Friday, July 21, 2017

The Nacirema Culture Explained

The Nacirema are a peculiar culture in North America. According to Horace Miner's account of them in his 1956 article "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema", one of their main characteristics is a highly negative sentiment towards the human body which is considered by them to be ugly and sick. Miner describes how the entire ritualistic practices of the Nacirema revolve around this core issue of the body. For example, every house of the Nacirema people has one or more shrines devoted to purifying the body, shrines containing charm-boxes full of supernatural substances aimed at keeping the body away from disease. The Nacirema have special medicine-men which hold secret knowledge of special substances. These medicine men also function in a central temple in which people undergo brutal practices aimed at "curing" them from illness. The Nacirema are also fascinated with their mouths, believing that they determine one's social status. For this hand they have holy mouth men which also perform elaborate and almost sadistic rituals on people's mouths. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children and therefore they have a special "shaman" charachter called a "listner" who exorcises them. Another interesting attribute of the Nacirema Miner points to is the practice of Nacirema men who scrape their faces with sharp instruments and the Nacirema women who bake their heads in ovens.

Miner's account of the Nacirema culture is in fact an ethnological satire. The Nacirema don't exist and they are in fact American culture (Nacirema in reverse). The shrines are explained as toilets, charm-boxes are medicine cabinets, medicine men are doctors, temples are hospitals, holy mouth men are dentists, men shave their faces while women dry their hair at beauty salons.

Miner's "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" demonstrates the subject of cultural relativism and the argument that societies must be understood from their own context in order to be properly interpreted. On the other hand, Miner's alienated view of the "Nacirema culture" says a few very interesting things about American culture, unobservable from the inside. 

See also: "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" / Miner - Analysis and Explanation 

Good books to have on this topic:



"Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" / Miner - Analysis and Explanation

"Body Ritual Among the Nacirema"(link for text summary) is a sarcastic account of the none-existing "Nacirema" tribe which is actually American culture (Nacirema in reverse is American). Miner uses this satire to say a few things about the nature of ethnological work (and American culture).

In Miner's article the special domestic shrines the Nacirema use are bathrooms. The special charm-box is the medicine cabinet. Medicine men are obviously doctors while holy mouth men are dentists. The latipso is a hospital and the listener is a psychologist. Finally, the men scraping their face are shaving while the women baking their heads are putting them in salon hair dryers.

The meaning of Miner's "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" is that if we distance ourselves and our point of view, a culture will always look peculiar to us. On the other hand, looked at from within, even the strangest customs and practices might seem completely reasonable and justifiable. "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" is important because it demonstrates the problem of representation in ethnography. The purpose of article is to raise the question of how can we study a different culture from the outside and how can we understand our own culture from within. The article thus demonstrates the topic of cultural relativism, arguing that there is no one objective viewpoint from which to assess cultures, and that every culture should be understood and interpreted from the native's point of view.

Following Miner's article we can ask ourselves, as anthropologists, how should we approach the study of a particular society. If we are to distance ourselves and look at it as if we were aliens (like Miner does in regards to the Nacirema) we might gain one perspective that notices the hidden obvious and asks questions only someone from the outside can ask (see for example Alfred Schuzt's "The Stranger"). On the other hand, if we don't have the inner context of a society we might fail to understand the meaning of different things we see in it.
Many American will be insulted by Miner's account of them, and will justly claim that he fails to account for many factors in what he describes. On the other hand, an American reading "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" can gain a new interesting understanding about body culture in American society and see banal everyday practices in a new light.

see also: The Nacirema Culture explained

Good books to have on this topic:



Summary: "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" / Horace Miner

"Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner (1956) is an ethnological account of the Nacirema, a tribe located in North America. According to Miner, the Nacirema culture presents a highly developed market economy but with a main focus on ritual activity which focuses on the human body and its appearance of health. The Nacirema believe the body to be ugly and detestable and seek to avoid its uncleanliness through ritual and ceremony.

