Nacirema Rituals

Horace Miner’s classic “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” endures as a first-day favorite for Introduction to Anthropology courses on bizarre Nacirema Rituals. For many students it is a first take at What is Anthropology? It is also still by far the most downloaded article from the American Anthropological Association–see What is the Deal with the Nacirema?!? In previous courses I’ve used the version re-printed in Applying Anthropology and made a Nacirema Rituals PowerPoint based on that version. Please feel free to use, modify, and share. I now go straight to the original 1956 source, which is now an open access download.

I use “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” as a way to introduce anthropology, ideas of human similarity and difference, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism. It corresponds to the material in the section on Human Nature and Anthropology. These issues are surprisingly current. Accounts of human beings as inherently warlike, only tamed by modern states and modern moral codes, have become newly popular and quite entrenched. See War, Peace, & Human Nature: Convergence of Evolution & Culture for a 2013 book that provides a counter-narrative.

The presentation preserves the “surprise” of the Nacirema, revealing their identity on slide 5. I use this article on the first day of class, giving students 20 minutes to read and report back. I always wonder how much I should preserve this surprise. It seems especially strange as a simple web-search reveals a Wikipedia Nacirema that gives it all away. There are also several videos on YouTube–Who are the Nacirema? seems like one of the better ones, capturing how my classes often proceed.

With a bit of tweaking, I probably could have preserved the sadistic surprise, but decided to preempt it quickly this year. I then emphasize how Miner’s article is in some ways prophetic and has enduring relevance.

I also incorporate two slides that could critique how “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” is usually introduced. First, from Renato Rosaldo’s Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis:

In retrospect, one wonders why Miner’s article was taken simply as a good-natured joke rather than as a scathing critique of ethnographic discourse. Who could continue to feel comfortable describing other people in terms that sound ludicrous when applied to ourselves? (1989:52)

I use this to underscore how we need to be careful when reading overgeneralizing ethnographic accounts.

Second, from Michaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home, on how Miner’s language

effaces the colonial encounter through which we have developed notions of “witch doctors” and “exotic rituals.” Miner’s whimsical frame also denies stratification and power dynamics on the American end. (1998:61)

I’ve always felt Miner’s account is misleading on the power dynamics of various ethnocentrisms–the sections from di Leonardo emphasize this aspect.

Still, Miner’s article remains an ideal way to introduce anthropology. If nothing else, students should attain the cultural capital to be able to follow anthropological insider talk, like Kerim Friedman’s wonderful Political Ritual among the Nacirema analyzing our etabed.

I wonder if teaching “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” will be at all influenced by the March 2013 release of Papoose’s long delayed Nacirema Dream. As far as I can tell, Papoose has not read Horace Miner. But, Nacirema Dream, what a title, and Papoose does spell it out for us: “Put the word in a mirror, watch it reflect backwards.”

Update 2017: I am still using “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” for my Introduction to Anthropology 2017 course. As I revisit this post from 2013, back then I wondered if the release of Nacirema Dream by Papoose would make the whole Nacirema thing obvious for future generations. It does not seem to have had much effect. An internet search reveals a few more people who will read the entire article aloud on YouTube, but really not much has changed. And despite the readily available sources to explain the Nacirema, it still seems I can go through class and well over half my students are surprised at the revelation.