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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Anthropology Study: Are the Nacirema and Americans the Same Culture?

If you’ve already read “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” by Horace Minor, then I assure you, you have an opinion about the matter. Let’s have the other’s give it a try shall we? Before reading my breakdown of the two cultures, make sure you read the article featured on the msu.edu website.

Who are the Nacirema?

The Nacirema-the term-is a wordplay on “American”. The Nacirema are not “a group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles". Rather, they are North Americans living in a much simpler time.

How did the Nacirema and other group's benefit from their use of magic?

If we regard the Nacirema as patients, then we see them receive assistance from medicine men (doctors), who then write them a list of secret ingredients in ancient script (prescription). This writing (prescription) is understood by the herbalists (pharmacist)  who provide the required magical charm (drugs). The unused charms (drugs) are placed in the charm box (medicine chest) for a later use. The presence of these magical charms (drugs) will in some way protect the worshiper (maybe prevent a headache since the aspirin is located in the chest).

The Nacirema also see a “holy-mouth-man”, a dentist, to perform an exorcism of the evils of the mouth. In the event of an evil in the tooth or hole (cavity), magical materials are applied to the hole.

Efforts are also made to prevent conception by using magical materials (condoms).

How could Miner's article on the Nacirema reduce a reader's ethnocentrism toward less developed societies?

Customs or actions that appear improper or offensive to us may be adaptations to particular environmental and social conditions. Cultural patterns in Western society parallel the Nacirema, in that,  appearance and a healthy figure is highly regarded and attractive. Why is there a parallel? The cultural group being described is Western Society, and, and we are one in the same. The difference is, Minor has chosen to scramble simple words like “Notgnihsaw “ to represent a cultural hero, when it actuality the name represents “Washington” . One of our North American heroes.

Another excerpt that made me smile states that the "human body is ugly and it has a natural tendency for disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man's only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose”. The use of “ritual and ceremony” refers to cleansing and exercise, and “shrines” I believe, refers to a bathing room. Non-western society may use different terms to describe these acts, however these activities are performed, or at least the words elude to a parallel process, exactly the same in Western society.

The mouth rite ritual pertains to brushing one’s teeth and the Nacirema use “hog hairs” and a powder (tooth brush and toothpaste) to cleanse the mouth. The vocabulary sounds revolting, but so is the actual act of seeing foam percolate from the corners of our mouth.

Examples of interchangeable terms: charm box=medicine chest, shrine=shower or bath, medicine men=doctors, substantial gifts=money, ancient and secret language=prescription, mouth rite=brushing teeth

Examples of parallels: While some activities like a man scraping his face with a blade in one non-western society may seem odd to us, men in western culture perform the same ritual. Also, while women’s rites are performed during the lunar month, women in western culture also menstruate once during the month for several days.

The key to reducing ethnocentrism, as I believe this is Minor’s intention, is to recognize that activities performed in all societies such as sports, healing, feasting,  cleanliness, language, medicine, marriage, kinship, etc, may have different names (or rather they are in different languages) in varying societies, but in essence they are all performed or approached in the same manner as Western cultures do.


Emma Springfield said...

I have not read the book but will soon. I recognized "us" immediately. Isn't it amazing that our "civilized" rituals become primitive and even savage when practiced by those we see as less cultured than ourselves?

Rick (Ratty) said...

This is an excellent concept. I've thought about things in a similar way for years, but of course never to this extent. I like that it gives such a different view of such familiar things.

Cruiselife & Co said...


I was quite surprised and taken back at first when I figured out the secret meaning behind Minor's article. Amazing how language, complicated as it is, can be so similar and yet so confusing in other cultures.

Cruiselife & Co said...


Exactly right. The moral seems to be that even a word (ritual), jumbled so that we might be confused at the actual meaning behind it, means exactly the same thing in non western cultures. The hardest part is breaking down our ethnocentric walls to appreciate that a doctor is still a doctor and a toothbrush is still a toothbrush, even though it's made with hog hairs, and the doctor has a tribal name.

Frank Bowes said...

Hey Lauren, it's Gringoperry here. I haven't paid a visit to your site in a while, and was reminded of it when I seen it listed on a partner site we both use. Anyway, the parallels between our cultures is amazing, whenever you break it down to language and meaning. We often see things from our own perspective, and fail to realise that what we are in fact seeing/reading, is just another culture's way of describing things we are already familiar with.

I loved the toothpaste reference - God only knows I've went into work many a day with toothpaste still all over my chops.

Cruiselife & Co said...


So nice to hear from you. How have you been?

You hit it right on the target.

"We often see things from our own perspective, and fail to realise that what we are in fact seeing/reading, is just another culture's way of describing things we are already familiar with."

Exactly right! The goal with this article is to shred our ethnocentrism in half, which let's face it, is difficult to do. I think when anthropologists embark on an ethnography and start to realize that a tomato is still a tomato no matter how you spell it, their walls seem to come down. They're able to communicate a culture in a factual manner to the public.

Frank Bowes said...

I'm good Lauren, I've been working hard on my site and trying to help folk find gainful employment, as they say.

Being with Maria (Morgana to you) has really opened my eyes to cultural norms, that seem so alien to us on first impressions. You've actually given me some fodder for my Ebook project, which explores exceptional customer service, as I often have to break through cultural barriers in order to achieve an end. Being that I conduct most of my service over the phone, language is usually all I have to work with, so it plays a big part in how I come across to customers I am speaking to.

I had Ancient Digger on my old site list, but I completely scrapped that site and started anew, so I'll add you to the list again - don't be expecting a huge traffic surge though; I am lucky if I break 100 views a day.

Cruiselife & Co said...


I was just at your site the other the day reading about CRMs I believe. At fist I thought Cultural Resource Management and then I had to take a step back and realize we were talking about the same subject. They are both culturally based though.

Britney said...

When I read that article I really thought they were a group of people in America, and then I realized Nacirema is American. Haha, it's very interesting.

AncientDigger said...

@ Britney

I thought the same thing the entire time I read the research information, and then I felt silly afterwards. lol

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