19 Mar 2022


Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

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Horace Minor has expressed his opinions concerning people’s culture and behavior through the practices of the Nacirema. The Nacirema culture has since been used by anthropologists to draw parallels and similarities between people and their cultural practice throughout the world. They would assert that the presuppositions used by one’s culture can explain that of other cultures through the years. This paper is a reaction on the culture from the Nacirema perspective on their body rituals. 

Ethnocentrism is the study of other people’s culture according to the presumptions from the customs and practices of one’s own culture. Most of the custom of the Nacirema is used to describe the different cultures of people in the world. For instance, the Nacirema culture is characterized by the habit of using portions in ensuring that they enhance their appearance and health status. They believe that their human body is ugly therefore they have a chest where all types of magical materials and holy water are kept. These people have the tendency of using these portions on their bodies regularly. Dental health is also put in perspective by these people. They care for their gums and teeth by cleaning regularly using magical powders and hog hairs to ensure that they also have good breath. Shedding of teeth by children is also part of their custom since they believe that the ritual is a step to adulthood. Due to tooth decay, the Nacirema visit the medicine man who inserts magical materials on the decay to avoid further damage. During ceremonies, both men and women prepare themselves by shaving the hair for men and baking their heads in small ovens for women so that they look presentable. The sick people undergo ceremonies in the temple that are part of their cleansing rite. The Nacirema also have a listener who exorcises the devils from their minds by allowing them to express themselves on what they are going through (Miner, 1956). 

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Cultural relativism is the principle that everyone’s beliefs and customs should be understood from one’s own cultural perspective. The Nacirema have rituals such as the mouth cleansing custom, which though not effective, are practiced regularly. We may judge such rituals by seeing them as irrelevant and cruel. The same way with our cultures, they may seem unfamiliar because we have not evaluated them from a closer distance. Instead of judging a particular community because of their culture, we should try to find out the beliefs behind this culture so that we can understand them better. 

We may develop feelings of ethnocentrism when we approach a culture that may seem odd or unfamiliar to us. To minimize this, we can inquire the indigenous names of different customs performed by the tribe instead of using names that are unfamiliar to that tribe. We should also try to establish a framework in which indigenous groups explain their practices instead of our own by distinguishing unfamiliar practices from those that are sacred. Lastly, we should always evaluate people’s beliefs so that we can understand their culture. 

Miner’s article still applies in 2001. Since many people brushed their teeth regularly, went to hospital when sick, used to apply cosmetics on their face to enhance their appearance and also visit the dentist in order to ensure that their teeth and gums are healthy. Many aspects of the Nacirema culture have not changed at all since it is being practiced in the 21st century. Many still live in homes as a family, they wash their face on the sink every morning, they brush their teeth and seek for medical attention when sick and children still shed their milk teeth. Others also visit the psychologist who listens to the difficulties they undergo. The most prominent aspects of this culture is the custom of seeking medical attention. Many hospitals have been established throughout the years to offer medical attention to those who are sick. There has been introduction of free health care facilities which allow for regular checkups. Brushing teeth is an essential part of a human being’s life. Others brush their teeth after every meal to ensure that dental health is exquisite (DeVita, 2015). 

In conclusion, we could say that the culture of the Nacirema depicts the customs of our own culture. The rites and ceremonies performed by this tribe have been performed and are still being performed by us in our everyday lives. Some of these customs may be viewed us extreme or weird but the only way we can understand them is studying the beliefs behind them to avoid making our own assumptions. 


DeVita, P. (2015). Distant mirrors: America as a foreign culture. Waveland Press.

Miner, H. (1956). Body ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist, 58(3) , 503-507. 

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