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Analysis of Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

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Miner’s (1956) Body Ritual Among the Nacirema examines the customs of the North American Nacirema tribe. This society is mainly concerned with their health and handsomeness, depending on magic and body rituals to prolong lives and enhance looks. These customs require great efforts to maintain, such as the annual visits to “holy-mouth-men” or the “substantial gifts” given to “medicine men” for their health services. The Nacirema’s hygienic practices mainly occur in the privacy of their “household shrines”. These include bathing, excretion, and a series of “mouth-rites” (Miner, 1956). To look appealing, the Nacirema show inclination towards masochism with men “lacerating” their skin with sharp instruments and women “[baking] their heads in small ovens” (Miner, 1956). They even want their properties to look appealing, as the poor try to imitate the lavish “shrines” of the rich. The Nacirema’s attention to health and public appearance makes them depend on the “pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions” (Miner, 1956). They believe the human body is ugly, and that magical ceremonies will delay further deterioration. It is hard to imagine how the Nacirema might live without their rituals. However, it is important to consider how this tribe is viewed from the bias of “[people’s] high places of safety in the developed civilization” (Miner, 1956).

Who is the Nacirema?

The Nacirema, while depicted as an exotic and uncivilized society, is American culture described by an outsider. Since the paper was presumably written for Western readers, the outsider’s perspective gives them a detached view of their customs by distorting ordinary behaviors into bizarre “rituals”. Despite writing an honest account of American life, Miner’s language leads people to think he is describing another society. One that either existed in the past or exists now without contemporary “civilities”. Instead of referring to doctors and dentists by those names, Miner (1956) calls them “medicine-men” and “holy-mouth-men”, suggesting spiritual or primitive undertones within this tribe. He also interprets prescription medication as “charms and magical potions” (Miner, 1956) that Americans cannot live without. Perhaps Miner wants readers to pity this society; who are so removed from science and technology that they still believe in magic. He certainly renders himself as a more superior being studying this tribe, and this feeling transfers to the reader. The irony, of course, is they are feeling sorry for themselves.

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Miner’s article encourages readers to be less biased by deconstructing their perceptions of what is “strange” and what is “familiar”. When sociologists are studying other cultures or demographics, they should strive to be as impartial as they can. What would serve them is to be aware of other cultural ‘norms’ and disregard the notion that their way of living is conventional. The lesson sociologists can take from this article is the importance of objectivity and cultural relativity when examining other civilizations. To be culturally relative is to consider all social systems as equal and not inferior to one another (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019). It is the opposite of Miner’s ethnocentric approach in the article. Instead of trying to understand the Nacirema, he is purposefully baffled by, and judgmental of them. This is evident in how he views certain beauty standards and practices as “revolting” or the “extremes to which human [behavior] can go” (Miner, 1956). In Insiders and Outsiders: Exploring Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity in Sociology Courses, Schopmeyer and Fisher (1993) define ethnocentrism as the “dual judgment that the cultural patterns and practices of one’s own society are ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and that other societies – because they are different – are necessarily ‘abnormal’ and therefore inferior”. Schopmeyer and Fisher (1993) stress the importance of developing the “sociological perspective” to recognize reality as a social construct shaped by the experiences of members in a society. Social Constructionism theorizes that seemingly natural aspects of life are maintained by social processes that vary over time and around the world (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019). In this context, the Nacirema’s body rituals can be understood, or at least appreciated, by readers.

Sociological Theories

Rituals are a way for societies to function because these behaviors when done repeatedly and as a collective, create the ‘norms’ that everyone in a “social environment” adheres to. The Nacirema’s body rituals can then be credited for fostering social solidarity and stability among individuals. These are elements of the Structural Functionalism theory, which states that “relatively stable patterns of social [behavior] (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019)” give people’s lives structure. Rituals such as bathing and brushing one’s teeth provide structure to the Nacirema’s lives. Structural Functionalism requires individuals to be socialized into their communities by families, schools, peers, and the media. Through these socialization agents, individuals learn to “function in social life” (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019), take on vital roles, and be self-aware of their interactions (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019). This is relevant to Miner’s (1956) article because he talks about an entire population that is socialized to perform body rituals in the name of health and beauty. These rituals can be seen as having either ‘manifest’ or ‘latent’ consequences. For instance, dental visits are intended for oral health and teeth adjustment, however, an unintended result is society’s obsession with perfect-looking teeth.

Miner (1953) also notes that wealthier individuals have more bathrooms than poorer ones, and how theirs are “walled with stone” (Miner, 1956) as opposed to the common “wattle and daub construction” (Miner, 1956). Structural Functionalists can examine how the Nacirema’s properties allow them to distinguish themselves from each other based on affluence. Cooley’s Looking-Glass Self theory, which suggests that people’s self-esteem is based on how they think others perceive them, can also be applied to the poor families who try to emulate the rich by “[putting] pottery plaques [on] their shrine walls” (Miner, 1956).

This article examines the values and practices of American culture but does not attempt to grasp the meaning behind them. For instance, Miner (1956) takes the “ritual ablution of the mouth for children […] to improve their moral fiber” literally and assumes that parents associate virtue with clean mouths. However, the meaning behind this act is to scold children for behaving inappropriately, particularly, for cursing. There is no actual correlation between clean mouths and morality. Symbolic Interactionism is therefore relevant because it contextualizes social behaviors by understanding the subjective meanings attached to them (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019). Social interactionists can look at the symbolism behind washing children’s mouths out with soap. How it serves as a ‘cleanse’ what is perceived to be a ‘foul mouth’.

Article’s Viewpoint

The advantage of writing about American culture from an outsider’s perspective is that it gives Americans an external lens through which they can examine their behavior. Miner’s inversion of their practices facilitates readers to develop the “sociological imagination”, defined as “the ability to see the connection between personal troubles and social structures” (Brym, Roberts, & Strohschein, 2019). The sociological imagination allows people to consider alternative perspectives and to look at their own situation in a new light. Miner’s viewpoint challenges readers to re-evaluate what they perceive as familiar and to expose American ethnocentrism. It certainly holds many valuable lessons for sociologists and students alike. However, to promote the importance of objectivity, Miner has to speak subjectively. As mentioned, he portrays himself as a higher being from a more ‘superior’ civilization studying a tribe that he describes as less-developed. The disadvantage of his viewpoint is that he just observes American behavior and does not engage with citizens to understand them. His lack of understanding of the meaning of their actions makes it easy for him to dismiss American life as solely pretentious or barbaric. He even admits to not studying this culture completely enough as he states, “It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be a careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people” (Miner, 1956). It is, however, important to note how Miner purposefully limited his viewpoint to teach a lesson. One might say his perspective is spot on and has no true disadvantages.   

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