Taboo Research Paper

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A concept assumed in the Victorian period to be central to the religions of supposedly less evolved societies, the term taboo today generally is used to refer to prohibitions grounded in custom or religion rather than in bureaucratic law or common sense and hence bearing some moral weight. Taboos can be widespread, observed over the long term, internalized, and deeply felt, as in the case of incest taboos, or applied temporarily with respect to specific persons, acts, conditions, and objects. This research paper reviews the history of the concept which can be seen to reflect the development of anthropological theory more generally.

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1. Taboos, Social Order, And Moral Persons

The word taboo is originally Polynesian. Via the writings of explorers like Cook and missionaries like Ellis it rapidly entered ordinary usage in Victorian England. In 1842 the 7th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica defined taboo succinctly as, ‘A word used by the South Sea islanders, and nearly of the same import as prohibited or interdicted. It applies equally to persons and things, and is also expressive of anything sacred, devoted, or eminent’ (quoted in Steiner 1999, p. 164). In the hands of Robertson Smith and Frazer, taboo came to epitomize the essence of primitive thought, distinguishing it from civilized religion (i.e., the Judaeo–Christian tradition) in the way it combined holiness with defilement. In a deconstructive work equivalent to that which LeviStrauss performed for totemism, Steiner admirably summarized and critiqued the use of the term through the first half of the twentieth century, demonstrating the problems with applying a culturally particular concept in a comparative and evolutionary fashion. Steiner showed that it was impossible to separate defilement from the sacred in any consistent manner. Steiner’s critique of the abstraction and reification of taboo has been pursued by MacIntyre, while his insights into its significance in Polynesia have been considerably enlarged by Gell, Sahlins, and Valeri.

The most profound reflections on taboo have concerned its universal social basis. Both Freud and Levi-Strauss have seen the incest taboo as fundamental to the constitution of society. For Freud, internalizing prohibitions against intra-familial violence and sexual relations establishes the conditions for the emergence of kinship and moral conscience. Levi-Strauss argued that the incest taboo generates inter-familial relations, providing the basis for the exchange of women (or marriage partners of either sex) that in effect constitutes society. Whereas Freud in Totem and Taboo emphasized the temporal significance of the incest taboo (whose phylogenetic origin in actual historical events is largely dismissed by anthropologists) and the implications for intrapsychic and intrafamilial relations (which finds broader though not unanimous support), Levi-Strauss argued that the incest taboo forms the logical basis of society and is rooted in the universal mental capacity to make categorical binary distinctions, notably those between self and other, culture and nature. In an ambitious attempt to unify and critique the theory, Rubin added the injunction against homosexual relations.

It is Levi-Strauss’s emphasis on classification that has most influenced subsequent analyses of taboos and has proved fruitful in understanding their varied and often ostensibly trivial content. Drawing on their common heritage of Durkheim, both Douglas and Leach emphasized the role of taboos in protecting systems of social classification by banning anomalous or marginal words, objects, and practices that might violate the order of the categories or blur their distinctions. The title of Douglas’s major work, Purity and Danger (1966), captures the crux of her argument perfectly. Dirt, or that which is viewed with revulsion and hence tabooed, is ‘matter out of place’ and hence always relative to a system of classification but also dangerous for it. Building on Steiner, Douglas argued convincingly that individual taboos can only be understood as parts of larger social wholes; that taboos are not false or failed attempts at science; that Western lives are replete with taboos which are no more or less rational than those of other societies; and that without principles of restriction, conceptual and moral discrimination would be compromised and the ensuing freedom of both thought and action would be hopelessly chaotic.

Douglas’s argument has inspired much subsequent work, especially on gender, the body, and food. Among the merits of her approach is the ability to show structural similarities in taboos, whatever their specific content, both within a given society, between societies, and across both ostensibly secular (e.g., hygiene, courtesy) and sacred realms. Somewhat more controversial have been attempts both to illustrate how taboos in various orders of phenomena (notably diet) reflect concerns with the maintenance of social boundaries and divisions and, at a greater level of abstraction, to plot the degree of general interest in maintaining the purity of classificatory orders against the underlying nature of the social relations (the type of society, relatively defined). Following one strain of Durkheim’s thought, Douglas gives primacy to the form and integration of social groupings and thus, despite her radical demonstration of the contingent nature of particular taboos, the argument appears rather conservative. Purity and impurity are not only relative to a system of categories, but this system may also be arranged with respect to a hierarchy of sanctity within a holistic universe, as epitomized by Dumont’s account of the South Asian caste system. Ensuing questions about the relationship of sanctity and encompassment to power have been much debated.

While the presence of taboos is universal, their substance and direction are not, giving rise to culturally specific social orders. In some parts of the world, like eastern Indonesia, prescriptive rules are emphasized, while in others, like Madagascar, proscriptions are pervasive (Lambek 1992). Levi-Strauss demonstrated that specific positive rules of marriage—made possible by the underlying incest taboo—generate certain patterns of relationship over time. Taboos, by contrast, in that they do not specify what must or should be done, allow greater degrees of freedom. Yet, as Fortes argued, they are also grasped more easily and internalized more deeply than positive injunctions.

While taboos usually are analyzed as discursive elements, it is important to understand that they become realized in practice. Often the most consequential taboos are the least explicit. If in a structural model the semantic contents of taboos distinguish who or what one is not, from a practice perspective it is the observance of the taboo that substantiates who one is. Van Gennep saw taboos as acts of obligation, creating both continuity and separation. Fortes emphasized the morally binding quality of taboos and the personal significance of observing them for the internalization of an enduring identity and the acknowledgment of dependence on, and obligation to, higher authorities or values. Moreover, taboos ‘crystallize these abstract norms in concrete objects and precise rules of conduct which are the more effective because they are of no utilitarian or rational value’ (Fortes 1987, p. 129).

Fortes observed both the essentially inward orientation of taboos, especially with respect to eating, and their continuous nature. An important consequence of the fact that taboos are phrased in the negative is that their observance is a relatively continuous and private form of action, whereas carrying out a positive order is a discontinuous and relatively discrete and public act. Hence while the power entailed in observing a taboo may be less explicit and forthright than a direct command, the implications may be more profound. Defiance of taboo may challenge subjection, identity, and value at quite a deep level.

Taboos, then, are not merely imposed, lifted, or carried out in discrete acts but observed continuously. As practical disposition the observance of taboos exemplifies Mauss’s and Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus and Aristotelian virtue that underlies it. Although not always accepted happily, taboos index personal dignity and (self-)respect, and insofar as they are embodied statements, they may be understood as acts which performatively establish and maintain moral states of social commitment and individual conscience. Moreover, in the visceral reactions to the violation of taboos (nausea, disgust, etc.), underlying social conventions are naturalized. Hence, as Douglas also intuits, taboos do not merely signify social or cosmological order but, in acts of separation, commitment, and principled refusal, they constitute it.

Taboos may be understood phenomenologically with respect to a dialectic of subject and object. Gell argues that it is through taboos, applied at varying levels of specificity across social categories, and operating as intentional, if negative, engagement with the world, that the ego or self is constituted. ‘To observe a taboo is to establish an identifiable self by establishing a relationship (negative in this case—not eating) with an external reality such that the ‘‘self ’’ only comes into existence in and through this relationship’ (1979, p. 136). ‘Taboos on eating, on killing, on sexual intercourse, on looking at, touching, etc., together circumscribe a ‘‘hole’’ in the texture of shareable intersubjective reality which, privileged with respect to a specific individual, constitutes his soul, or ego, or personality. Taboo does more than express the self: it constitutes the self ’ (1979, p. 137). When Gell’s argument that taboos carve out the self is combined with Levi-Strauss’ argument that taboos generate exchange and hence society, it is clear that the self is relationally constituted, simultaneously held apart from and connected to others, simultaneously social and itself. There is a dynamic quality here: Umeda of Papua New Guinea alternate phases of taboo and consumption; in Gell’s analysis the taboo phase restores the integrity of the ego by ‘reconstituting it as a closed system’ (1979, p. 146). Elsewhere Gell (1995) generalizes the logic of taboo in its original Polynesian locus where it produced differentiation in a cosmos in which sacredness was immanent rather than transcendental.

2. Transgression

One of Freud’s central arguments concerned the essential ambivalence of taboos, understood as the coalescence of the conflict between a desire and its refusal, attraction, and repression. It is clear that anticipation or suspicion of the violation of taboos often produces visceral reactions—whether laughter, lust, or queasiness—disgust rather than mere indignation. Moreover, because the embodied practice of powerful taboos goes without saying, their pervasive presence is only highlighted by the observance of violation. That is to say, taboos are often indicated through instances of their transgression, in effect, a double negation. As Douglas, Gluckman, and Turner showed, suitably framed transgressions may provide central episodes in religious experience, moral education, and social transition, but otherwise they are perceived as highly threatening. Transgressions may establish political dissent or domination, but they are also the source and substance of neurotic illness, social panic, and much fantasy.

Stallybrass and White (1986) conjoined these ideas with Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque and Elias’s history of manners to explore the significance of taboos in the historical constitution of the European middle class. The rigorous expulsion of what was perceived as disorderly, low, and carnal has produced, in their view, various ‘returns of the repressed.’ These include nostalgia, longing, fascination, and even the academic preoccupation with the body.

While some people continue to argue for a biological basis to the incest taboo (and possibly certain other widespread prohibitions), the increased acknowledgment of the prevalence of actual incestuous relations supports those theories that find the source of taboos in culture or society and human ambivalence. Indeed, the question has been raised whether incest taboos are any longer necessary and whether they have been de facto lifted, or at least limited. On another front, the violence and rape characteristic of twentieth-century warfare, and the torture carried out by repressive political regimes, must be recognized. Indeed, these might be viewed as deliberate and state-sanctioned liftings of taboos in order to maximize personal violation. However, due in part to fears of contamination that accompany any discussion of transgression, research has focussed more on the condition of victims than the acts of perpetration.

Of course, the presence of taboos has always generated fantasies of transgression. These are often difficult to distinguish from actual transgressions and at the same time may produce transgressive acts of their own, as in the ‘de-repression’ characteristic of accusations of witchcraft and child abuse prevalent in recent years in North America and northern Europe but also globally (Comaroff 1997, LaFontaine 1998). The need for moral discernment is not always matched by epistemological clarity, yet the fantasies and acts, characteristic of sites and moments of moral vertigo and vacuum, underline the near universality of disgust in the face of certain kinds of physical and sexual brutality and invasiveness, the universal need for avenues for the exercise of dignified moral agency, and the place of taboos among such means.

Conversely, it could be argued that the preceding discussion suffers from an overly socialized, moralistic, and tame conception of taboos; that negation and excess are central to religious experience; and that transgression be recognized as ‘the ultimate sacred act’ (Taussig 1998, p. 361).


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  6. Gell A 1979 Reflections on a cut finger: Taboo in the Umeda Conception of the Self. In: Hook R H (ed.) Fantasy and Symbol. Academic Press, London
  7. Gell A 1995 Closure and multiplication: An essay on Polynesian cosmology and ritual. In: de Coppet D, Iteanu A (eds.) Cosmos and Society in Oceania. Berg, Oxford, UK
  8. LaFontaine J S 1998 Speak of the Devil. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  9. Lambek M 1992 Taboo as cultural practice among Malagasy speakers. Man 27(2): 245–66
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  13. Rubin G 1975 The traffic in women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of sex. In: Reiter R R (ed.) Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press, New York
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  15. Steiner F 1999/1956 Taboo. In: Adler J, Fardon R (eds.) Taboo, Truth, and Religion: Franz Baermann Steiner Selected Writings, Vol. I. Berghahn, New York
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