Framing Effects in Anthropology

A large num­ber of cog­ni­tive er­rors are grouped un­der “fram­ing effects”, the ten­dency of a fact to sound differ­ent when pre­sented in differ­ent ways. Economists dis­cuss fram­ing effects in terms of changed de­ci­sions: for ex­am­ple, a pa­tient will be more likely to agree to a treat­ment with a “ninety per­cent sur­vival rate” than a “ten per­cent death rate”, even though these are de­no­ta­tively the same. Other so­cial sci­ences use “fram­ing” more broadly. For them, a frame is similar to a cul­tural filter through which we in­ter­pret and eval­u­ate data.

An­thro­pol­o­gists are par­tic­u­larly wary of fram­ing effects. The thought “prim­i­tive cul­ture” im­me­di­ately sum­mons a set of as­so­ci­a­tions—medicine men, chiefs, thatched huts, fes­ti­vals, su­per­sti­tions—that an­thro­pol­o­gists risks in­ter­pret­ing new in­for­ma­tion about a tribe in light of what they think tribal cul­tures should be like. The prob­lem is only com­pounded by the difficulty an­thro­pol­o­gists have get­ting com­plete and ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion from po­ten­tially reclu­sive so­cieties.

One es­pe­cially well-known an­thro­polog­i­cal work is Ho­race Miner’s de­scrip­tion of the Nacirema, a North Amer­i­can tribe cen­tered around the north­west Ch­e­sa­peake Bay area. He was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in their purifi­ca­tion cus­toms, which he de­scribed as “an ex­treme of hu­man be­hav­ior”. Below the cut is Miner’s es­say, Body Ri­tual among the Nacirema. Do you think Miner is af­fected by a fram­ing bias? Where does the bias man­i­fest it­self?

The an­thro­pol­o­gist has be­come so fa­mil­iar with the di­ver­sity of ways in which differ­ent peo­ples be­have in similar situ­a­tions that he is not apt to be sur­prised by even the most ex­otic cus­toms. In fact, if all of the log­i­cally pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of be­hav­ior have not been found some­where in the world, he is apt to sus­pect that they must be pre­sent in some yet un­de­scribed tribe. This point has, in fact, been ex­pressed with re­spect to clan or­ga­ni­za­tion by Mur­dock. In this light, the mag­i­cal be­liefs and prac­tices of the Nacirema pre­sent such un­usual as­pects that it seems de­sir­able to de­scribe them as an ex­am­ple of the ex­tremes to which hu­man be­hav­ior can go.

Nacirema cul­ture is char­ac­ter­ized by a highly de­vel­oped econ­omy which has evolved in a rich nat­u­ral habitat. While much of the peo­ple’s time is de­voted to eco­nomic pur­suits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a con­sid­er­able por­tion of the day are spent in rit­ual ac­tivity. The fo­cus of this ac­tivity is the hu­man body, the ap­pear­ance and health of which loom as a dom­i­nant con­cern in the ethos of the peo­ple. While such a con­cern is cer­tainly not un­usual, its cer­e­mo­nial as­pects and as­so­ci­ated philos­o­phy are unique.

The fun­da­men­tal be­lief un­der­ly­ing the whole sys­tem ap­pears to be that the hu­man body is ugly and that its nat­u­ral ten­dency is to de­bil­ity and dis­ease. In­car­cer­ated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these char­ac­ter­is­tics through the use of the pow­er­ful in­fluences of rit­ual and cer­e­mony. Every house­hold has one or more shrines de­voted to this pur­pose. The more pow­er­ful in­di­vi­d­u­als in the so­ciety have sev­eral shrines in their houses and, in fact, the op­u­lence of a house is of­ten referred to in terms of the num­ber of such rit­ual cen­ters it pos­sesses. Most houses are of wat­tle and daub con­struc­tion, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer fam­i­lies imi­tate the rich by ap­ply­ing pot­tery plaques to their shrine walls. While each fam­ily has at least one such shrine, the rit­u­als as­so­ci­ated with it are not fam­ily cer­e­monies but are pri­vate and se­cret. The rites are nor­mally only dis­cussed with chil­dren, and then only dur­ing the pe­riod when they are be­ing ini­ti­ated into these mys­ter­ies. I was able, how­ever, to es­tab­lish suffi­cient rap­port with the na­tives to ex­am­ine these shrines and to have the rit­u­als de­scribed to me.

The fo­cal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and mag­i­cal po­tions with­out which no na­tive be­lieves he could live. Th­ese prepa­ra­tions are se­cured from a va­ri­ety of spe­cial­ized prac­ti­tion­ers. The most pow­er­ful of these are the medicine men, whose as­sis­tance must be re­warded with sub­stan­tial gifts. How­ever, the medicine men do not provide the cu­ra­tive po­tions for their clients, but de­cide what the in­gre­di­ents should be and then write them down in an­cient and se­cret sym­bols. This writ­ing is un­der­stood only by the medicine men and by the herbal­ists who, for an­other gift, provide the re­quired charm.