The houses of the Nacirema culture according to Miner have shrines devoted to this purpose, which also feature a status symbols. Ceremonies are performed privately and are seldom discussed with the exception being children which need to be socialized into the ritual. The Nacirema, according to Miner, have "charm-boxes" as the focal point of their shrines which are full of magical materials, distributed at the discretion of medicine men which use a secret old language. All materials are retained in the overflowing charm-boxer, and though the people of the Nacirema sometimes even forget their original purpose they still hang on to the materials, believing that they somehow protect them. The Nacirema use their shrine daily for the purpose of ablution, with the aid of pure holy water coming from the Water Temple.

The Nacirema also have "holy-mouth-men" which rank below the medicine men in social status. The holy-mouth-men are entrusted with taking care of the mouth, which is an object of obsession for the Nacirema who believe that it has "a supernatural influence on all social relationships". Miner also says that the Nacirema associate a healthy with moral characteristics. This is why the children of the Nacirema are brought up on the "mouth-rite", which Miner describes as inserting into the mouth a bundle of hog hairs along with magical powders and moving it around. The Nacirema also routinely seek the somewhat torturous practice of the mouth-men which exorcise their mouths using elaborate tools and supernatural substances.

The men of the Nacirema perform a daily ritual of scraping their face with a sharp instrument. Women on the other hand bake their heads in small ovens four times a month.
The medicine men of the Nacirema have imposing temples called latipso in which elaborate ceremonies are being held for seriously seek people, with the help vestal maidens. Miner writes that the Nacirema are eager to undergo ceremonies at the latipso, believing that it would keep them alive. These ceremonies come at a hefty cost of gifts and include being naked in the presence of others, something the Nacirema never do elsewhere.

Miner also describes a witchdoctor called the "listener" who can exorcise demons from bewitched people. The Nacirema  believe that parents, especially mothers, bewitch their own  children. The listener treats people simply by listening to their talk of themselves.

Towards the end of  "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" Miner adds a few more characteristics of the tribe like "ritual fasts to make  fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to  make thin people fat" and a fixation with women breast size. On the other hand, intercourse is "taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act". Miner concludes that the Nacirema are "magic ridden people" whose survival is bewildering.  

Though Miner never discloses it in the article itself, "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" is a satirical account of American society itself. The meaning of the satire will be discussed in the analysis part of our summary.  

see also: The Nacirema Culture explained

Good books to have on this topic:


Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Rules of Sociological Method / Durkheim - Summary

Emile Durkheim's "The Rules of Sociological Method" (1895) is an attempt the establish sociology as a science. Durkheim proclaims sociology as the science of social facts, distinctive features of social life that function as objects in their determination of one's reality and that therefore can be studies as objects (See our summary of Durkheim's "What is Social Fact?" for more details). Having objects in the form of social facts in not enough for sociology to be considered a science, and Durkheim adds the need for a method to be established (remember Descartesin his "Discourse on the Method").

In "The Rules of Sociological Method" Durkheim establishes society itself as an object of scientific inquiry, in a sense turning humanity's inquisitive gaze towards nature on itself (Horkheimer and Adorno will later argue in "Dialecticof Enlightenment" that this had dire results). Durkheim holds that if nature presents itself to science in the form of phenomena, then the same can be said about society. The phenomena in question for sociology are what Durkheim calls "social facts" which are forces that constrain and direct an individual's behavior. What Durkheim is basically saying is that our personal actions are always determined by internalized social factors, "facts", that we must study.   

After establishing the objects of sociology Durkheim devotes "The Rules of Sociological Method" to its methodology. Durkheim goes to great lengths in elaborating on the principles of sociological method. Since this is a short summary we will not go into great details but the gist of Durkheim's thought is that social facts must be considered "as things" - recognizable, observable, quantifiable and discussable. This is an attempt to fit sociology in with the requirements of positivism. For Durkheim the methodology of sociology must be made objective and society must be studied "from outside" in order to gain a scientific account of it.  

Additional article summaries by Emile Durkheim:

Emile Durkheim - Suicide
"The Genesis of the Notion of the Totemic Principle or Mana" – summary and review" - part 1 -2 -3
What is Social Fact?
Division of Labor in Society 
Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Moral Education
Types of Suicide according to Emile Durkheim
Anomie according to Durkheim

Suggested reading:   


Suicide / Durkheim - Summary and Analysis

The one main point of Emile Durkheim's seminal "Suicide" (1987) is that suicide, or any other personal act for that matter, is never a purely individual act bur rather one that incorporates social conditions. Thus suicide for Durkheim is the result of a certain type of relationship between an individual and society. "Suicide" is Durkheim's attempt to create a model case study that deals with what he calls "social fact" (see our summaries of Durkheim's What is Social Fact? or "The Rules ofSociological Method" for more details). These social facts work to determine an individual's life, and in some cases, his death by his own hands.

