Horace Miner’s Epic Slap-in-the-Face 1950s Anthropology Paper

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In 1956, Horace Miner, an anthropologist, noticed that the tone of the academic essays he read seemed to stress that “weirdness”, when it came to other cultures.

Scholarly works described the rituals of other nations with a detachment that was meant to objectively present a subject, but in some cases was a barrier to understanding. And so he decided to publish a study of a local tribe – the Nacirema.

Nacirema were a North American tribe who had some very strange ways. He writes a paper, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”, which describes extensive body-worship.

As the expression goes, payback’s a bitch.

Speaking as someone who has some modest training in anthropology, I can really respect this, as it is very easy to forget to turn the gimlet eye of one’s investigations – whether talking about psychology, anthropology, criminal justice, political science – back upon one’s self.

Check out the full link below – believe me, it’s worth it – but check out some of these snippets:

  • “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony.”
  • “The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.”
  • “In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as holy-mouth-men. The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics.”
  • “The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness.”
  • “Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. 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.”

Oral hygiene, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, dentists, even psychologists all play their role in the daily life of the Americans, er, I mean, Nacirema.

Photo via National Archives and Records Administration.
Via io9. Original article via American Anthropological Association. Definitely worth a read.

This entry was posted in Culture, Science by Heretic. Bookmark the permalink.

About Heretic

I design video games for a living, write fiction, political theory and poetry for personal amusement, and train regularly in Western European 16th century swordwork. On frequent occasion I have been known to hunt for and explore abandoned graveyards, train tunnels and other interesting places wherever I may find them, but there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I am preparing to set off a zombie apocalypse. Nothing that will stand up in court, at least. I use paranthesis with distressing frequency, have a deep passion for history, anthropology and sociological theory, and really, really, really hate mayonnaise. But I wash my hands after the writing. Promise.

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