smell, taste, consistency, pathogens and productiveness come to bear on the ways in which it was handled, experienced and lived.

Whilst we must be careful of seeking out cultural causality in the material world, by not including material culture in our studies of social relations we may obscure vital insight into why the world is the way it is. Mary Douglas’ theorisation of dirt revealed how its qualities were not dependent upon its materiality. Now, we must not neglect investigation into how they are related.


Campkin, B. 2013. Placing ‘Matter Out of Place’. Purity and Danger as Evidence for Architecture and Urbanism. Architectural Theory Review. 18(1).

Douglas, M. 2000[1966]. Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Douglas, M. 1975. ‘Pollution’. In M. Douglas (ed.) Implicit meanings: essays in anthropology. London: Routledge.

Macfarlane, A. 2006. Interview with Mary Douglas, February 2006 (accessed 20 December 2012)


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Whose is this? Disgusting?


Comments on ‘Three Achievements of Dirt: Disgust, Humour, Emphasis’

Jed Stevenson

Last week at UCL, Sjaak van der Geest of the University of Amsterdam gave a stimulating talk on the topic of faeces. His point of departure was the great 16th-century humanist Erasmus’ observation that his own shit was “bland” to him – not as awful to behold as that of others.

Why should that be? The principal explanatory framework that Sjaak invoked came from the the social anthropologist Mary Douglas. In Purity and Danger, Douglas argued that ideas of pollution in general are explicable on the basis of the degree to which they violate conceptual order. In Douglas’ terms, it’s not the (fecal) “matter” itself that’s dirty, only “matter out of place”. Since our own faeces are necessary and expectable, we’ll not be offended by them – provided we have access to a more-or-less private place to dispose of them.

Sjaak took this further: Next to our own, he argued, we’re likely to find the shit of our children or partners less disgusting than that of others, and so on. The less intimacy with the shitter, the more disgusting the shit.

Some of Sjaak’s examples of shit being “in place” – and therefore not eliciting feelings of disgust – went beyond the sphere of the intimate. For example, night-soil collectors, plumbers working in sewers, and nurses caring for patients who are incontinent, all may handle the faeces of relative strangers regularly, as part of their work. In a different place (for example on their sandwiches at lunchtime) the same stuff would be disgusting.

But in these cases, one might argue, couldn’t the absence of disgust be explained more parsimoniously by habituation? Or could both kinds of learning be involved?

There are other possible explanations too. The same phenomena Sjaak sought to explain by reference to social relations might also be explained from the point of view of disease ecology. A large literature from behavioural science and public health has looked at faeces from this perspective (e.g. Curtis & Biran 2001). From this perspective, we find our own shit less disgusting than others’, most of the time, because our own is unlikely to contain pathogens that are harmful to us. Those of our nearest and dearest, although they may harbour harmful pathogens, are less likely to do so than those of more distant contacts, because of shared environment.

Raising these alternative explanations isn’t to say that social relations aren’t important. They’re simply different levels of explanation.

This reminds me of Robert Sapolsky’s argument that, where human behaviour is concerned, explanation in terms of any one level of causation is almost always inadequate. Multilevel causation is the norm. Much of what we do and feel is shaped by culture: the network of concepts, symbols and habits that we learn as we grow up. But not all of it. A large part of what we feel and do is not explicable purely in terms of individual or social learning.

Nevertheless there’s a tendency within disciplines to focus on their own favoured explanatory frameworks to the exclusion of others – symbolism for social anthropologists, pathogen exposure for public health folks, and so on. It’s challenging to speak from a position of confidence about what makes humans tick – even about something as at first sight as simple as our relationship to dirt – without denying the validity of other levels of explanation. But that’s the challenge of a catholic anthropology (that is to say, one that embraces multiple ways of thinking about humankind).


Curtis, V., & Biran, A. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease. Is hygiene in our genes? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44(1), 17–31.

Douglas, M. 2000 [1966]. Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.


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Two families living in a house in Copenhagen used this toilet. Each family its own toilet roll.


Dirt speaks

Sjaak van der Geest

Thank you Rebecca Williams and Jed Stevenson for your comments. You raised questions that have haunted me – or rather pushed and inspired me – since I ‘discovered’ human defecation as a cultural phenomenon and anthropological puzzle. It is significant that both of you focus on disgust while my presentation discussed three qualities of dirt: disgust, humour and emphasis. But disgust comes first. It is the sine qua non for the other two. Without disgust, shit would not be able to provoke laughter or to produce rhetorical power.

Rebecca (and others in the audience) wondered if Mary Douglas (and I following her) are not overlooking the inherent material and sensory dirtiness of faeces. It is obvious that the fried bacon in my copious English breakfast turns into dirt when I spill it on my clean trousers. But what about faeces? Can they ever be clean and in place? Can they ever be not out of place? That was exactly my way of testing Douglas’s maxim, a test which she never applied herself. Defecatory dirt is not even mentioned in her book, if I remember correctly. The result of my test (mainly by casual observations, chats and introspection) was: she is right. The out-of-placeness concept also works for shit, provided we add a social dimension to what she calls ‘place’. Human relations are after all the place or situation in which we grow up and live. Privacy and intimacy versus public territory are profound qualities that to a large extent determine (I use that term with hesitation as I consider it a forbidden word in anthropology) … determine human experiences and well-being. Individual versus society is an age-old theme of (swinging) discussions in anthropology and sociology. The relational dimension of place – and, therefore, of faeces – has been my main contribution to the debate about dirt: dirt is most disgusting when it is unwanted intimacy.

