Read an anthropologist's paper about the rituals of 1950s Americans

In the 1950s, Horace Miner became annoyed at the tone taken by anthropologists. They seemed to patronize and distance themselves from the culture they claimed to study. He decided to act on that annoyance by writing a paper on the tribe of the Nacirema - the American.

I remember a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a woman who asked an anthropologist about the strangest thing he'd ever had to eat. Although I don't remember the answer verbatim, he replied that his strangest breakfast consisted of the greased and heated remains of an unborn bird, served on a cooked paste made from ground up wheat. It was an egg on toast. The anthropologist was being a tad obnoxious, but he had a point. Everything that's normal to us seems weird to someone else.

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:

"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. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses."

As most people recognize, Nacirema is "American" spelled backwards, and he's talking about bathrooms. He goes on to talk about the contents of medicine cabinets, and the practice of washing one's face in the morning. He devotes a lot of time to tooth brushing, saying, "The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them."

Then the paper describes temples called "latipso" (roughly the sound of hospital spelled backwards), and witch-doctors that listen to people talk about the demons that possess them(psychiatrists). By putting all of this in terms of holy rites and superstition, Miner satirizes the kind of anthropology that frames everything as bizarre custom, not a response (however strange) to common human fears. Everything is put in terms of ritual, and very little attempt is made to actually understand people.

If you want to read the whole thing, it's very funny, and only a couple of pages long. Check it out here.

Top Image: National Archives and Records Administration