[UPDATE: This has become my most frequently read blog post of all. I’m guessing that’s because a large number of undergraduate students come here wondering what Body Ritual among the Nacirema means. If that’s you, welcome! I would just ask two things of you: first, please do read Body Ritual and try to figure it out for yourself first before reading this post, and second, once you have read the post below, don’t spoil it for everyone else.]
One of the most important anthropological studies to be conducted in the past century is Horace Miner’s (very short) 1956 classic Body Ritual among the Nacirema. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to follow the link now and examine Miner’s penetrating insights into one of the most unusual cultural groups yet to be studied by ethnographers. Please do read the essay before you read the rest of this blog post, as the post won’t be very helpful without it.
(Scroll down to read the rest of the post.)
Strange and incomprehensible rituals, aren’t they? At least, that’s how they seem at first. But if you haven’t figured it out yet: what does “Nacirema” spell backwards?
The obsessive and sadomasochistic bodily rituals that Miner describes with such scope are our own, not only among the Americans but among most Western cultures, and increasingly in the rest of the world as well: bathrooms, toothbrushes, nurses, dentists. But described in the language of the outsider, these things all come to look strange. (They also come to look like “religion,” another reason I don’t care much for the concept.)
There are many messages that one can take away from Miner’s exercise. In my view, one of the most important is that other cultures are not as different from ours as we often think they are.
I think that my post on performance theory was too strongly phrased; it sounds as if I’m saying we should always understand other cultures’ myths in terms of their content and not their effects, and understand rituals in terms of their meaning rather than effect. But I don’t believe this. I’ve been thinking about the point since writing my recent Christmas posts. In both of these posts (and the comments below) I was effectively arguing that certain rituals and myths are best viewed through something like a performative lens: the rituals are best understood as preserving family tradition, the myths as stories that delight children despite their being false statements. It’s just that these particular rituals and myths, of course, are ours: the rituals of Christmas and the myth of Santa Claus.
So indeed, the fundamental point of ritual and myth can very often be in what they do, not merely in what they mean. But that’s as true of our own cultures as it is of others’. Sometimes they make claims regardless of their truth, because of those claims’ effects; and sometimes they perform traditional actions regardless of their meaning or cognitive content. But so do we. Like us, they make statements about the physical world and its causal processes; the fact that those statements seem bizarre to us does not mean that people were only saying them for their effects.
(Sorry for the long gap in the post. I just didn’t want to give the game away, for those encountering Miner for the first time.)