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Body ritual among the Nacirema


I discovered this evening that Kam's parents, despite being dental professionals, had never encountered "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema," an article by Horace Miner originally published in 1956 in American Anthropologist. (Apparently a great deal of further scholarly work on the Nacirema has been published since then, though unfortunately many of those links are broken.)

The Miner article and Laura Bohannon's 1971 "Shakespeare in the Bush" should be required reading for anyone considering a career in anthropology.

If one enjoys those articles, one might also be interested in David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries.



In the same vein, may I recommend my own Notes From an Expedition to the Cellfoan People?

I got “Shakespeare in the Bush” in the introductory anthro course I took at UCSC, and y’know, I was never quite sure what to make of it. Yes, it’s worth noting that the customs and mores we take for granted aren’t universal. But there’s an uncomfortably paternalistic subtext: that the anthropologist, cosmopolitan that she is, can understand the customs of the Tiv on their own terms, but that they can only understand her customs in terms of their own.

After a while I can’t tell what’s right — it’s a bit like that Charles Addams cartoon of the man sitting between two mirrors getting his hair cut, where if you look deeply enough into the series of reflections you notice that one of the reflected heads is a monster.

But maybe it was just me. Needless to say, neither the fact that it was UCSC, nor that I was a freshman, nor that I was coming straight off a “core” course on “Values and Change in a Diverse Society,” made it any easier for me to think straight at the time.

Now, can anyone explain to me the exact mechanism by which the ritually predetermined loser of either a pelote competition or a Trobriand Islands cricket match manages to throw the game?

I should've noted that I'm not even sure that "Shakespeare in the Bush" is a true story. And I agree that there's a certain "Aren't these primitive people quaint?" tone to it. I should've said that I'd make these pieces required reading, but would follow them up with a good dose of critical theory and a bunch of discussion. Of course, the result would be that the anthropology departments would fall apart under their own self-examination, which I gather is what actually happened in the early '90s. I wonder if anyone wrote any anthropology papers about the culture of anthro departments at the time.

...And I should further note that, as with so many other things, I'm merely a dabbler in anthropology; I have no formal training in it, and everything I think I know I picked up secondhand from anthro grad student friends, mostly in the early '90s, plus smatterings of critical theory (in which I'm also a dilettante with only the slightest idea what I'm talking about) here and there over the past fifteen years, plus my own heavily biased notions of what people and cultures are like. So I really have no business saying what should and shouldn't be required reading, nor do I know what actually is required reading; that comment was more for rhetorical emphasis than anything else.

Have I sufficiently disclaimed all responsibility for what I wrote yet? :)

More than sufficiently. :) Anyway, I don’t disagree with you. Even if “Shakespeare” is as much a send-up as “Nacirema”, it’s still, as you say, a good starting point for critical discussion.

I just wish it had occurred to me at age 18 that those critical discussions might be going on in the classes I was skipping. (Or that my professor had spent more time talking about that sort of thing and less time showing us slides of his Yemeni boyfriend and his Yemeni boyfriend’s fancy rhinoceros-horn dagger — but I digress.)

On a side note, something else I read in that class: you might (if you haven’t already) want to check out Coming of Age in New Jersey by Michael Moffatt, a Rutgers anthropology professor who went undercover as a “mature student” to research the social structures, rituals, and mating habits of American undergraduates in their natural habitat.

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