The charm is not dis­posed of af­ter it has served its pur­pose, but is placed in the charm­box of the house­hold shrine. As these mag­i­cal ma­te­ri­als are spe­cific for cer­tain ills, and the real or imag­ined mal­adies of the peo­ple are many, the charm-box is usu­ally full to overflow­ing. The mag­i­cal pack­ets are so nu­mer­ous that peo­ple for­get what their pur­poses were and fear to use them again. While the na­tives are very vague on this point, we can only as­sume that the idea in re­tain­ing all the old mag­i­cal ma­te­ri­als is that their pres­ence in the charm-box, be­fore which the body rit­u­als are con­ducted, will in some way pro­tect the wor­ship­per.

Be­neath the charm-box is a small font. Each day ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily, in suc­ces­sion, en­ters the shrine room, bows his head be­fore the charm-box, min­gles differ­ent sorts of holy wa­ter in the font, and pro­ceeds with a brief rite of ablu­tion. The holy wa­ters are se­cured from the Water Tem­ple of the com­mu­nity, where the priests con­duct elab­o­rate cer­e­monies to make the liquid rit­u­ally pure.

In the hi­er­ar­chy of mag­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers, and be­low the medicine men in pres­tige, are spe­cial­ists whose des­ig­na­tion is best trans­lated “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an al­most patholog­i­cal hor­ror of and fas­ci­na­tion with the mouth, the con­di­tion of which is be­lieved to have a su­per­nat­u­ral in­fluence on all so­cial re­la­tion­ships. Were it not for the rit­u­als of the mouth, they be­lieve that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers re­ject them. They also be­lieve that a strong re­la­tion­ship ex­ists be­tween oral and moral char­ac­ter­is­tics. For ex­am­ple, there is a rit­ual ablu­tion of the mouth for chil­dren which is sup­posed to im­prove their moral fiber.

The daily body rit­ual performed by ev­ery­one in­cludes a mouth-rite. De­spite the fact that these peo­ple are so punc­tilious about care of the mouth, this rite in­volves a prac­tice which strikes the un­ini­ti­ated stranger as re­volt­ing. It was re­ported to me that the rit­ual con­sists of in­sert­ing a small bun­dle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with cer­tain mag­i­cal pow­ders, and then mov­ing the bun­dle in a highly for­mal­ized se­ries of ges­tures.

In ad­di­tion to the pri­vate mouth-rite, the peo­ple seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. Th­ese prac­ti­tion­ers have an im­pres­sive set of para­pher­na­lia, con­sist­ing of a va­ri­ety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these ob­jects in the ex­or­cism of the evils of the mouth in­volves al­most un­be­liev­able rit­ual tor­ture of the client. The holy-mouth-man open the clients mouth and, us­ing the above men­tioned tools, en­larges any holes which de­cay may have cre­ated in the teeth. Mag­i­cal ma­te­ri­als are put into these holes. If there age no nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring holes in the teeth, large sec­tions of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the su­per­nat­u­ral sub­stance can be ap­plied. In the client’s view, the pur­pose of these minis­tra­tions is to ar­rest de­cay and to draw friends. The ex­tremely sa­cred and tra­di­tional char­ac­ter of the rite is ev­i­dent in the fact that the na­tives re­turn to the holy—mouth-men year af­ter year, de­spite the fact that their teeth con­tinue to de­cay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thor­ough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be care­ful in­quiry into the per­son­al­ity struc­ture of these peo­ple. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy- mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an ex­posed nerve, to sus­pect that a cer­tain amount of sadism is in­volved. If this can be es­tab­lished, a very in­ter­est­ing pat­tern emerges, for most of the pop­u­la­tion shows definite masochis­tic ten­den­cies. It was to these that Pro­fes­sor Lin­ton referred in dis­cussing a dis­tinc­tive part of the daily body rit­ual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite in­volves scrap­ing and lac­er­at­ing the sur­face of the face with a sharp in­stru­ment. Spe­cial women’s rites are performed only four times dur­ing each lu­nar month, but what they lack in fre­quency is made up in bar­bar­ity. As part of this cer­e­mony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The the­o­ret­i­cally in­ter­est­ing point is that what seems to be a pre­pon­der­antly masochis­tic peo­ple have de­vel­oped sadis­tic spe­cial­ists.

The medicine men have an im­pos­ing tem­ple, or latipso, in ev­ery com­mu­nity of any size. The more elab­o­rate cer­e­monies re­quired to treat very sick pa­tients can only be performed at this tem­ple. Th­ese cer­e­monies in­volve not only the thau­maturge but a per­ma­nent group of vestal maid­ens who move se­dately about the tem­ple cham­bers in dis­tinc­tive cos­tume and head-dress.

The latipso cer­e­monies are so harsh that it is phe­nom­e­nal that a fair pro­por­tion of the re­ally sick na­tives who en­ter the tem­ple ever re­cover. Small chil­dren whose in­doc­tri­na­tion is still in­com­plete have been known to re­sist at­tempts to take them to the tem­ple be­cause “that is where you go to die.” De­spite this fact, sick adults are not only will­ing but ea­ger to un­dergo the pro­tracted rit­ual purifi­ca­tion, if they can af­ford to do so. No mat­ter how ill the sup­pli­cant or how grave the emer­gency, the guardians of many tem­ples will not ad­mit a client if he can­not give a rich gift to the cus­to­dian. Even af­ter one has gained ad­mis­sion and sur­vived the cer­e­monies, the guardians will not per­mit the neo­phyte to leave un­til he makes still an­other gift.

