Touchstone Thursday: Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema

American Anthropologist 58:503-507, June 1956

As many of you are aware, the majority of academic archaeologists in North America receive training in three other fields of knowledge, the anthropologies–sociocultural, linguistic, and physical (or biological). It’s a sad truth that most who become archaeologists (and physical anthropologists), while cognizant of the necessity of the culture concept to what we do, are equally aware that there is in some university departments little love lost between the sociocultural anthropologists and us archaeologists.
     When I took my first course in cultural anthropology, I was just out of high school, and, growing up, the closest I’d come to anthropology was the National Geographic and Social Studies classes. I remember being taken aback when the scope of anthropology was revealed to me for the first time. One of the facets of our discipline that fascinated me early on was ethnography, which in those days still meant tales of exotic people doing all sorts of things that seemed strange to a young man from the suburbs of Vancouver. 
     I also remember, vividly, learning the concept of ethnocentrism, and how un-anthropological it was to practice that particular ‘ism’, regardless of how bizarre the behaviour of people in other cultures may have seemed to me. Today’s touchstone drove home the point in a very memorable way. Horace Miner’s ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema‘, while essentially a summary of extensive participant observation on Miner’s part, conveys some of the mystery and ‘otherness’ that it is (or was) anthropology’s stock in trade.
     If you haven’t encountered it before now, I suggest you read it to your children, rather than closeting yourself in your study. It’s a fascinating narrative dealing with an even more fascinating subject.


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