Nacirema ("American" spelled backwards) is a term used in anthropology and sociology in relation to aspects of the behavior and society of citizens of the United States of America. The neologism attempts to create a deliberate sense of self-distancing in order that American anthropologists might look at their own culture more objectively.
"Body Ritual among the Nacirema"
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The original use of the term in a social science context was in "Body Ritual among the Nacirema", which satirizes anthropological papers on "other" cultures, and the culture of the United States. Horace Mitchell 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.
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. The Nacirema are described as having a highly developed market economy that has evolved within a rich natural habitat.
Miner's article became a popular work, reprinted in many introductory textbooks and used as an example process analysis in the literature text The Bedford Reader. The article received the most reprint permission requests of any article in American Anthropologist.
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). These ritual purification practices are prescribed as how humans should comport themselves in the presence of sacred things. These sacred aspects are the rituals that the Nacirema partake in throughout their lives.
"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 (automobile backwards) cult and its 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, archaeologists 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, 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: "The Retention of Folk Linguistic Concepts and the ti'ycir Caste in Contemporary Nacireman Culture" which laments the corrosive and subjugating ritual of attending sguwlz. On phonology, 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 ˀey, ˀiy, ˀay, ˀow, 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'yčɨr caste that has disseminated the notion of the five-vowel system.
This refers to the conceptualization of the English vowel system based on orthography (with 5 vowels), which is in stark contrast to the actual system (with nine vowels and several diphthongs).
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.
- Iracema, a character named after the anagram of "America"
- defamiliarization, the artistic technique of presenting common things in an unfamiliar or strange way
- Miner, H. M. (June 1956). "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema". American Anthropologist. 58 (3): 503–507. doi:10.1525/aa.1956.58.3.02a00080.
- Dimsdale, Joel E. (2001). "The Nacirema Revisited". Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. 23 (1): 75–6. doi:10.1207/S15324796ABM2301_11. PMID 11302359. S2CID 3673658.
- Johnson, Sylvester A. (2012). "The Rise Of The Nacirema And The Descent Of European Man: A Response To Manuel A. Vásquez's More Than Belief". Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. Religion and Philosophy Collection. 24 (4/5): 464–481. doi:10.1163/15700682-12341244.
- Jones, Robert Alun (1980). "Myth And Symbol Among The Nacirema Tsigoloicos: A Fragment". American Sociologist. 15 (4): 207–212.
- Thompson, Neil B. (1 January 1972). "The mysterious fall of the Nacirema" (PDF). Natural History. 81 (11): 412–7. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 February 2021. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
- Walker, Willard (1 February 1970). "The Retention of Folk Linguistic Concepts and the ti'yčɨr Caste in Contemporary Nacireman Culture". American Anthropologist. 72 (1): 102–105. doi:10.1525/aa.1970.72.1.02a00130.
- Philipsen, Gerry (1992). Speaking Culturally Explorations in Social Communication. SUNY. ISBN 978-0-7914-1163-6.
- Burde, Mark (2014). "Social-Science Fiction: The Genesis and Legacy of Horace Miner's 'Body Ritual among the Nacirema'". American Anthropologist. 116 (3): 549–61.
- Hagan, Helene E. (August 1998). "The People of Niram". Coastal Post. Marin County, California.
- Spradley, James P.; Rynkiewich, Michael A., eds. (1975). The Nacirema: Readings on American Culture. Boston: Little Brown and Co.
- Philipsen, Gerry (1992). Speaking Culturally: Explorations in Social Communication. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1164-8.
- 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)
- "Battle RItual among the Nacirema" by Finn Johannson at Ethnography.com (2015)
- Who are the Nacirema from Living Anthropologically, (2013, revised 2018)