Horace Miner’s seminal text, ‘Body Rituals among The Nacirema’, (Miner 1956), is still immensely relevant today in anthropology. This exercise in style and framing, critiquing the ‘Othering’ and exoticism of anthropology in the 50’s, highlights an issue still present in the discipline: anthropology’s reckoning with its own ‘savage slot’ (Trouillot 2021). In a time when decolonisation is needed and should be embodied by scholars, a decolonial reading of ‘Body Rituals Among The Nacirema’ (Miner 1956) can helps us anthropologists to think through what it means to assess our own positionality and choices in our fieldwork.
In making the familiar appear strange in this text, Miner makes a strong critique of anthropology and its foundational texts, namely Linton’s Study of Man (Linton 1936), which was used as an introductory text for undergraduate students of anthropology. In the chapter on diffusion of culture, Linton describes an American man’s average morning, pointing out how every little detail is a result of the diffusion of culture, i.e., how the elements of the morning routine are borrowed from other cultures (Linton 1936: 326). This stands in stark contrast to ethnographic accounts of peoples from faraway lands, the ‘Other’, that are most commonly framed using this discourse of exoticism. Miner writes with biting irony:
Professor Linton first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago (1936: 326), but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength – the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided. (Miner 1956: 503)
Miner is using the same ‘Othering’ discourse to make the argument that anthropology as a discipline has been mostly concerned with making the strange familiar. This famous phrase ‘Anthropology makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar’ is repeated to undergraduates and sprinkled across lectures and texts. It has loomed over anthropology, and still today, it is called upon, referenced, and repeated as a motto of sorts. Yet, the ethnographic subject who is deemed worthy of study, is more often than not the Other, from an ‘alien cultural world’ (Narayan 1993). In anthropological discourse, there are lingering ideas about which ‘natives’ should be studied according to the themes explored in fieldwork. According to Appadurai and evoked in Narayan’s article ‘How Native is A “Native” Anthropologist?’ (Narayan 1993):
‘Natives’ are incarcerated in bounded geographical spaces, immobile and untouched yet paradoxically available to the mobile outsider. Appadurai goes on to show how in anthropological discourse, ‘natives’ tied to particular places are also associated with particular ideas: one goes to India to study hierarchy, the circum-Mediterranean region for honour and shame, China for ancestor worship, and so on, forgetting that anthropological preoccupations represent ‘the temporary localization of ideas from many places’ (1988:46, emphasis in original). (Narayan 1993: 676)
Anthropology has a heavy colonial history that built the discipline and, still, today, anthropologists’ whose fieldwork was only possible in the colonial context are considered forefathers of anthropological method and theory. Bronislaw Malinowski’s ‘participant observation’ is still the preeminent method in ethnographic fieldwork and his legacy both in anthropological theory and methodology is still very much present. The posthumous publication of his personal diary from his time in the Trobriand islands, revealed quite a different discourse from Argonauts of the Western Pacific, one laced with racism and disdain (Malinowski 1922; 2020). Michel Trouillot would likely say that this is the discourse of the ‘savage slot’ in Anthropology upon which the discipline is founded. According to Trouillot, ‘Anthropology fills a pre established compartment within a wider symbolic field, the “Savage” slot of a thematic trilogy that helped to constitute the West as we know it’ (Trouillot 2021: 54).
Indeed, Christopher Columbus’s ‘mistake’ (Trouillot 2021: 59) leading to the ‘discovery’ of the Americas allowed the West to create itself in relation to its new alter-ego, its ‘Other’ (Trouillot 2021). Moreover, the European desire and fascination for ‘Elsewhere’ and utopia crafted this “savage slot” (Trouillot 2021) and the myth of the ‘noble savage’ (Rousseau 1958). However, as Trouillot points out, this myth existed well before it was named and as he puts it, ‘The myth of the noble savage is not a creation of the Enlightenment. Ever since the West became the West, Robinson has been looking for Friday’ (Trouillot 2021: 62).
This led to the proliferation of travel logs, missionary and colonial reports, ethnography, and utopian fiction, that we now perceive as entirely distinct from each other. Eventually, the scientific study of the ‘Other’ emancipated itself to become institutionalised, occupying eminent positions in academia and focusing its gaze on the ‘noble savage’. However, the discipline tends to gloss over what Trouillot calls a ‘curiosity turned profession’ (Trouillot 2021: 64). This convenient amnesia over the origins of the discipline allows it to emerge solely as an academic science.
In the context of decolonisation, anthropology has in recent years, emphasised the colonial legacy of anthropology in teaching. Terms like primitive or savage are obsolete today and the evolution of anthropological theory is a testament to this. Trouillot takes it a step further by exposing the entire genealogy of anthropology and how the ‘savage slot’ precedes it, how this discipline is premised by its existence. His view is that in the postmodern world, anthropology must not only reckon with the very conceptions that led to its existence and subsequent institutionalisation, but it must also shift its gaze toward the West and name it as such, not only for ethical and decolonial motives, but also because of a real lack of texts, especially in anthropology that engage critically with the West as a legitimate site of study. Miner doesn’t name the issue in the discipline, nor does he explain or analyse it, but he makes a strong point about ethnographic writing and framing. Trouillot takes this observation and exercise further, contextualising this issue in history, in the discipline and more widely in the West, naming it the ‘savage-slot’ and suggesting direction for the future of the discipline.
