Friday, July 21, 2017

"Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" / Miner - Analysis and Explanation

"Body Ritual Among the Nacirema"(link for text summary) is a sarcastic account of the none-existing "Nacirema" tribe which is actually American culture (Nacirema in reverse is American). Miner uses this satire to say a few things about the nature of ethnological work (and American culture).

In Miner's article the special domestic shrines the Nacirema use are bathrooms. The special charm-box is the medicine cabinet. Medicine men are obviously doctors while holy mouth men are dentists. The latipso is a hospital and the listener is a psychologist. Finally, the men scraping their face are shaving while the women baking their heads are putting them in salon hair dryers.

The meaning of Miner's "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" is that if we distance ourselves and our point of view, a culture will always look peculiar to us. On the other hand, looked at from within, even the strangest customs and practices might seem completely reasonable and justifiable. "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" is important because it demonstrates the problem of representation in ethnography. The purpose of article is to raise the question of how can we study a different culture from the outside and how can we understand our own culture from within. The article thus demonstrates the topic of cultural relativism, arguing that there is no one objective viewpoint from which to assess cultures, and that every culture should be understood and interpreted from the native's point of view.

Following Miner's article we can ask ourselves, as anthropologists, how should we approach the study of a particular society. If we are to distance ourselves and look at it as if we were aliens (like Miner does in regards to the Nacirema) we might gain one perspective that notices the hidden obvious and asks questions only someone from the outside can ask (see for example Alfred Schuzt's "The Stranger"). On the other hand, if we don't have the inner context of a society we might fail to understand the meaning of different things we see in it.
Many American will be insulted by Miner's account of them, and will justly claim that he fails to account for many factors in what he describes. On the other hand, an American reading "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" can gain a new interesting understanding about body culture in American society and see banal everyday practices in a new light.

see also: The Nacirema Culture explained

These might also interest you:

Clifford Geertz: Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
Clifford Geertz – From the Native's Point of View
Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas

Good books to have on this topic:




  1. The uncommon appeal box is the medication bureau. Medication men are clearly specialists while blessed mouth men are dental specialists. The latipso is a healing facility and the audience is a clinician. At long last, the men scratching their face are shaving while the ladies heating their heads are placing them in salon hair dryers. The significance of Miner's "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema is that on the off chance that we separate ourselves and our perspective, a culture will dependably look unconventional to us. Then again, took a gander at from inside, even the most unusual traditions and practices may appear to be totally sensible and legitimate.

  2. There were a fair amount of typos in this version, so I cleaned it up and added some vocabulary footnotes for classroom use. If anyone is interested, here you go:

    Summary: "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner

    "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner (1956) is an ethnological account of the Nacirema, a tribe located in North America. According to Miner, the Nacirema culture presents a highly developed market economy but with a main focus on ritual activity which focuses on the human body and its appearance of health. The Nacirema believe the body to be ugly and detestable and seek to avoid its uncleanliness through ritual and ceremony.

    The houses of the Nacirema culture, according to Miner, have shrines devoted to this purpose. Ceremonies are performed privately and are seldom discussed with the exception being children which need to be socialized into the ritual. The Nacirema, according to Miner, have "charm-boxes" as the central point of their shrines, which are full of magical materials distributed at the discretion of medicine men who use a secret old language. All materials are retained in the overflowing charm-boxes, and, though the people of the Nacirema sometimes even forget their original purpose, they still hang on to the materials, believing that they somehow protect their family. The Nacirema use their shrine daily for the purpose of ablution1, with the aid of pure holy water coming from the Water Temple.

    The Nacirema also have "holy-mouth-men" who rank below the medicine men in social status. The holy-mouth-men are entrusted with taking care of the mouth, which is an object of obsession for the Nacirema, who believe that it has "a supernatural influence on all romantic relationships". Miner also says that the Nacirema associate a healthy mouth with moral characteristics. This is why the children of the Nacirema are brought up on the "mouth-rite", which Miner describes as inserting into the mouth a bundle of hog hairs along with magical powders and performing particular movements. The Nacirema also routinely seek the somewhat torturous practice of the mouth-men which exorcise2 their mouths using elaborate tools and supernatural substances.

    The men of the Nacirema also have a special set of tools with which they perform a daily face-scraping ritual. Women, on the other hand, often bake their heads in small ovens four times a month.
    The medicine men of the Nacirema have massive temples called latipso in which elaborate ceremonies are being held for seriously sick people, with the help of vestal3 maidens. Miner writes that the Nacirema are eager to undergo ceremonies at the latipso, believing that it would keep them alive. These ceremonies come at a hefty cost of gifts and often include things like being naked in the presence of others, something the Nacirema greatly fear doing elsewhere.

    Miner also describes a witchdoctor called the "listener" who can exorcise demons from bewitched people. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. The listener can then treat people simply by listening to them talk about themselves.

    Towards the end of ”Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" Miner adds a few more characteristics of the tribe like "ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat" and a fixation of the entire tribe with women’s breast sizes. On the other hand, intercourse is "taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act". Miner concludes that the Nacirema are a "magic ridden people" whose continued survival is simply bewildering.

    1. Ablution: a ceremonial act of washing parts of the body or sacred containers.
    2. Exorcize: drive out or attempt to drive out (an evil spirit) from a person or place.
    3. Bewildering: confusing or mysterious

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