The sup­pli­cant en­ter­ing the tem­ple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In ev­ery­day life the Nacirema avoids ex­po­sure of his body and its nat­u­ral func­tions. Bathing and ex­cre­tory acts are performed only in the se­crecy of the house­hold shrine, where they are rit­u­al­ized as part of the body-rites. Psy­cholog­i­cal shock re­sults from the fact that body se­crecy is sud­denly lost upon en­try into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an ex­cre­tory act, sud­denly finds him­self naked and as­sisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his nat­u­ral func­tions into a sa­cred ves­sel. This sort of cer­e­mo­nial treat­ment is ne­ces­si­tated by the fact that the exc­reta are used by a di­v­iner to as­cer­tain the course and na­ture of the client’s sick­ness. Fe­male clients, on the other hand, find their naked bod­ies are sub­jected to the scrutiny, ma­nipu­la­tion and prod­ding of the medicine men.

Few sup­pli­cants in the tem­ple are well enough to do any­thing but lie on their hard beds. The daily cer­e­monies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men, in­volve dis­com­fort and tor­ture. With rit­ual pre­ci­sion, the vestals awaken their mis­er­able charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while perform­ing ablu­tions, in the for­mal move­ments of which the maid­ens are highly trained. At other times they in­sert magic wands in the sup­pli­cant’s mouth or force him to eat sub­stances which are sup­posed to be heal­ing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab mag­i­cally treated nee­dles into their flesh. The fact that these tem­ple cer­e­monies may not cure, and may even kill the neo­phyte, in no way de­creases the peo­ple’s faith in the medicine men.

There re­mains one other kind of prac­ti­tioner, known as a “listener.” This witch­doc­tor has the power to ex­or­cise the dev­ils that lodge in the heads of peo­ple who have been be­witched. The Nacirema be­lieve that par­ents be­witch their own chil­dren. Mothers are par­tic­u­larly sus­pected of putting a curse on chil­dren while teach­ing them the se­cret body rit­u­als. The counter-magic of the witch­doc­tor is un­usual in its lack of rit­ual. The pa­tient sim­ply tells the “listener” all his trou­bles and fears, be­gin­ning with the ear­liest difficul­ties he can re­mem­ber. The mem­ory dis­played by the Nacir­erna in these ex­or­cism ses­sions is truly re­mark­able. It is not un­com­mon for the pa­tient to be­moan the re­jec­tion he felt upon be­ing weaned as a babe, and a few in­di­vi­d­u­als even see their trou­bles go­ing back to the trau­matic effects of their own birth.

In con­clu­sion, men­tion must be made of cer­tain prac­tices which have their base in na­tive es­thet­ics but which de­pend upon the per­va­sive aver­sion to the nat­u­ral body and its func­tions. There are rit­ual fasts to make fat peo­ple thin and cer­e­mo­nial feasts to make thin peo­ple fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. Gen­eral dis­satis­fac­tion with breast shape is sym­bol­ized in the fact that the ideal form is vir­tu­ally out­side the range of hu­man vari­a­tion. A few women af­flicted with al­most in­hu­man hy­per-mam­rnary de­vel­op­ment are so idol­ized that they make a hand­some liv­ing by sim­ply go­ing from village to village and per­mit­ting the na­tives to stare at them for a fee.

Refer­ence has already been made to the fact that ex­cre­tory func­tions are rit­u­al­ized, rou­tinized, and rel­e­gated to se­crecy. Nat­u­ral re­pro­duc­tive func­tions are similarly dis­torted. In­ter­course is taboo as a topic and sched­uled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid preg­nancy by the use of mag­i­cal ma­te­ri­als or by limit­ing in­ter­course to cer­tain phases of the moon. Con­cep­tion is ac­tu­ally very in­fre­quent. When preg­nant, women dress so as to hide their con­di­tion. Par­tu­ri­tion takes place in se­cret, with­out friends or rel­a­tives to as­sist, and the ma­jor­ity of women do not nurse their in­fants.

Our re­view of the rit­ual life of the Nacirema has cer­tainly shown them to be a magic-rid­den peo­ple. It is hard to un- der­stand how they have man­aged to ex­ist so long un­der the bur­dens which they have im­posed upon them­selves. But even such ex­otic cus­toms as these take on real mean­ing when they are viewed with the in­sight pro­vided by Mal­inowski when he wrote:

“Look­ing from far and above, from our high places of safety in the de­vel­oped civ­i­liza­tion, it is easy to see all the cru­dity and ir­rele­vance of magic. But with­out its power and guidance early man could not have mas­tered his prac­ti­cal difficul­ties as he has done, nor could man have ad­vanced to the higher stages of civ­i­liza­tion.”

Now, spell “Nacirema” back­wards and read it again.