In "Suicide" Durkheim compares suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics, holding that Catholics kill themselves less. His explanation was that Catholicism offers its followers a stronger sense of social cohesion and a feeling of belongingness when compares with the more individualistic Protestants.

When studying the family Durkheim noted that men commit more suicide than women and that singles kill themselves more than people in relationships, people with children present even smaller rates of suicide. Durkheim also found that soldiers kill themselves more than civilians and that they do so more in peacetime than during war.  
These findings lead Durkheim to argue that suicide is prompted by social factors, and not only psychological ones. The relationship one has with his social world is determinative of his inner experience, and should these ties become problematic people might be driven to suicide. Durkheim feels that social integration and cohesion are important here, holding that the more you are comfortably bound with your social surrounding the less you are likely to kill yourself. One the other hand, being too close to society to the point of losing the self can also lead one to commit suicide.

Durkheim lists four types of suicide (see link for a detailed summary):  
Anomic suicide (see Anomie) is the result of the  destabilization and ultimate breakdown of ties to social reality, like in times of rapid change.
Egoistic suicide happens due to the loss of social ties and isolation from society, like in the case of old age.
Altruistic suicide is when someone willingly gives his life to society with which he indentifies completely. Soldiers dying for their country is an example.
Fatalist suicide for Durkheim is when someone is erased by society, losing all sense of self and agency. A prisoner killing himself is an example.  

Additional article summaries by Emile Durkheim:

Suggested reading:   


Types of Suicide according to Emile Durkheim - Summary

In his 1987 book "Suicide" Sociologist Emile Durkheim lists four possible reasons that can lead an individual to suicide:

Egoistic suicide - According to Durkheim, egoistic suicide occurs when someone loses the bonds that tie him to society. The term "egoistic" does not imply "selfish" but rather a condition in which someone's reality is only himself, lacking any ties to anyone else. In a regular condition we find ourselves in reality through our social position, our role, our relationships etc. When these are weakened or lost, says Durkheim, we are more prone to suicide.   

Anomic suicide - Anomic suicide is the result of a situation Durkheim defines as "Anomie". Anomie is the breakdown or guiding norms as the result of social detachment. Anomic suicide happens when someone feels he lacks a clear enough understanding of his reality. Times of rapid change (political, economical or social) are times in which we may find many people experiencing anomie, some of them will resort to anomic suicide.

Altruistic suicide - Somewhat opposed to anomic and egoistic suicide we can find what Durkheim calls "altruistic suicide". While the first two refer to a condition in which an individual's external ties are weakened, altruistic suicide is the result of these ties being very strong. In this type of suicide a person chooses to end his life under the impression that this will benefit his social group. An example of altruistic suicide can be Jihadist terrorists that are ready to give their lives for the sake of a perceived collective goal.  

Fatalistic suicide - For Durkheim, fatalistic suicide is the result of desperation, desperation caused by a sense of crushing social powers that erase the self. A condition in which the social structure denies the individual agency and a sense of control over his own life might result in fatalistic suicide.  

Anomie according to Durkheim - Definition and explanation

Anomie is a central concept in the social thought of Emile Durkheim. Anomie literally means a-nomos, "none-law". Durkheim uses the term of Anomie to refer to a condition in which an individual of a group loses the guiding norms which organize social discourse. It is a condition in which good and bad, right and wrong breakdown and become incoherent to such an extent that people no longer have guidelines through which to engage with reality. Durkheim's concept of Anomie is related to his understanding of the relationship between the individual and the social structure. Social norms regulate our behavior in a manner that makes us compatible with reality. In his seminal work, "Suicide" (1897), Emile Durkheim holds that the congruence of our held values with that of society is a precondition for happiness, since it assures us that are desires are constructed within the scope of available means for their satisfaction. The breakdown of norms (due to rapid historical changes such as modernity) lead to a mismatch between personal means and ends. When you want more than you can have reality seams alienated. The scale of things, the organizing principle of reality, breakdown and individuals struggle to make sense of their existence. Durkheim lists Anomie as one of the four possible reasons for suicide.    

