Nacirema Medical Anthropology

Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? for Intro to Anthropology 2021 the conclusion of the course was to read about applying anthropology, specifically medical anthropology. In this course, I saved the classic “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” as an exercise for the final exam essay. I hoped to do a “Nacirema Medical Anthropology” experiment to check on how the main lessons of the course had worked.

Nacirema Medical Anthropology assignment

Imagine that you work in public health. The Nacirema people are experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. Your co-workers know you took an anthropology course and once read about medical anthropology, so they have turned to you for help. Your job is to encourage the Nacirema adopt mask-wearing, distancing, and eventually become vaccinated. After doing some research, you find one anthropological study of the Nacirema from 1956 by the anthropologist Horace Miner. After reading it, please write up your report, answering these questions:

  1. How would you evaluate Horace Miner’s research? That is, using what you have learned about anthropological fieldwork techniques and ethnography, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Miner’s account? (Keep in mind that Miner is writing around the same time as Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush” and Richard Lee’s “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.”)
  2. What do you think would be the best approach to encourage mask-wearing, physical or social distancing, and vaccination among the Nacirema? What aspects of their culture might help in your efforts? What might be the obstacles? Do you think you will be successful?
  3. Through the textbook, articles, and films, this course has considered many examples of societies studied by anthropologists. Which people or society do the Nacirema most resemble and why?
  4. Miner’s article has become rather famous and is often read in Intro-to-Anthropology courses. Why? What is the main lesson Miner was trying to convey?

Revisited 2022

I revisited this “Nacirema Medical Anthropology” assignment for 2022:

See also the blog-post Nacirema Thinking and the class reflections on Is the Nacirema worth teaching?


Something cruel that I did to you: assign you “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” without telling you anything about it. I said, hey here’s a very famous study and you’re going to do something and diagnose these people.

Many times in anthropology, anthropologists do this cruelty at the very beginning of the course. Was anybody ever exposed to this article before this class? Some people read it in different classes, like history. I’ve put up here that you should I should pronounce it as “Nakirema” because when I first started with YouTube subtitles that were auto-generated, I was pronouncing it as “Nasirema,” which it translated as the “Nazirema,” which was not what I wanted to have happen. Although considering where our politics are going, maybe I should just go for it. But I want to go with Nacirema people.

You can write a very good essay on this without ever “getting it.” But it really is meant to be about the American people. Maybe that was the tip off for you, Notgnihsaw, which is really Washington throwing something across the Potomac, chopping down the cherry tree (503).

There are a few tip-offs, like where they are geographically. They have a “highly developed market economy” (503). There’s Washington. This is supposed to be the United States, describing Americans in the 1950s. There’s the Nacirema. There’s Miner as if he’s the anthropologist studying US America. You have those shrines, which are of course our bathroom rituals. Those men scraping their faces is shaving. The toothbrush is made of hog hairs, which may seem weird to us, but that was a common toothbrush material back in the day.

Holy mouth man, of course, that sadistic person who’s always checking your teeth, and you keep going back, and your teeth just keep decaying (504). They keep giving you new stuff. They gave me the special teeth whitening stuff; they keep talking to me about now I need my teeth to be whiter. Now I have to use baking soda. Hard to find a dentist these days, but the hygienists do the job.

Another little tip–the hospital (505). You were so close, you were like, “it’s so similar between how they’re charging people all this money to go to this place. We do that too.” It was getting there; you were almost there!

This one might confuse some people: baking heads in ovens (505). What was that? Yes, those 1950s hair salons, those pictures of the people with the “bubbles” that come over their head. They get all hot–hairdryers!

Today, one student asked once, “can you imagine if Miner had seen where people bake their whole bodies and try to change their skin tone? What a ridiculous practice that would be.

Another one that perhaps doesn’t seem up to date: this person who’s The Listener (506), and you go in and tell them all your problems, and it all goes back to your mother. That was classic psychoanalysis, or the idea that everything happened during potty training. . . . The Freudian psychoanalysis that we used to go through; now, you just go in and get the medications and fix it up. You don’t need to go to all these therapeutic sessions.

