Body Ritual Among the Nacirema
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. I now go directly to the original 1956 source, which is an open access download from the American Anthropological Association. I’ve again used “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” for my Introduction to Anthropology 2018 and Intro to Anthro 2018 course outline.
The Nacirema & Human Nature
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.
Here’s an apparent human universal–defecation and urination–that Stephen E. Nash shows is shaped by culture, history, and power. What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper? “It’s hard to argue that the use of toilet paper is somehow natural. . . . Defecation and urination are more than biological functions; they are cultural activities that involve artifacts and technologies that change through time.”
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 the identity of the Nacirema as a surprise. It seems like it should no longer be a surprise since 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. Still, as of 2018 I’ve been able to pull off the surprise.
After the surprise, I then emphasize how Miner’s article is in some ways prophetic and has enduring relevance. As one student perceptively put it: what if Miner had been able to see tanning beds? Or as Melissa Leyva ends in her YouTube Nacirema, what if Miner had seen the little black boxes and phenomena like “Gotta catch ’em all”? (Leyva’s YouTube account has some good historical and contemporary imagery to subtly accompany the summarized Nacirema reading.)
Critiquing the Nacirema
I also incorporate quotes 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:
Is 'Body Ritual Among the Nacirema' a good-natured joke or scathing critique?Click To Tweet
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. However, the di Leonardo quote is probably a bit too much on the first day of an Introduction to Anthropology course–it might work better within the context of a Cultural Anthropology course that is exploring the trajectory of the culture concept in its colonial context.
Despite these critiques, 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 Political Ritual among the Nacirema analyzing how we use etabed.
Updates on the Nacirema
Update 2017: I used “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” for my Anthropology 2017 course. As I revisited 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. As far as I could tell, Papoose had not read Horace Miner. The song 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.
To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema: Classic Anthropology.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/nacirema-rituals-horace-miner/. First posted 12 February 2013. Revised 3 April 2018.
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