Emile Durkheim Explained

Emile Durkheim is pre-eminently the sociologist of community and the possibility for community in modern western societies. He is concerned with the nature of the social bond and the relationship between the individual and society.  Durkheim tried to figure out how individual freedom might be reconciled with community. Although the concept of community is often put to conservative political ends, Durkheim uses it in a decidedly non-conservative way.

You can understand Durkheim better if you recognize that in all his work he tries to make a few basic general points: 
(1) Society is a reality sui generis (of its own kind).  It cannot be reduced to the characteristics of the individuals who constitute it.
(2) Every society is a moral society.  Durkheim does not mean that every society is good.  He means that every society requires “moral” bonds to hold it together.  We need to figure out what exactly a “moral” bond is.
(3) Human beings are inherently social creatures, who in various ways need social bonds, yet there is still an antagonism between society and the individual (or so Durkheim says at some points). As a later sociologist put it, human beings are social creatures but never wholly socialized ones.
(4) Modern western societies suffer from a distinct kind of moral crisis in which old forms of the social bond (or of social solidarity) have eroded but new ones have yet to take shape.
(5) Durkheim saw himself as a kind of priest or prophet whose responsibility was to sketch out the new kinds of shared beliefs capable of holding a complex society together.  Durkheim was eager to be the kind of intellectual against whom Max Weber warned us.

Additional article summaries by Emile Durkheim:

Emile Durkheim - The Rules of Sociological Method
Emile Durkheim - Suicide
"The Genesis of the Notion of the Totemic Principle or Mana" – summary and review" - part 1 -2 -3
What is Social Fact?
Division of Labor in Society 
Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Moral Education
Types of Suicide according to Emile Durkheim
Anomie according to Durkheim

Suggested reading:   


Monday, July 17, 2017

Marxist Influences in Sociology

Marxism remains a vibrant presence on its own and within several social science disciplines.  Sociologists Erik Wright and Michael Burawoy talk about two ways that sociologists incorporate Marxism into their thinking, “Using Marxism” and “Building Marxism.”   

Many sociologists use Marxism by adding Marxist ideas to those of others.  There is a kind of “common-sense” sociology today that focuses on issues of inequality and conflict, which combines the ideas of Marx with those of Weber and many others. You can see this in theories of social movements and collective action, for example, Charles Tilly’s From Mobilization to Revolution.

A smaller number of sociologists commit themselves to building Marxism as a distinct theory of society, history, and social change.   Accepting the failure of socialist revolution, many Marxists over the last eighty years or so have focused on the “social reproduction” of capitalism.   This means looking at the mechanisms that mitigate the contradictions of the system and dampen tendencies toward militancy. The work of Gramsci and several generations of critical theory are devoted to this. Other Marxists have focused on capitalism as a world system, in which contradictions and inequalities play out between core and peripheral societies. Still other Marxists have worked at unpacking the idea of socialism and coming up with specific changes in capitalist societies that might counter the logic of the market and exploitation.    Erik Wright’s  “Real Utopias” project is especially interesting. 

The specter of  Marx also haunts most other radical theories of society, which often begin as a critique of Marxism, especially in societies like France where Marxism was once so powerful.   Foucault, Bourdieu, and many other important “post-modern” social theorists developed their ideas as arguments with Marx.

see also:


Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sociology of Karl Marx

Marx's sociology is always a critical sociology. He intends to produce not only an understanding but also a critique of modern western society (i.e., capitalism).  However, according to Marx, this criticism can't be based solely on abstract, timeless, or utopian moral ideals.  It has to be based as well on a thorough, concrete analysis of capitalist society, which will reveal its inner dynamics and the way in which it creates the objective possibilities for its own transcendence (through revolution).  Marx is always scornful of mere moralizing, and of socialists who, as he says somewhere, know nothing about capitalism except that it is bad.  He sees capitalism as a stage in a process of historical development, one whose emergence had a certain inner logic, even necessity, but which will just as necessarily give way to a different (and higher) kind of society.

