Body Ritual Among the Nacirema | Study Guide

Horace Mitchell Miner

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Body Ritual Among the Nacirema | Context


Anthropological Satire

In "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" Horace Mitchell Miner employs satire to mock American culture as it relates to the human body and to highlight the preconceptions inherent to people's understanding of their own cultures as opposed to others. Satire is a genre of literature that exposes human vices or shortcomings through ridicule, parody, exaggeration, and other literary methods. Though satire is not often used in nonfiction, Miner's description of the Nacirema in anthropological terms effectively pokes fun at American society. The essay acts as a parody of other anthropological papers, assuming an outsider's perspective and a scholarly tone.

Satire often appears sincere on the surface but upon closer examination reveals a second, somewhat hidden meaning. Even the names used within the essay reveal this meaning, beginning with Nacirema, which is American spelled backward. Miner describes the Nacirema as a tribe that undergoes various bizarre rituals. Take, for example, the ritual that the reader comes to understand as brushing teeth. Miner describes the tribe members' obsession with the "mouth-rite" to the point where they insert hog hairs and magical powders into the mouth, moving them with "highly formalized" gestures.

Miner is able to convince the reader of the ridiculousness of the tribe's rituals by positioning readers as outside, scholarly observers of the tribe. With some verbal irony he points out how Americans believe in "magic" rather than rationalism, often mentioning the superstitions they live by. This strategy in turn leads the reader to eventually realize that Miner is actually mocking the reader as a participant of American society. Miner's use of satire thus serves to show how an anthropological perspective can help us to see ourselves in a new light. At the same time, it calls attention to the ways in which ethnocentrism can affect anthropological perception and interpretation.

Cultural Relativism and Ethnocentrism

Anthropology is the study of the development of the human species, societies, and human behavior. Literally meaning "the study of man," anthropology finds its roots in the 18th- and 19th-century study of the supposed laws that govern the development of society and culture. The goal of anthropology is to understand the human condition, and its study helps humans understand one another. Its subfields include cultural anthropology (the study of different cultures), archaeology (the study of material artifacts), biological anthropology (the study of human evolution), and linguistic anthropology (the study of language development). These subfields are connected and combine to explain the complex human condition.

Miner wrote "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" through an anthropological lens, looking at the culture's economy, health practices, and beliefs. The essay is often used as an introduction in sociology and anthropology courses. Miner mimics other anthropological essays so that at first a reader might not realize they are reading about a familiar culture.

Miner's essay focuses on two subtopics: cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. According to cultural relativism, a people's values, beliefs, and customs should be understood based on the people's own culture rather than an outsider's. Ethnocentrism is the belief or attitude that one's own culture is somehow better than another. Ethnocentrism leads to the evaluation of cultures according to preconceptions related to the evaluator's own culture. In raising the issues of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism, Miner provokes the reader to question whether anthropological analyses should consider a society in the context of others or study societies in isolation. In the context of an outsider's viewpoint, the customs and beliefs of the Nacirema seem outlandish. But considered within the context of the society (especially when the reader discovers it is their own society that is being satirized), the viewpoint changes.

Cause-and-Effect Analysis

"Body Ritual among the Nacirema" is an essay that examines anthropological cause and effect. Anthropologists observe behaviors, rituals, and cultural features of a group of people. In Miner's era, anthropology was dominated by the structuralist approach, which held that social behavior was governed by underlying, universal principles that could be empirically discovered—an approach that has since been discredited. Anthropologists developed a mission to understand these root causes of behavior, including potential psychological, historical, and other reasons.

In the essay, Miner provides an overview of the body rituals of the Nacirema people. This is the effect, the cause of which he then sets out to find. Ultimately, he proposes that the Nacirema hold an underlying belief that the human body is ugly and has a "natural tendency ... to debility and disease." The essay serves to prove this claim through examples that include the use of latipsos (hospitals), diet, oral care, and more. Each example in the text serves to support the claim that the Nacirema are fixated on and ashamed of their bodies, from "ritual fasts" to "ceremonial feasts," and that this shame is the cause of the extensive rituals. By continuing to refer to the tribe as Nacirema, rather than American, Miner allows the reader to read his support of the claim from an outside point of view, rather than as a self-reflective exercise.

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