Nacirema and Its Sociological Effects
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In Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” the reader is introduced to an interesting group called the Nacirema, whose culture is then described and dissected in very tribal and primitive terms. At first, it is unclear as to where or how this culture exists under the guidelines and practices and beliefs its society maintains; but, the reader soon discovers, with contextual clues and a bit of pondering, that Nacirema is actually American culture. Miner uses creative contextual clues and diction to confuse the reader, letting the discovery and satire push his purpose, as well as allow reflection on how certain societies tend to inaccurately perceive foreign countries similar to Nacirema. The purpose of Nacirema is to describe and present unusual aspects of American culture “as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.” Applying Nacirema to sociological purposes, Nacirema applies these over-exaggerated cultural customs with tribal diction to allow the audience to experience American culture from a foreign viewpoint.
To start off, Miner’s article is incredibly elusive, from the “rituals” to their specific details. Had the audience not caught on from the backwards “American” to form Nacirema and tried to solve each practice as it was discussed, they were in for quite a confusing, yet intriguing story (being essentially the entire objective!). His amplified examples of simple American practices, from hospital visits to shaving, all seems extremely bizarre and unusual due to the tribal diction and exaggeration. For example, Miner describes the act of brushing one’s teeth as “a ritual consisting of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures” (p. 504). Miner also confuses the reader by twisting the statements and behaviors of the Nacirema culture; for example, he writes “They [Nacirema] also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber” (p. 504). How could the reader possibly guess that Miner was talking about washing out a child’s mouth to prevent them from saying bad words, with no prior analysis?
Continuing discussion of the examples, Miner likes to focus on manipulation of different careers within a society, such as doctors, nurses, dentists, and even psychiatrists. He writes “This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched… The counter-magic of the witch-doctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember… It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth” (p. 506). How could this not cause the reader to reevaluate a common practice as some sort of irrelevant, tribal nonsense? And finally, to create Nacirema’s sense of mystery and a story-like tone, Miner tells of the backstory in discovering and analyzing Nacirema using Professor Linton as a character and giving a vague location of the Nacirema culture through a qualitative research perspective.
The purpose of Nacirema was to show how common American behaviors and beliefs can seem magical and silly by describing them as if they were tribal behaviors. Miner tactfully does so through his satire, although it may not seem as evident at first glance. For example, he states “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease” (p. 503), when it’s really just saying Americans spend too much time and money on their bodies. Another example is when he talk of this “magical shrine” in which each family of Nacirema has, where they keep magical charms and curative potions that allow them to live. “As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again” (p. 504). People stockpile old medicines, typically forgetting what they were even for, but hoard them in the case they might need them again. All that to tell Americans they have too much medicine! The point of satire is to makes fun of people’s weaknesses, mistakes, foolishness, and wrong behaviors. The effect of satire is social criticism; in other words, a satire criticizes the way people do things. Satire is trying to make society better by pointing out where it is wrong in a funny way.
Basically, Miner pokes fun at common American practices. Why is this useful? Why is this studied? Well, the way Miner describes Nacirema, making it out to be some tribal society that believes in magic and weird rituals, is unfortunately how many people view foreign cultures they don’t exactly understand, specifically American culture. The point in showing how Professor Linton described brushing teeth as a ritual of moving around a bundle of hog hair in the mouth is to show how easy it is for one society to misperceive a common practice in another culture. This shows that just because qualitative research is obtained, doesn’t mean it directly and accurately interprets behaviors and beliefs. Another misperception is that because the other culture’s practices are not the norm of the reader’s society, that the reader’s culture is the normal one, or even superior to the “tribe.” This example of ethnocentrism only leads to global discrimination and misconceived perceptions of other cultures. By providing the opportunity for Americans to reflect upon their own cultural relativism, Miner allows them, as well as all cultures, to see how to maintain an open mind when learning and accepting new and unknown cultures, as they can just as easily view other societies as tribes that ritualistically swish hog hair in their mouths.
Horace Miner. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 503-507.