This does not mean that I ignore the material qualities of defecatory dirt but I insist – in accordance with Douglas – that we normally overestimate the materiality of shit as source of disgust. The past few decades anthropologists have – in my view convincingly – argued that our senses are not culture-free, nature-given. We have learned that certain smells, touches, sights, etc. are repulsive. Babies and little kids are told that certain things and actions are ‘dirty’. “Bah bah” is what parents in my language tell their child if it wants to pick up what they (the parents) consider dirty. Why do human babies want to touch shit, and why are dogs attracted by turds of other dogs, and why do fish and pigs eat shit? This insight implies that a discussion on inherent versus added dirtiness of – for example – faeces becomes a circular affair. What was first, the material or the cultural? As an anthropologist I have learned to focus on living experiences, meanings and emotions instead of asking questions about first beginnings. But let me nevertheless speculate about the distant past.

Which leads to Jed’s comment on the possible evolutionary origin of human disgust concerning faecal materials. The central assumption of the evolutionary / ecological perspective is that there is hidden wisdom in disgust. Prehistorical ancestors realised that certain materials were harmful to their health and therefore avoided them. Disgust developed out of avoidance and maintained it. This explanation sounds plausible for certain plants, foods and animals but why should there be disgust? Would caution not be enough? And what could be the ‘evidence-based’ experience that led to the avoidance of faeces as pathogenic substances? In what way could the presence of human or animal faeces bring them to the conclusion that they were a danger to their health?

It is risky to speculate about emotions of people thousands of years ago, but I think that Douglas’s symbolic and my relational approach make more sense than the medical one, even if we use it for prehistoric human beings. Extreme dirt disturbs the order that people need to feel comfortable and secure, in primitive as well as present-day conditions. But why should faeces be extremely dirty, as I just said? Here my theory comes in. The distinction insiders-vs-outsider, us-vs-them, seems to me a more plausible constant in the history of mankind than disease prevention. There is no doubt that concern about health has always consisted, but not the clever medical reasoning that evolutionists assume when they defend their thesis about dirt avoidance.

Of course, there are examples that convincingly show that disgust follows the experience of getting sick. The smell of spoiled food is a warning against eating it. The causal link between eating spoiled food and vomiting or getting sick is clear but such a link is difficult to perceive in the case of faeces. Let me quote Valerie Curtis and co-authors (2011: 393), in spite of the fact that they arrive at another conclusion: “… learning from pathogens is difficult; they are too small to be seen with the naked eye; they are costly to learn about through trial and error learning; they spread easily and imperceptibly; and their sources are highly diverse.”

Valerie Curtis at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has a long career in public health, is probably the best person to bring into this discussion. Her early publications on perceptions of dirt leaned towards Douglas’s symbolic interpretation. In her dissertation The dangers of dirt (1998) she pleaded for an interdisciplinary approach to hygiene, in particular between health scientists, psychologists and anthropologists. During her fieldwork in Burkina Faso she observed that “… mothers saw little connection between hygiene and diarrheal diseases, but that hygiene was very important to them as a positive social value” Around that same period I had come to a similar conclusion during research in Ghana. Even in my own Dutch society, where medical science rules the waves, hygiene in daily life seems more a matter of being civilised, neat, and attractive than of disease prevention. Why should someone clean the house when he/she expects visitors? To protect the visitors against pathogens? Or to make a good impression on them? Everyone will agree that the cleaning has nothing to do with diseases, at least not in the intention of the cleaner. Of course, no one will deny that the cleaning may in fact have disease-preventive effects, but that is another point.

More recently, Curtis shifted to the medical-evolutionist position. She continued her appeal for interdisciplinary study but emphasised that the ultimate beginning of disgust should be sought in disease prevention. Unfortunately, anthropological interpretations became figurants in the debate. I agree that disease avoidance is very likely to be an important explanation for many forms of disgust but I hope to have made it plausible that avoidance of defecatory dirt does not fit well in the evolution model. Interestingly, there are lots of disgust that are unrelated to disease avoidance and lots of diseases that are unrelated to disgust. Lung cancer and obesity may be caused by addiction (the opposite of disgust, one could say) to pleasurable substances. Conversely, people may develop a life-long aversion to certain foods that are very healthy. I know impressive examples in my own family, but so will readers of this blog. Ironically, however, healthy but disgusting foods may in fact cause vomiting and sickness. This nocebo effect underscores the complexity of the link between disgust and disease avoidance.

If there is an evolutionary driver in the avoidance and disgust concerning faeces, it would more likely be in the avoidance of dirty substances that disturb the order of living. Living comfortably and feeling secured is rooted in a long on-going process of learning. Reducing comfort and security to disease prevention is exactly the ‘medical materialism’ that Douglas criticised and wanted to correct by bringing in the symbolism of dirt.

Let me finally address Jed Stevenson’s closing remark that disciplines tend to focus on “their own favoured explanatory frameworks to the exclusion of others”. I can only agree and have always regarded this tendency as a form of (academic) ethnocentrism. It is up to the readers to judge whether I am guilty of that tendency in this response. Disgust and dirt are an ideal playground to overcome these ethnocentric presumptions and beliefs. Different disciplines ask different questions. That is okay. But they must be willing to listen to all the answers to all the questions.


Curtis, V. 1998. The dangers of dirt: Household, hygiene and health. Wageningen: Agricultural University Wageningen, Dissertation.

Curtis, V. et al., 2011. Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behaviour. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 389–401.




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