A Tribe Called Nacirema (Insight)

In June of 1956, an article was published in the esteemed social science journal American Anthropologist, which satirized modern anthropologists and the way they describe rituals and behaviours in clinical terms. But what began as a satire became heralded as a classic example of establishing perspective and perceiving the familiar in an unfamiliar way. This was part of the coming of age of anthropology, which by the mid 20th century had become self-aware enough to critique the notion that Western culture was “normal” and other cultures were either “primitive” or “other”.

The article describes in detail the elaborate daily morning ritual “ablutions” of an exotic North American culture, taking place in a sacred shrine complete with two porcelain bowls, one for cleansing the face, and the other for the sacred rites of elimination. A mirror is almost invariably placed above the first bowl, and using this device, the men of this tribe will groom their facial hair with great precision, while women will apply face paint and arrange their hair in such a way as to denote status or to attract a potential mate. The author notes how members of this culture treat this ceremony and this room with tremendous reverence, and the heightened degree of privacy surrounding this ceremony. In this culture, he further notes, there is intense ambivalence about the human body and bodily functions, therefore, there are often restrictions placed on whom may enter this room. Such are the social customs of this tribe called the Nacirema.

At some point, as you read this article, it may slowly dawn on you that this is actually a description of a typical 1950s American household bathroom. And that the term “Nacirema” is actually “American” spelled backwards. By that time, the article has successfully put a new lens on your perception – and delivered the insight that virtually every human behaviour is conditioned by societal norms, whether you’re an Anglo Saxon in Ohio or a Kikuyu in the Kalahari Desert.

For marketers and advertising folk, this is a priceless article. We must see differently from the average person and look at the “normal” through a variety of perspectives. We must ask “why” questions constantly. Why do we do it this way? We do people prefer this brand, this product, to that? What is behind this custom, attitude, and/or perception? We must never assume that any behaviour is “just the way it is”. We must treat every environment as though it was an opportunity to study the Nacirema – or their northern cousins, Naidanac.