If you have ever taken a basic anthropology course, you probably have read Horace Miner’s, Body Ritual among the Nacirema.
One of the hardest things, but most basic skills that an anthropologist must learn to do is to see and understand how they are objects of culture. When anthropology first became a thing, it was born into a world and a mindset that saw and understood differences as the ‘European vs the non-European’. The goals of anthropology were necessary, lofty and presented endless possibilities for understanding humans and human-ness (if you will), but it was a bit arrogant and very subjective, as well.
The assumptions that the European world was the height of sophistication, while the rest of the world was primitive or savage and just trying to get to the European level, contributed greatly to the rise and modern ideas of racism, classism, sexism, etc. (wait for my thesis for more on this subject). However, as great minds grew, learned, experienced, travelled, and challenged those types of ideologies, anthropology really began to mature.
Reflexivity became an important tool for anthropologists. In the social sciences, being reflexive means “taking account of ones self or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated” (Merriam-Webster). This is important because it allows the researcher to take into account their own biases, and socio-political limits in relation to what they are studying.
“It is significant that this critical self-examination among anthropologists has appeared concomitantly with the growing self-awareness of nonwhite people (Lewis 1973: 581)”
Diane Lewis, the anthropologist that wrote the above comment, was basically saying that what encouraged reflexivity in anthropological methods was the fact that nonwhite people were becoming aware of how they were being represented. Self awareness challenges knowledge and conscious and forces outsiders or outside points of view to be accountable. There was a falseness and incomplete perspective to the so-called objectivity of white people representing non-white people as “others”- especially while not acknowledging ones own cultural assumptions and prejudice. This was a turning point in anthropology! (If you get a chance to read Lewis’ article, do it! It’s good. I linked it in the quote).
But it can be really hard to see your own daily activities as cultural tasks. We do them so effortlessly that we believe that the way we speak, write, walk, worship, even sleep is some how natural. When we see people doing something that we aren’t used to, we have the nerve to think they’re weird! This is called ethnocentrism.
Horace Miner’s, Body Ritual among the Nacirema, helps to develop the type of perspective that distances ourselves from ourselves. It’s a great exercise! You don’t have to wait for an Anthro 101 class to read it. When you can, click the link, read, and respond. Share it and discuss it with your friends and family. And don’t be that person to look it up, before you read it, okay?!