What’s interesting about the medications. . . . Now, we all need balance, we all need therapy, we all need balance in our lives. What’s interesting is that there have been a lot of experiments with placebos. Is a medication effective? Is it more effective than giving somebody a sugar pill? In the 1970s if you gave somebody a sugar pill, a placebo, and said “this will cure your problems, your mental issues, you’ll be less depressed”: It didn’t work. People were like, “no, it didn’t work.” Now, placebos in some cases are working better, because we have a belief that it will work.

Our belief that something will work has a lot to do with whether it will work. Not always, but a lot.

Then, of course, the phrase: “A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hypermammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee” (506).

I don’t know if you can still do this in Oneonta, but you used to be able to. I probably shouldn’t say this. But one of you said, “well if my persuasive techniques don’t work, I can just pay some large-breasted females to give them Covid information.” Then, I started to think maybe we should have tried that, that’s not a bad idea. Why didn’t we do that? . . .

It’s meant to be about us. This article was published in 1956. It’s the most read, or most downloaded, article from the American Anthropologist, which was the professional journal of the American Anthropological Association.

I think that Miner was in some ways prophetic. How you believe, and if a doctor says it, and what you’ll do if somebody in a white coat tells you to do it. Perhaps it’s changing, but that still seems to be true. He also understood something about these body form ideals: “the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation” (506). This was literally true: if you looked at the development of the Barbie doll during that time, if you put the Barbie doll up to real size it couldn’t fit the normal reproductive organs that you would need to have to just be alive. It was an ideal that wasn’t possible for humans to achieve.

I think that this has even extended to the idea of perfect Abs, or the six-pack. Men too are very much exposed to these kinds of ideals.

The reason I started assigning this is as “what would they do about Covid?” is because all the things that we started injecting into ourselves and taking instead of the things we’re supposed to take. We are “a magic-ridden people” (507). “It is hard to understand how [we’ve] managed to exist so long under the burdens which [we’ve] imposed upon [ourselves]” (507).

Then, as many of you noted, do Americans have a fascination with the mouth? Would that help us mask? Obviously not! That’s why we can’t mask. It’s like too much, we can’t do that.

So, what’s the big point? What are we supposed to get out of this?

. . .

That’s a great point–that we’re going to speak against ethnocentrism and try to develop a more culturally relative perspective.

It’s hard to say what Miner himself was trying to do. He didn’t seem to intend this for a popular audience–usually you don’t publish something in _American Anthropologist_ if that’s what you’re intending to do. It seemed to be aimed more at anthropologists.

. . .

I think that this is a point that’s been lost. Like I said, it’s hard to say what he really wanted, but it may have been meant as a scathing critique of the anthropology that was being produced around that time, that would make people seem dumb, or exotic, or Other. Maybe that’s what he meant. Maybe when I get upset with Miner, I should remember that. Maybe that’s what he intended it to be, even if he perhaps disguised it a little too cleverly.

If you Google, “who are the Nacirema?” on YouTube, there’s a fun little video. But one of the YouTube comments, which I love, is a person who’s looking for information about the tribe, and still doesn’t get it.

I don’t think it’s a failure. It’s more a failure of anthropology, because in some ways we keep perpetuating the stereotype that that’s what anthropology is about: the weird people out there. I think that there are some huge issues with the Nacirema. It flips over “the us” and “the them,” but it doesn’t at all portray how much societies have been interconnected over time.

Particularly uncool is how it uses–at a time when people were appropriating all kinds of Indigenous regalia and mascots–it appropriates for mainstream US American culture all the things that we in the United States tried to eliminate from our society.

Of course, and this could be what Miner was trying to critique, is the idea that everybody was the same: homogeneous and frozen in time.

The general problem is with the “we’re weird to them and they’re weird to us.” There are often interconnections. There’s usually a power and inequality dynamic, within and between societies. All of these issues are things that extend to the classic anthropology that we read in the last unit, from Laura Bohannon, to the Kalahari article, and even to an extent in Meredith Small’s “Our Babies, Ourselves.”

Simply to say that we are weird to them and they’re weird to us, so we should all just celebrate our differences. That doesn’t get into the issues of power, interconnection, and inequality.