Miner Disagreement

February 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” was published in 1956 (here) and is still widely reprinted. It’s a classic, a golden oldie – the “Stairway to Heaven” of intro anthologies.  It does a wonderful job of making the familiar seem strange – a useful exercise in social science. It forces us to question our taken-for-granted behaviors and ideas.

People and societies have quirky ideas about the body, but we notice that strangeness only in others.  Miner does us a service by making our own taken-for-granted body practices and ideas seem bizarre. He makes us question them and the norms, beliefs, and values that go along with them.  We see that some of those ideas are purely cultural. For example, Miner says of the “shrine” found in each house, “the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.”  Right. There’s no rational, scientific basis for this segregation.

It’s the use of the term ritual that I have trouble with.  That may be why, in a recent class discussion of ritual, Miner completely slipped my mind, even though the examples students brought up included brushing your teeth and brushing your hair.  In Miner’s essay, these are all rituals.  My students weren’t so sure. 
“But could they be ritualistic?” I asked.  “What’s the difference between brushing your hair ritualistically and doing it non-ritualistically?”

That finally got us to the main idea: If you’re doing it non-ritualistically, what matters is the result – attractive hair (or, if you’re rushing to class, acceptable, hair). But if you’re doing it ritualistically, what matters is that you do it correctly – exactly 50 strokes of the brush through your hair.  Rituals, whether personal or social, are not about rational goal-attainment.

That’s the part that always bothered me about the Nacirema essay.
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite [which] involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
If we brush our teeth ritualistically, as Miner suggests, then we stress the process, not the results.  But I think that most Americans (oops, Nacirema) brush their teeth in order to make their mouths “feel fresh and clean” (or whatever the ads say) and to prevent tooth decay. We don’t ask “did I brush correctly?” but “does my mouth still feel and smell like a chicken slept in it?”

The same goes for Miner’s account of dentistry
The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
Ritual? magic? If the same tooth still hurt or was still sensitive to cold, we’d judge the filling a failure, even though the dentist followed all the right procedures. And we might seek out a different holy-mouth-man. 

In part, Miner’s essay is about language. It shows what you can do by choosing language usually reserved for unfamiliar peoples and practices. But calling a bathroom a “shrine” does not make it one. Nor does calling  pharmaceuticals “magic” mean that their effectiveness is caused by magic rather than rational, scientifically verifiable processes. (Miner uses magic or magical a dozen times in an essay of 2300 words, lightly longer than 4 journal pages.)  True, most of us may not really know how  a medication works, and in this sense our belief in its efficacy can resemble the belief in non-scientific cures. Let’s face it, most people’s understanding of germ theory isn’t much different from a third-grader’s theory of cooties. Miner is making an “as if” observation. We behave as if we had these ideas.  What we call hygiene may share elements with non-scientific and religious body ritual.* We may even act as if we believed in magical causes and effects. But we know that our important beliefs do have a basis in real science, not magic.


* My cousin Powers, when his kids were young, used to ask them before bed, “Have you finished your ablues?” (short for ablutions).


Pamela Oliver said...

Seems to me you've missed the real point of the article. The anthropologists & sociologists being parodied here observe the behavior and attribute a meaning to it that is quite different from the meaning the participants would assign to the behavior.

Jay Livingston said...

If that’s the real point, then I disagree with Miner even more than I thought I did. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to offer interpretations that are different from those of the people being studied. We shouldn’t ignore what people think, but if we accept those interpretations and stop there, we miss a lot. Some people – that jury in Florida, for example – might claim that there is not an milligram of racism in their thoughts or actions. Should we accept that at face value? Or might we risk imposing our own interpretation and attributing a different meaning, especially when we see a broader pattern of similar actions?