A Response to Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”

In “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” Horace Miner describes how todays American culture might be interpreted by a foreigner who possesses no background knowledge of American routines and customs. At first glance, Miner’s whimsical descriptions of the Nacirema people may seem a bit peculiar, but with a more detailed interpretation, one is capable of noticing Miner’s hints and realizing that the Nacirema people he is depicting are really, present day Americans. He describes Nacirema culture as being distinguished by a “highly developed market economy” and that people’s time is “devoted to economic pursuits” (p. 503).

Miner states that the underlying belief of the system is that “the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease” (p. 503). Many of the statements present in his work bear eerie similarities to our own society, these witty accounts of the Nacirema society helps us to adopt a detached view of present-day society and question our daily rituals and their importance. Burde believes that the lasting power of the Nacirema lies in its “duality as both an elaborately coded in‐group joke and seeming act of radical and far‐reaching disciplinary insubordination” (p. 558). I think this creative hidden meaning to the text is what makes it so compelling and meaningful to the reader.

The Nacirema people idolize the cultural hero, “Notgnihsaw” who created their nation, this is an analogue to the American idolization of George Washington (p. 503). Kahn states, “the Nacirema embrace a founding mythology based on the importance of human freedom and equality”(p. 808), this embodies the beliefs which most Americans hold. From an outsider perspective, a society’s idolization of a certain hero or leader may seem strange if the same ideals and knowledge of the figure is not shared by both parties. I think that this is an important reminder from Miner that we must not judge other social groups and cultures for their admiration of religious figures or leaders that may differ from our own.Miner develops an important point when describing how physical appearance and health is the “dominant concern in the ethos of the people” (p. 503). This infatuation with health and beauty is an ever-present reality in our current society.

Launer believes that the Nacirema people “relate more than ever to some of the current preoccupations of medicine – including overdiagnosis, overtreatment, health obsessions, and body dysmorphia”(p. 424). Miner describes the purpose of various practitioners such

as, “medicine men”, “holy-mouth men”, and “listeners” (p. 506). The way Miner observes people undergoing beautification procedures such as shaving and plastic surgery is captured in comical descriptions which makes these routines seem strange and foreign to the reader. In closing, Miner remarks “it is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens they have imposed upon themselves” (p. 507).

The Nacirema society’s disgust towards the human body and its functions is eye opening and makes one wonder how certain ideals and norms regarding appearances came to exist.I believe the ultimate importance of this literary work lies in the ability for Miner to view the inner workings of American culture from a complete outsider perspective. Majority of the time, cultural interpretations are performed by those from Western cultures on other cultures which are deemed as “foreign”, but in this case the American culture is under examination and scrutiny. Johnson states “ethnographic methods of anthropology had for centuries been applied to the study of non-white peoples, virtually always outside of Western metropoles, but the subjects of Miner’s study were mainstream white Americans” (p. 465).

American culture is not dissimilar to any other, considering the fact that our conventions and routines may seem erratic and illogical when viewed by an outsider. Taking this into consideration, why do we assume this about other cultures and write about those deemed “foreign” in a dehumanizing way? Miner has opened our eyes to how ethnocentrism and bias can negatively impact our interpretation of other cultures and their practices.Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacimera” combats ethnocentric bias and allows the reader to explore an interpretation of American culture without preconceived ideas or conceptions about the depicted Nacirema society. His unique style of writing creates an initial level of confusion that forces the reader to take a critical approach to interpreting his work.

This creative account of a not-so-foreign culture’s norms and values is an eye opener to how outsiders might interpret our society and how peculiar it might appear to them. Without logic and reasoning to support a culture’s customs, we are prone to interpreting them as odd because they are “foreign” from our own. Miner draws attention to the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and hopefully all readers of his work are more aware of their own ethnocentric bias and can view other cultures which are different from their own with a more open-minded viewpoint in future.