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In 1956, the journal American Anthropologist published a short paper by University of Michigan anthropologist Horace Miner titled “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” detailing the habits of this “North American group.” Among the “exotic customs” it explores are the use of household shrines containing charm-boxes filled with magical potions and visits to a “holy-mouth-man.”

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It doesn’t take long for a reader of the paper to recognize the people in question—“Nacirema” is “American” spelled backward. The joke article spread quickly, with other journals publishing excerpts. Writing more than 50 years after its original publication, literature scholar Mark Burde notes that it remained among the most-downloaded anthropology papers.

Yet it was only through chance that the article was published to begin with. Miner initially submitted a version of it to a general-interest publication. In that context, Burde suggests, its satire would have appeared to be directed at the cultural conventions that fill such magazines with ads for breath mints and deodorant soap. He notes lines such as “were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that…their friends [would] desert them.”

When that publication rejected the article, Miner instead submitted it to American Anthropologist. There, the outgoing editor-in-chief initially rejected it, but his successor, Walter Goldschmidt, eventually decided to publish it.

Burde writes that many readers have viewed the paper as a challenge to the basic functioning of anthropology, showing how academic outsiders misunderstand the cultures they claim to chronicle. Some have pointed in particular to the paper’s final paragraph. Here Miner questions how the Nacirema “have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves” and then quotes a 1925 essay by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski: “Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.”

Many readers have suggested that this ending exposed Malinowski’s prejudices and, more generally, the judgment implicit in ethnographers’ identification of cultures as “primitive” or “civilized.” But Burde writes that this was likely not Miner’s intent since he had approvingly cited the same quotation in the past. Instead, he seems to have been more focused on encouraging readers to recognize the way seemingly exotic “far-away” cultures are thoroughly normal to their members.

In general, Burde argues, readers came to see the article as more subversive than Miner had originally intended. That was partly thanks to shifts in scholarship in the 1960s that drew attention to anthropologists as interested parties with their own subject positions and experiences rather than purely objective observers. Burde suggests that part of what has made the Nacirema a durable concept is the way it straddles the line between academic in-joke and radical critique, delivering “a Montaigneseque message in a Woody Allen-esque package.”

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American Anthropologist, Vol. 58, No. 3 (June 1956), pp. 503–507
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
American Anthropologist, Vol. 116, No. 3 (September 2014), pp. 549–561
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association