Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” excellently demonstrates the past anthropological approaches to viewing past cultures ethnocentrically, through clever word play and misinterpretation. For many years anthropologists studied unknown societies based on their own knowledge of culture, or enculturation, which proved to be a mistake. Today we know that we must view societies outside of our own through a culturally relative lens; that is, we must acknowledge that to know another culture requires a full understanding of that cultures beliefs and motivations.
Miner’s ethnocentric article views American culture through the eyes of a society not familiar with our customs and purposes. He cleverly inverts English language words, and misinterprets all aspects of American life. One of my favorite examples is the “holy-mouth-men”, or dentists. Interpreted from an outside societies view, dentistry is seen as a masochistic ritual in which patients undergo horrifically painful procedures over and over again to appease the Nacirema’s obsession with the imperfection of the body. It is crucial to note that Miner suggests, on page 3, that “The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-man year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay” (3). This passage alone shows us how ethnocentrism allows anthropologists to misinterpret the actions and customs of unknown cultures.
These misinterpretations can be easily compared to that of the present day’s construction of race in society. In “The Social Construction of Race”, Haney-Lopez argues that race is a concept not used by most scientists. He suggested that “The rejection of race in science is now almost complete” (52). This lack of race suggests that modern scientists are, mostly, using a completely culturally relative method to study subjects. Anthropologists also strive to employ these culturally relative methods to their research, and have made great strides in our understanding of foreign cultures and societies.
We must also, however, notice that these ethnocentric interpretations are sometimes more accurate than we imagine. For example, Miner’s interpretation of American healthcare was unusually true. He uses differing terms to express the ins and outs of a hospital visit, but they are very similar nonetheless. On page 3 he notices that “No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift” (3). This is eerily reminiscent to the shoddy healthcare afforded by the poor in our society. As one of the most developed countries on earth, you would think that we could take care of our own people. But, as Miner suggests, we are denied treatment unless we give a large monetary gift to the practitioners.
Cultural relativism is crucial to our understanding of unknown people and cultures. Without it, we are subject to misinterpretation and incorrect assumptions, which is exactly what Miner was trying to tell us.