Friday, July 21, 2017

The Nacirema Culture Explained

The Nacirema are a peculiar culture in North America. According to Horace Miner's account of them in his 1956 article "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema", one of their main characteristics is a highly negative sentiment towards the human body which is considered by them to be ugly and sick. Miner describes how the entire ritualistic practices of the Nacirema revolve around this core issue of the body. For example, every house of the Nacirema people has one or more shrines devoted to purifying the body, shrines containing charm-boxes full of supernatural substances aimed at keeping the body away from disease. The Nacirema have special medicine-men which hold secret knowledge of special substances. These medicine men also function in a central temple in which people undergo brutal practices aimed at "curing" them from illness. The Nacirema are also fascinated with their mouths, believing that they determine one's social status. For this hand they have holy mouth men which also perform elaborate and almost sadistic rituals on people's mouths. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children and therefore they have a special "shaman" charachter called a "listner" who exorcises them. Another interesting attribute of the Nacirema Miner points to is the practice of Nacirema men who scrape their faces with sharp instruments and the Nacirema women who bake their heads in ovens.

Miner's account of the Nacirema culture is in fact an ethnological satire. The Nacirema don't exist and they are in fact American culture (Nacirema in reverse). The shrines are explained as toilets, charm-boxes are medicine cabinets, medicine men are doctors, temples are hospitals, holy mouth men are dentists, men shave their faces while women dry their hair at beauty salons.

Miner's "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" demonstrates the subject of cultural relativism and the argument that societies must be understood from their own context in order to be properly interpreted. On the other hand, Miner's alienated view of the "Nacirema culture" says a few very interesting things about American culture, unobservable from the inside. 

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

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: