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Framing Effects in Anthropology

6 Post author: Yvain 29 March 2009 10:05PM

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.

Comments (14)

Comment author: Zvi 31 March 2009 10:10:04PM 2 points [-]

I was rather embaressed it took me so long to realize what was going on, at which point I looked at the name again and smiled, but I think this is more than just framing. The most salient thing about magic, and to a lesser extent about things labeled ritual and ceremony is that they are based on false beliefs and flat out do not work, or if they do work they are placebo effects or otherwise not done for any physical effects. The parts where what was being described clearly worked as intended didn't, upon reversing the frame, seem to change much at all for me.

Because of that, I feel like this passage doesn't say the same things in a different frame. Instead, it makes additional explicit and implicit claims that completely change the... I was going to say way things should be looked at, but it seems right to say framed. Whether we have good evidence that these 'rituals' actually work matters and it matters a lot. It makes me wonder whether the frame primarily follows from those beliefs or if those beliefs primarily follow from the frame, or what this passage would look like if the anthropologist still viewed them in the primitive frame but avoided assuming or implying that what they were doing didn't work.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 30 March 2009 01:38:58AM 2 points [-]

Very amusing, but not subtle enough. It lost me at the dentists.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 June 2009 04:39:27AM 1 point [-]

It lost me in the first paragraph. The word "Nacirema" is unfortunately a familiar one to me.

Comment author: anonym 29 March 2009 11:46:29PM 1 point [-]

On the topic of framing, what do others think of the idea that framing is just an application of priming? Is there more to framing than priming?

It seems to me that the necessary and sufficient conditions for framing are that the priming triggers that the framer selects are intentionally chosen so that the primed associations that come to mind more easily for the framee influence the framee in a way that advances the framer's goals -- even if the goal is just to influence the framee's beliefs or opinions about some subject.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2009 10:44:08AM *  4 points [-]

deleted

Comment author: anonym 30 March 2009 06:34:19PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the explanation. It makes a lot of sense, but I'm having difficulty trying to make the distinction precise. Can you give necessary and sufficient conditions for both framing and priming, as you are conceiving of them?

It sounds like you're saying that framing "activates associated concepts to such a degree that they rise to consciousness" (assuming for the moment that the degree of activation is what determines that) and that "the activated associated concepts then have direct influence on behavior". Are both conditions required for it to be framing (assuming other prerequisites are met)? What constitutes direct influence? What if they rise to consciousness and then have indirect influence? What if they don't rise to consciousness but still have direct influence? Are these last two combinations not possible?

If it is necessarily the case that conscious iff direct and non-conscious iff indirect, then we only need to distinguish using one attribute, not two. Which is it? If we use the attribute of whether it rises to consciousness or not, which seems much simpler given the fuzziness of directness, does that mean that if we presented the same stimulus to two people, and the behavior of both was influenced in the same way, but we interrupted one of them and prevented the concepts from rising to consciousness for that person, that it would be framing for one person and priming for the other? Also, is rising to consciousness a boolean, or does it admit of degrees? If the latter, as I would argue, where do we draw the threshold, or do we perhaps use a fuzzy distinction (in the sense of fuzzy logic values)?

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2009 10:37:27PM *  4 points [-]

deleted

Comment author: JulianMorrison 30 March 2009 12:38:39PM *  0 points [-]

That word trick just plain doesn't work. I can read as quickly backwards as forwards and the meaning of the word just pops straight into my head, spoiling the fun.

Comment author: Demosthenes 30 March 2009 12:48:54AM 0 points [-]

The Nacirema are actually just gaseous meat sacks:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaFZTAOb7IE

Comment author: [deleted] 01 July 2011 05:27:28AM 0 points [-]

I formulated the "disguised description of a mundane situation" hypothesis pretty early. Unfortunately, I thought it was Christianity, not everyday life, so I read some details I thought I could match, like the holy water bit, and some that I couldn't, like the everyday rituals as opposed to weekly rituals. My other, dominant, hypothesis was that this was a genuine attempt at description of a tribe that had mistaken something obvious due to false assumptions, and under that line of thought I managed to correctly identify the chest as a medicine box (I was thinking in terms of traditional medicines unfamiliar to the anthropologist, though). Then I got to the part about a "small bundle of hog hairs", recognized the ritual as brushing, and everything fell into place, complete with the whole "ohhhhhh, so it WAS that, you sly little trickster you" effect. That feeling is rather pleasant, so thank you for posting this.

Incidentally, I didn't get the "Nacimera" thing until explicitly pointed out ("latipso" followed naturally).

Comment author: taw 30 March 2009 04:29:05AM 0 points [-]

I voted up as it was amusing even long after it became obvious, which was around number of shrines per household.

Comment author: gjm 30 March 2009 12:45:30AM 0 points [-]

You have (I assume) a copy-and-paste error: the phrase "The concept of culture" appears out of the blue in the middle of a paragraph, where it doesn't make any sense.

For what it's worth, the name "Nacirema" triggered my something-funny-going-on-here detectors right at the start, at which point it was all rather too obvious. Perhaps it's only for that reason that I found it a bit long.

(I liked it anyway. Were you inspired by this book?)

Comment author: Yvain 30 March 2009 12:58:19AM 1 point [-]

Copy-paste error fixed. Thank you. I'm afraid I wasn't inspired at all, though I wish I could take credit. The piece really is by an anthropologist named Horace Miner.

The book looks clever, though.

Comment author: pjeby 29 March 2009 11:39:44PM 0 points [-]

This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.

When I got to this sentence, I suddenly had the sense that my leg was being pulled, and went back to read the beginning again. Nice job. ;-)