Marx's criticism of capitalist (and pre-capitalist) societies is rooted in a powerful conception of human nature, even though Marx would never admit this. This conception involves not a fixed set of drives or instincts, but a set of capacities or possibilities, the realization of which makes people fully human. Human beings have the capacity to freely, consciously, and actively shape their lives in cooperation with others; this is precisely what makes them human.  As long as they are not able to do so, as long as they are the pawns of other persons or of impersonal natural or social forces beyond their control, they are not fully human.

For Marx, then, freedom, community, and human fulfillment all go together, and he expresses this unity in the idea of communism. History is the conflict-ridden and often contradictory process through which human beings develop and fully realize their nature.  Marx thus means his vision of human possibility not simply as an ahistorical abstraction, but as the goal toward which history is actually moving, albeit in indirect, unintended ways.

All hitherto existing societies, in contrast, are characterized in different ways by unfreedom, isolation, and the lack of fulfillment (or outright denial) of human possibilities.  This condition is captured in the term alienation or estrangement.  Although Marx rarely uses the term after writing The German Ideology in the mid-1840s, the concept remains crucial throughout his work.  Central to this concept is the idea that in all societies up to and including the present, human beings come to be dominated by their own creations­--including their system of social relationships.  Much of Marx's work analyzes the specific ways in which human beings are dominated by social forces that confront them as irresistible alien powers.  Alienation, however, is not inherent in the human condition; it is the product of certain forms of social organization and can be overcome.

Marx integrated his moral vision into a complex analysis of how history works and how societies fit together, which he and Engels sometimes called historical materialism, and into a detailed critique of capitalism.

Marx's writing can be divided into two periods.  From 1843 to 1848, he developed the basic outline of his thought, including his vision of human nature, a general conception of societies and how they change, and an ambitious agenda for a total analysis of modern societies.  From 1848 to nearly the end of his life (in 1883), he labored to complete one important part of this agenda, the critique of "political economy." At the same time, he poured immense effort into political writing of various kinds.

Summaries on Marx:

Descartes / part 6 of Discourse on the Method - summary

In part 6 of "Discourse on the MethodRené Descartes writes that although not feeling a personal need for publishing his work, he feels he must do so in order to further human knowledge in practical fields such as engineering and medicine. Understanding God as the source of natural law and tracing the manner in which this law works can promote great benefit for men. But Descartes also warrants a highly careful attitude towards natural studies. Not causing too much social alarm and controversy and having a very firm basis for one's arguments can prove to be very beneficial for science.
Descartes welcomes criticism of his work by others, but he does note that he cannot see any holes in his theory not already considered by him. Descartes also welcomes people continuing his work from where he left off, though he doubts what else can someone else think of that he himself has failed to write.   

Suggested reading on Renè Descartes:


Descartes / part 5 of Discourse on the Method - summary

In part 5 of "Discourse on the Method" (titled: " Physics, the heart, and the soul of man and animals ") René Descartes moves from the metaphysics of part 4 to physical considerations. Descartes was hesitant in previously publishing his thoughts on the matter following Galileo's contamination over his heliocentric views, but now he feels more confidant in their acceptance.
Descartes first discusses light and its natural origins, considering celestial bodies as conveying light and humans as the perceivers of that light. He then discusses matter, saying that God's laws must be perfect and therefore imperative in any possible world (not just ours). These laws separate, according to Descartes, matter into bodies which operate in consistency with these laws. What's important to note here is not so much Descartes' physics but rather the notion to natural law, originating in God, can account for all natural phenomena. If we, let's say, take God out of the equation nothing will change. One way to see this is to argue that Descartes holds up the "God as watchmaker" view, meaning that God has created the laws which govern the world without his interference. Another possible interpretation is much more radical and could at the time come at a very high cost for Descartes who tip toes around the notion of a purely rational, none-religious, account of natural order. Descartes avoids heresy by claiming that while nature can be understood through natural law the capacity of the human soul for reason must be Godly. Reason is what for Descartes separates us from animals. Reason and its subsequent use of language is what makes humans, unlike animals, act on more than just instinct. This, for Descartes, proves that our souls come from God and are in fact immortal.      

Suggested reading on Renè Descartes: