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Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

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The Nacirema are an unusual North American culture. According to Horace Miner, one of their main characteristics is “the human body, the appearance, and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people” (Miner, 1956). Miner explains how most of the Nacirema’s rituals revolve around the body. For example, every house of the Nacirema people has one or more shrines, where its sole purpose is to purify the human body of debility and disease. The Nacirema have Holy Mouth Men who perform intense and almost sadistic rituals on people’s mouths to keep their mouth and their relationships strong. The article has many examples of how the Nacirema go to great lengths to keep their bodies up to a high standard within their respective communities. To the reader’s surprise, Miner’s article is an ethnological satire, because the story of the Nacirema is about American culture. The shrines are bathrooms, and the holy mouth men are dentists. Miner’s implicit argument is that there is no one way to look at a culture and that different points of view will provide different answers. Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” demonstrates that if we distance ourselves and our point of view from a culture, it will always look unusual or odd. But if we embed ourselves into a culture and look at it from the point of view of the natives, even the strangest rituals will seem acceptable or reasonable.

Miner uses various examples to show that different points of view will provide different answers. A key example is the holy mouth men, who performed intense and almost sadistic rituals on people’s mouths to keep their mouth and their relationships strong. When Miner is explaining them, he writes “The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships.” (Miner, 1956). Reading this from a subjective, western point of view, one might find these practices and ideals very unorthodox or even label them as primitive. On the other hand, if one was to be able to look at a culture from the view of a native, one would see that the holy mouth men are simply dentists, and the intense rituals that they perform are just everyday procedures dentists do. This is a great example of how if we embed ourselves into a culture, we will be able to see how similar it is to our own. A second key example used by Miner was the shrines. Miner explains that to avoid debility and disease, the Nacirema use powerful influences through rituals and ceremonies and that every household has at least one shrine dedicated to this purpose. Hearing that these villages use ceremonies and rituals to rid themselves of disease can sound like an exorcism-typed process to a western person. It is quite the opposite because these shrines are not magical, but they represent the bathrooms in American culture. Reflecting on the Nacirema from a distanced point of view provides a very small, and untrue idea of how the society and culture of the Nacirema functions. Both the holy mouth men and the shrines are excellent examples of how perspective can shape your ideas about culture.

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Miner’s article relates to many of the topics covered in class. The article has mentions ethnocentrism, ethnocentric fallacy, and cultural relativism. As mentioned in class, ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge the behaviors or beliefs of other cultures from the perspective of own’s culture. As a reader, the first experience with the article would make the Nacirema look extremely unordinary and irregular. If the article is read from a western point of view with western cultural ideals, the idea of the medicine men and the holy mouth men would seem completely insane. It isn’t until a reader steps back and takes more of an anthropology-based approach where it becomes clear that the article is in fact about American culture. Similarly, the article may also demonstrate an ethnocentric fallacy. This is the assumption that one’s culture and way of thinking are superior to another’s. It can be assumed that ethnocentric fallacy is inevitable based on the fact that if you were to give this article to a modern American, they might get offended or mad. They may think that their culture is nothing like how Miner describes it and they may argue that it fails to account for factors that people deal with throughout their day-to-day lives. In addition to ethnocentrism and ethnocentric fallacy, the article has references to cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the attempt to understand the beliefs and behaviors of other cultures in terms of the culture in which they are found. As stated above, the main message of the article is if we embed ourselves into a culture and look at it from the point of view of the natives, even the strangest rituals will seem acceptable or reasonable. This is proven by the fact that it is nearly impossible to see that the Nacirema culture is the American culture without fully embedding ourselves into that community and looking at the whole society from the point of view of a Nacirema.

Through the reading, many questions arose. The article infers that cultural relativism is the best way to examine another culture. It is known from a lecture that cultural relativism can cause some problems. For example, it says that behaviors cannot be condemned, and it allows any and everything. There are problems with both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, so what is the best way to examine a culture? Furthermore, it was confusing as to why Miner never explicitly stated that the article was about American culture. That was required by the reader to find out on their own. Could Miner have not added a section after the main article explaining the Nacirema being American society and why he chose such a distant view of the American people? The last question that arose was, who gets to represent people in the media and why do they get to? What qualifies them? Why is Miner allowed to write about the American culture and what makes it okay to use such an alienated point of view, only to make the whole article a satire?

To conclude, the article “Body Rituals of the Nacirema” by Horace Miner, provides the insight that different points of view will provide different answers. Depending on one’s view of the Holy Mouth men, the Shrines, and the practices that the Nacirema use, it may seem very peculiar or very normal. The article reintroduces many arguments covered in the lecture, such as ethnocentrism, ethnocentric fallacy, and cultural relativism, but also arose questions within the reader’s mind. The article is a satire towards American culture, and Miner’s depiction that “it is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves” (Miner, 1956) gives an alternate point of view on the way that Western cultures work and operate.

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