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: