When I was an undergrad, I remember being assigned the classic article “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” by Horace Miner. The piece, published in 1956 in American Anthropologist, applies an anthropological lens to an odd culture singularly devoted to intense ritualistic “improvement” of the human body, which its members seemed to find disgusting in its natural state.
I thought of that article when Matt Cornell, of My Own Private Guantanamo, tweeted a link to the 1994 film Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich, or Dark, Mysterious Austria (I’m not. The film, produced for Austria’s SBS-TV, pokes fun at the tone unfortunately common to many documentaries that attempt to explain the oh-so-bizarre customs and beliefs of non-Western societies. According to IMDb, “A team of the All African Television network wanders into the darkest regions of the Eastern Alps. They observe the habits and rituals of the natives and make not one, but two ethnological major break-through discoveries.”
At 5:40, we learn that the team has disproved the theory that Europeans are monogamous; starting at about 7:50, they describe the elaborate costumes and militaristic symbolism of clans of the Tyrol region of Austria; and at 15:00, there’s a great discussion of the curious obsession with “patently useless activities,” such as biking for no other purpose than biking itself:
Aside from the humorous commentary, it’s a great way of illustrating the sociological imagination, which requires us to step out of our own culture and try to look at it through the eyes of an outsider — and, as C. Wright Mills put it, to recapture the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted.