Body Ritual Among the Nacirema Analysis
What is the purpose of ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema’?
The author’s purpose in writing this article was not to show the “Nacirema” as an example of how extreme human behavior can become, but how an outside perspective can affect your perception of an alien culture. If one were to look at the “Nacirema’s” cultural behaviors regarding physical appearance and health without any insight or knowledge of the specific beliefs or values of that culture, they might seem bizarre and even incomprehensible. By showing behaviors and “rituals” performed by this unknown tribe, Miner allowed others to see that the way studies were representing distinctive cultures was narrowminded and defective.
Without the proper comprehension of the basis of any society, huge cultural misunderstandings could occur. Of course, in Miner’s article, the “Nacirema” refers to the American people, but in discussing ‘them’ as an exotic or unfamiliar people you are forced to forgo any ethnocentric notions of American society and try to understand their customs and rituals from an etic perspective. It’s an interesting and intriguing way to show a cultural analysis of a “primitive” people and provide a biased outlook on a different culture.
The author’s thesis is that the “Nacirema” are a people based around their perception of physical appearances and peculiar rituals. Although the concept of the human body as an “ugly” and decaying vessel is paramount to the rationalization of such rituals, much of their daily routines are meant to avoid or dissuade this conviction. These curious rituals occur in the privacy of “shrines” and, for the most part, the human body and its natural functions are veiled and only spoken of to “medicine men” and “witch-doctors”.
Also, they seem to be a “masochistic” society constructed around willingly subjecting themselves to pain and “tortures”. The “Nacirema” deliberately permit “medicine men” and “holy-mouth-men” to perform excruciating procedures to prevent the inevitable decay of their bodies and mouths. And while the ideal human form is unrealistic and unattainable for most, much of their wealth is allocated for “rites” used to painfully correct their unsatisfactory genetic traits. Miner’s article presents numerous anthropological concepts including culture, social behaviors, symbols, material culture and holism.
While providing us with a synchronic view of an unexplored culture, Miner tackles the principle mindset that governs the “Nacirema’s” social customs and “rituals”, looks at key symbols and material possessions as the focus of the culture, and highlights the importance of studying a culture in its entirety to gain a full and accurate understanding. The psychology of the “Nacirema” people is one of malcontent. There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with one’s body and this inescapable attitude reaches into almost every aspect of their lives. The psychology of the “Nacirema” people is one of malcontent.
There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with one’s body and this inescapable attitude reaches into almost every aspect of their lives. The “Nacirema” seem to necessitate unhappiness and even pain. They voluntarily allow “holy-moth-men” to subject them to torturous practices meant to postpone the inevitable decay of their mouths, pay “herbalists” to provide them with “potions” and “charms” expected to improve their health and consent to “medicine men” poking them with needles and performing life-threatening procedures all in the name of beauty and driven by the fundamental mentality that the body is ugly.
Miner uses cultural materialism to explore and explain different aspects of the “Nacirema” culture. By emphasizing bathrooms as a “shrine” and sinks as “fonts”, Miner is better able to explain the obsession with body image and “rituals” used to clean and beautify our bodies. Through the “chests built into walls” or cabinets full of medicine, most of which are used once and stowed away, Miner can describe the underlying need of the “Nacirema” people to be consumed by their health.
Most people hoard these medicines, creams and tonics out of the fear that they may once again be necessary and, at the same time, hope they won’t. Holism is not a concept lost on Horice Miner. What he was trying to convey in his article was that you cannot just take a glimpse of another culture and expect to understand it. In order to appreciate other cultures you need to submerge yourself in that culture and be conscious of every aspect of the culture to fully grasp an understanding of it.
Miner’s satirical interpretation of the American cultures was meant to prove that without the in depth knowledge of a cultures beliefs and structure, there’s no way to make sense of even basic customs. The first two chapters of Miller’s Cultural Anthropology in a Globalizing World are meant to define and explain what cultural anthropology is and how to properly conduct research. Horace Miner’s article attempts to do the same thing with an entirely different approach.
Nacirema culture summary
Instead of saying outright that the way previous research had been carried out was misrepresenting entire populations of people, he decided to take an anthropological look at a well known culture from an outside perspective and show how easily its ideas and principles could be misunderstood when taken out of it own social context. This reading was meaningful and thought provoking to me because instead of a monotonous essay preaching about the importance of cultural relativism when analyzing different cultures, Miner was able to make his point with a slight mocking and sarcastic undertone.
I found it provocative and compelling that he was able to interpret and criticize the absurdities of his own culture and provide insight on the importance of perspective in studying any culture. He pokes fun at the “Nacirema’s” conflicting ideology of obsessing over displays of beauty and opulence while becoming engulfed in indulgent, self-destructive behavior and engrossing the need to continually make more wealth. Miner, Horace 1956 Body Ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist 58:3. Miller, Barbara 2010 Cultural Anthropology in a Globalizing World 2nd edition Boston: Pearson.