Various anthropologists and sociologists have used the term Nacirema to examine—with a degree/pretense of anthropological self-distancing—aspects of the behavior and society of citizens of the United States of America. Nacirema offers a form of word play by spelling "American" backwards.
Body Ritual among the Nacirema
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The original use of the term was in Body Ritual among the Nacirema, which satirizes anthropological papers on "other" cultures, and the culture of the United States. Horace Miner wrote the paper and originally published it in the June 1956 edition of American Anthropologist.
In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s. The article sometimes serves as a demonstration of a gestalt shift with relation to sociology.
Miner presents the Nacirema as a group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. The paper describes the typical Western ideal for oral cleanliness, as well as providing an outside view on hospital-care and on psychiatry.
Miner's article became a popular work, reprinted in many introductory anthropology and sociology textbooks. It is also given as an example of process analysis in The Bedford Reader, a literature textbook. The article itself received the most reprint permission requests of any article in American Anthropologist, but has become part of the public domain.
Some of the popular aspects of Nacirema culture include: Medicine men and women (doctors, psychiatrists, and pharmacists), a charm-box (medicine cabinet), the mouth-rite ritual (brushing teeth), and a cultural hero known as Notgnihsaw (Washington spelled backwards).
The Mysterious Fall of the Nacirema
In 1972 Neil B. Thompson revisited the Nacirema after the fall of their civilization. Thompson's paper, unlike Miner's, primarily offered a social commentary focused on environmental issues. Thompson paid special attention to the Elibomotua Cult and their efforts to modify the environment.
- The high esteem of the cult is demonstrated by the fact that near every population center, when not disturbed by the accumulation of debris, archeologists have found large and orderly collections of the Elibomotua Cult symbol. The vast number of these collections has given us the opportunity to reconstruct with considerable confidence the principal ideas of the cult. The newest symbols seem to have nearly approached the ultimate of the Nacirema's cultural ideal. Their colors, material, and size suggest an enclosed mobile device that corresponds to no color or shape found in nature, although some authorities suggest that, at some early time in the development, the egg may have been the model. The device was provided with its own climate control system as well as a system that screened out many of the shorter rays of the light spectrum.
This article is reprinted and appears as the final chapter in an anthology called Nacirema: Readings on American Culture. The volume contains an array of scholarly investigations into American social anthropology as well as one more article in the "Nacirema" series, by Willard Walker of Wesleyan University: (American Anthropologist, Volume 72, Issue 1, pages 102–105, February 1970) "The Retention of Folk Linguistic Concepts and the TI'YCIR Caste in Contemporary Nacireman Culture." This article laments the corrosive and subjugating ritual of attending sguwlz. On grammar, the anthropologist notes:
- The vowel system of Secular Nacireman consists of nine phonemically distinct vowels distinguished on the basis of three degrees of tongue height and three degrees of tongue advancement.... There can be no question as to the validity of these nine vocalic phonemes, for each is attested by a number of minimal pairs elicited independently from several informants. Curiously enough, however, most informants insist that only five vowels exist in the language: these are called ?ey, ?iy, ?ay, ?ow, and yuw, and are invariably cited in precisely that order.... The discovery of the widespread myth of the five-vowel system prompted the present writer to conduct a series of intensive interviews and administer questionnaires to a sample of Nacireman informants with a view to mapping the general outlines of Nacireman folk linguistics. This research strategy ultimately provided compelling evidence that it is the ti'yˆcir caste that has disseminated the notion of the five-vowel system.
Nacirema vs Teamsterville
Gerry Philipsen (1992) studies what he terms "speech codes" among the Nacirema, which he contrasts with the speech codes of another semi-fictionalized group of Americans, the inhabitants of Teamsterville culture. His Nacirema comprises primarily middle-class west-coast Americans.
Nacirema is the name of a fictional country in Ronald M. Green's role-playing game aimed at explaining to undergraduate students the fundamentals of John Rawls's theory of justice as fairness. In "The Rawls Game" (1986), Green asks the students to take on the role of Nacireman citizens. Acting from unrestrained self-interest, the citizens vote on a series of public issues and attempt to find solutions that do not require anyone to be forced to act against their own will. The goal of the game is to show that the only way to obtain social fairness is to ignore one's own individual circumstances (race, sex, religion, income, etc.) when making deliberations that affect public life.
- The Rawls Game: An Introduction to Ethical Theory from Demonstrating Philosophy, 1988
- Body Ritual among the Nacirema (PDF) from American Anthropologist, June 1956
- Body Ritual among the Nacirema in Wikisource format.
- The Mysterious Fall of the Nacirema from Natural History, December 1972 (Internet Archive Aug 07, 2004 version)
- Hagan, Helene E.: "The People of Niram", Coastal Post, Marin County, August 1998
- Philipsen, Gerry: Speaking Culturally : Explorations in Social Communication. ISBN 0-7914-1164-8
- James P.Spradley and Michael A. Rynkiewich eds. The Nacirema: Readings on American Culture. (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1975)