Why We Don't See Nacirema as American
Sample Paper 1 - Spring 2012
"Body Ritual among the Nacirema" is a paper by Horace Miner that describes American culture in a unique way. While it accurately describes many facets of American life, it is written to manipulate the reader into thinking that they are reading about an "uncivilized" tribe of people who either existed long ago or exist today, somehow untouched by modern "civilities". One has to wonder how we, as Americans, could read something that so explicitly and precisely describes our own daily lives and the culture we are immersed in and not only recognize it as a description of us but to also feel both superior and sorry for the culture we're reading about, as many do.
The language and terminology used in the paper could be one of the reasons Americans struggle to associate the piece with our own culture. Miner refers to the bathroom as a shrine, charms and magical potions are medicine (pharmaceutical drugs) and toiletries, doctors are medicine men, and dentists are holy-mouth-men. As Americans, we associate the term "magic" with pretend and the belief in it with being uneducated. (I have to go off topic for a second to say that it is difficult for me, the author, to see the difference between "magic" and many aspects of religion.) As for the term "Medicine Men", we're familiar with comparing that position in other cultures as having a similar position as our own doctors, but would never call our doctors by that name, Medicine Man. While Miner may have used different words as labels that we're not familiar with using every day, he still used words that are completely applicable in meaning to what he was describing. Who knew we held such stock in the familiarity of specific words having to represent certain things. "The Essentials of Sociology" text teaches us that "The central idea of symbolic interactionism is that symbols-things to which we attach meaning-are the key to understanding how we view the world and communicate with one another" (Henslin 15). The symbol of what a doctor should be/is to us holds such deep-rooted meaning that the word does as well, and it's almost as if we're fearful of varying from that word.
Beyond just the language used, the cultural practices of the Nacirema that Miner describes seem unfamiliar to us. More than that, they seem barbaric, inhumane, ancient, and a whole catalog of other adjectives, none of which we would think to apply to ourselves. I imagine it difficult for anyone to see their own society and the inter-workings of it through a clear and unbiased lens. We accept things as "normal" and "acceptable" behavior and practices because they are just that, the norm. But when we are shown what our society looks like through an "outsider's" perspective or a sociologist's point of view, we may see things differently or "how they really are", whatever that means. "Sociology offers a perspective, a view of the world. The sociological perspective (or imagination) opens a window onto unfamiliar worlds-and offers a fresh look at familiar ones" (Henslin 4). "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" does just that. It enables us to see our own world, the one with which we believed we could only see from our own perspective, in an entirely different way. Understanding the sociological perspective could really change how we view everything we thought we knew. Without this perspective, it is easy to read Henslin's paper and have it feel, as I stated above, unfamiliar.
When it comes to feeling sorry for or disapproving of the cultural practices of the Nacirema, before we are made aware of whom they really are, could it be that we really don't approve of our own culture, when viewed through the sociological perspective? When Miner writes in one of the introduction paragraphs that "the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go" (Miner) it immediately makes an American think that it is describing any other culture but their own. We don't, nor do we want to believe that we are extremists when it comes to human behavior. Things like going to the dentist, taking prescription drugs when we are sick (keeping in mind that most of us don't know what they are made of or how they actually work), and going to the bathroom in private all seem like appropriate, "normal" behavior. Other things, such as a cultural obsession with women's breast size, we might be more critical of and yet we still accept as "normal" behavior. But how quickly our opinions are changed when the above mentioned practices are described in a slightly different way than we are familiar with and we are to believe that the society that practices them are not our own. Perhaps we just don't want to believe that our society, which many within it believe is better than any other society, is full of bizarre rituals and strange behavior. If we are "collectively crazy" then we are not crazy at all. Not to each other, which is all we know.
Finally, it is easy to believe that Miner is writing about a society other than America because of the way that we are taught and the way that we learn. A piece such as "Body Ritual" reads as an anthropologist's study of a "poorly understood" (Miner) people. In fact, it says it is just that, and it is. What we don't expect is for the name of the people described to deceive us. It is very important that it does, as it allows us to see our culture with an un-biased look, but we do believe that there is a group of people somewhere that are actually called "Nacirema", and that they certainly aren't us.
In the end, while some were unable to relate the piece to American culture even after knowing that it was the intention of the paper to describe it, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" can be read by most as an accurate description of American culture. The language used and our own sense of what our culture is may make this initially difficult, but the sociological perspective and the ability to allow ourselves to see things from a different point of view make it eventually possible. For most, this perspective will need to be learned and may change the way the learner views everything, in regard to society, for the rest of their lives.
Miner, Horace. "Body Ritual among the Nacirema". American Anthropologist 58. 1956. Web.
Henslin. "Essentials of Sociology". 2011. Text.
Note from the Author
When I describe popular opinion, using words like "most of us" or "many", I am basing this on the discussions had in regard to "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" by a group of college students and instructor on their thoughts and feelings both initially upon reading the piece and subsequently finding out its meaning.