If we are to take this advice as young anthropologists, what does it mean for fieldwork and positionality of the researcher? Some would argue that choosing to be a ‘native’ anthropologist could be the answer to the ethical dilemmas posed by postmodernism and decolonisation. However, what does it mean to be a native anthropologist? Kirin Narayan explores this topic by looking at the multiplicity of identity, she writes:
I would argue that every anthropologist exhibits what Rosaldo has termed a ‘multiplex subjectivity’ with many crosscutting identifications (Rosaldo 1989: pp. 168-95). Which facet of our subjectivity we choose or are forced to accept as a defining identity can change, depending on the context and the prevailing vectors of power. (Narayan 1993: 676)
Indeed, she examines identity in a more nuanced way by showing how it is layered, how some facets of the ‘native’ anthropologist’s identity might align with their ethnographic subjects at times and at others clash. Narayan brings in her own complex identity to the discussion, showing through her fieldwork experiences in India, how at times she was an insider and at others an outsider. Born of an Indian father and a German American mother, Narayan’s mixed background, the different facets of identity and communities she is a part of aren’t taken into account when the label of ‘native’ anthropologist is tacked on to her when studying India. Would she be considered a native anthropologist if she were to study America or Germany? The premise of ‘native’ anthropology lies within an assumption of geographical and cultural boundedness that Appadurai, and Narayan take issue with (Narayan 1993). It ignores the possibility of different planes of identification, she writes:
The loci along which we are aligned or set apart from those whom we study are multiple and in flux. Factors such as education, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or sheer duration of contacts may at different times outweigh the cultural identity we associate with insider or outsider status. (Narayan 1993: 671)
Narayan busts the myth of the ‘native’ anthropologist as an authentic insider by showing how complex identity truly is. Through her own examples from fieldwork, she shows the subtlety of ‘insider’ status and the unpredictability of alignment in identification. Moreover, she questions if a ‘native’ anthropologist has more insider access than an anthropologist engaging in long-term fieldwork, becoming a partial insider over time. In this sense, her argument is not only that ‘native’ anthropology is a kind of colonial era myth, but also that it is reductive. An anthropologist engaged in long-term fieldwork can through sensitive engagement gain insider insight as much as a ‘native’ anthropologist (Narayan 1993). Although not addressed directly, I would conjecture that the reductive conception of identity upon which the argument for ‘native’ anthropology is based, is largely tied to the ‘savage-slot’ (Trouillot 2021) that anthropology has been filling for so long. The non-Western anthropologist and any non-Western part of their identity comes to define them whereas their Western counterparts are not defined by these terms.
Narayan’s examples from her own fieldwork highlight for me, a young anthropologist, the ethical dilemma of my own identity in relation to my fieldwork and ethnographic subjects. I am a white, South-African Jew, born in France. My parents emigrated to France thirty years ago where they decided they would start a new life. My English, Scottish and Dutch ancestry make me neither a ‘real’ native of South Africa, nor a ‘real’ French native. If we were to refer ourselves to blood origins, my current country of residence, the UK, would be the closest match. However, I would find it hard to believe I would be labelled a ‘native’ anthropologist, not only because of anthropology’s ‘savage slot’ (Trouillot 2021) but also because of the racism that underlies the label of ‘native’ anthropologist (Narayan 1993).
Applying this thinking to myself, Would I be a native anthropologist doing fieldwork in France, in South Africa? Among Belarusian Jews? Narayan’s call to give more weight to narrative, rather than analysis, along with Trouillot’s call to consider the West as a legitimate site of study and Miner’s shift in perspective through irony and critique, adds levels of nuance to these ethical dilemmas that we must all as anthropologist reckon with and work actively to embody through our choices both in the field and in academia.
Olivia Lindsay is a graduate student in Social Anthropology with interests spanning from the anthropology of France to food and taste, colonialism, occultism, and digital anthropology amongst others. While studying Sociocultural Anthropology at McGill University, she had the opportunity to work in socio-environmental studies, mainly in Panama, looking at a farming community affected by natural disasters and the material culture and traditional medicine of the autonomous indigenous community of the Ngobe-Buglë. She currently researches the digital revival of the Jewish magic tradition and wine growers in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.
Linton, R. 1936. The Study of Man : An Introduction. New York: New York.
Malinowski, B. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea / with a preface by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. London & New York: London & New York.
––––––– 2020. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London : Routledge.
Miner, H. 1956. ‘Body Ritual among the Nacirema’. American Anthropologist 58, 503–507.
Narayan, K. 1993. ‘How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?’ American Anthropologist 95, 671–686.
Rousseau, J. J. 1958. The Social Contract. London: London, 1958.Trouillot, M.-R. 2021. Trouillot Remixed: The Michel-Rolph Trouillot Reader, edited by Y. Bonilla, G. Beckett & M. L. Fernando. Duke University Press (available on-line: http://read.dukeupress.edu/books/book/2964/Trouillot-RemixedThe-Michel-Rolph-Trouillot-Reader, accessed 11 January 2023).