Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

The latest post on How Anthropologists Actually do Anthropology discussed the actual fieldwork of anthropology; the process and the how-to of so called data collection. However, as in many scenarios, raw data alone cannot be presented to the public because of its incomprehensibility. That is why anthropologists write and produce ethnographies. Ethnographies are the final written products of the accumulation and analysis of recorded fieldwork observations. This is the final work and the pinnacle of the academic research of anthropologists. Ethnographies can include short ethnographic articles but usually, they are full-length books.


To begin to illustrate the strategic method as well as the difficulties involved in ethnographic writing, one might begin, as many anthropologists have, by looking at the infamous ‘ethnographic’ article on the Nacirema community by Horace Miner titled Body Ritual among the Nacirema. “In the article the Nacirema people are depicted as a culture obsessed with rituals with regards to the vanity of the human body as a whole. There is also the description of a shrine where the obsession is mostly performed or takes place. Within this shrine are a number of charms (medicines, magical materials) placed inside it for safekeeping, and to reuse for the coming daily rituals. One of the repeated rituals done mostly by men is that of what is illustrated as a ‘scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument’. Beneath the shrine is a font where each person of the household performs the ‘brief rite of ablution’ (washing of the hands and/or body) with holy water. This ‘holy water’ comes from a community ‘Water Temple’. To further the fixation on the human body, the Nacirema also make a couple of visits (twice a year) to ‘holy mouth-men’ known as the ‘hierarchy of magical practitioners’, specialists of the mouth. In the Nacirema culture there is a powerful attraction or enchantment with the symbols between the mouth and an individual’s morals. In making these visits to the holy mouth-men, it is believed that the Nacirema will draw people toward them, as well as stop the deterioration of their teeth. The author also writes about Professor Linton’s explanation of the profession of the ‘listener’ among the Nacirema people. As the given name says, this individual listens to the troubles/fears of a person beginning with the earliest recollection of their life, and performs counter-magic to ease or do away with the fears. Within the community there is the temple of the latipso, where the severely ill go to be stripped of their clothing and have exaggerated ceremonies performed by not only a magician, but group(s) of vestal maidens assisting the magician(s). The overall assumption of the Nacirema people is that they have a belief that the body is ugly, and through the daily activities of the rituals performed on the body, will bring satisfaction and meaning to their life.”


The study on the fictitious culture of the Nacirema peoples clearly reflects research conducted through participant observation. At first glance however, although it may seem as though the anthropologist is writing about a distant unfamiliar society (SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers ahead..), the researcher is in fact describing the practices regarding the human body (oral hygiene practices and rituals, etc.) of an American society. A second glance at the article will bring to light the fact that Nacirema is in actuality American spelled backwards (latipso is also hospital spelled backwards). The “lavish” and “extravagant” description of the so called rituals and ceremonial practices are in fact practices many of us, even “non-Americans”, identify with but couldn’t due to the over-romanticized exotification of the society. In its essence, the satirical article is a cautionary tale on how anthropologists, but also other humanities and social sciences academics, should write about themselves and others.


In other words, the greatest challenge we face as “anonymous anthropologists” when producing ethnographies, is finding the perfect balance between the dichotomous juxtaposition of human life. How can we, and of course how do anthropologists, maintain a perfect balance between familiarization and romanticization when we write about societies? How can we depict perfectly the reality that human beings are all the same but also simultaneously all different through our literary style? And finally, how do we maintain the perfect balance between objectivity and subjectivity in our descriptive writing on cultures?


Although the challenges are unique to different situations, one can keep in mind a few basic “awareness rules” when producing an ethnography. First (referring to the article Container Definition of Culture), we must be careful not to assume that different phenomenonas, patterns, and personal insights we recorded apply to everyone in the community. Culture is very much abstract and interpreted differently by each individual participating in the society, yet by writing about a community, the anthropologist becomes prone to over-generalizations and depictions of a politicized concept of culture. Second, we must be aware that we will always hold subjective biases and view the other in relation to ourselves. This acceptance however will help us reflexively understand, to a certain degree, what these biases are so that we can try to eliminate them. Third, and finally, we must be careful with our words. Understanding that language is embodied with, and specific to socio-cultural contexts, our active vocabulary choice affects other people’s understanding of the people and communities we are talking about. When we use gendered terms for example, I myself identifying as a heterosexual male, must be careful not to assess pronouns (gendering) through my language use (“hello everyone” instead of “hello guys” for example, or “they did it” [“they” even when addressing a single person] instead of “she did it”).


Of course, we are attempting to quench an unquenchable thirst, yet we must try as best as we can, because as writers we possess the power to influence in ways that transcend human comprehension. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, and the keyboard heavier than the pen.


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