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In anthropology and sociology, Nacirema is a term used to examine—with a degree/pretense of anthropological self-distancing—aspects of the behavior and society of citizens of the United States of America. Nacirema offers a form of word play by spelling "American" backwards.
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The original use of the term in a social science context was in "Body Ritual among the Nacirema", which satirizes anthropological papers on "other" cultures, and the culture of the United States. Horace Mitchell Miner wrote the paper and originally published it in the June 1956 edition of American Anthropologist.
In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s. The article sometimes serves as a demonstration of a gestalt shift with relation to sociology.
Miner presents the Nacirema as a group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. The paper describes the typical Western ideal for oral cleanliness, as well as providing an outside view on hospital care and on psychiatry.
Miner's article became a popular work, reprinted in many introductory anthropology and sociology textbooks. It is also given as an example of process analysis in The Bedford Reader, a literature textbook. The article itself received the most reprint permission requests of any article in American Anthropologist, but has become part of the public domain.
Some of the popular aspects of Nacirema culture include: Medicine men and women (doctors, psychiatrists, and pharmacists), a charm-box (medicine cabinet), the mouth-rite ritual (brushing teeth), and a cultural hero known as Notgnihsaw (Washington spelled backwards).
In 1972 Neil B. Thompson revisited the Nacirema after the fall of their civilization. Thompson's paper, unlike Miner's, primarily offered a social commentary focused on environmental issues. Thompson paid special attention to the Elibomotua Cult and their efforts to modify the environment.
This article is reprinted and appears as the final chapter in an anthology called Nacirema: Readings on American Culture. The volume contains an array of scholarly investigations into American social anthropology as well as one more article in the "Nacirema" series, by Willard Walker of Wesleyan University: (American Anthropologist, Volume 72, Issue 1, pages 102–105, February 1970) "The Retention of Folk Linguistic Concepts and the TI'YCIR Caste in Contemporary Nacireman Culture." This article laments the corrosive and subjugating ritual of attending sguwlz. On grammar, the anthropologist notes:
Gerry Philipsen (1992) studies what he terms "speech codes" among the Nacirema, which he contrasts with the speech codes of another semi-fictionalized group of Americans, the inhabitants of Teamsterville culture. His Nacirema comprises primarily middle-class west-coast Americans.
Nacirema is the name of a fictional country in Ronald M. Green's role-playing game aimed at explaining to undergraduate students the fundamentals of John Rawls's theory of justice as fairness. In "The Rawls Game" (1986), Green asks the students to take on the role of Nacireman citizens. Acting from unrestrained self-interest, the citizens vote on a series of public issues and attempt to find solutions that do not require anyone to be forced to act against their own will. The goal of the game is to show that the only way to obtain social fairness is to ignore one's own individual circumstances (race, sex, religion, income, etc.) when making deliberations that affect public life.