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Summary Article: Taboo from Encyclopedia of Social Deviance

A taboo is any ritual prohibition of an action, including contact or associations with objects that are part of material culture. In its widest sense, taboo involves any action or thing considered culturally prohibited based on widespread norms. Some scholars believe that the term has lost its usefulness, but current research on taboo words in the social sciences and in neuroscience reflects its ongoing benefits.

History of Taboo

The concept of taboo emerged in the Western world after a British vessel commanded by Captain James Cook visited the Polynesian Islands in the late 1700s. In written reports, Cook noted that certain objects and actions in Polynesian culture were “tafoo,” which he would later pronounce “taboo.” This included anything natives considered forbidden or dangerous. Cook's party discovered that cultural standards disallowed women from eating certain forms of meat. Taboos kept women away from males while menstruating. If crops were unfit for consumption, priests would taboo them with magic wands. Interestingly, Cook created a constructionist analysis of deviance with his writings. The things he reported on were not taboo in and of themselves. As with the previous example, priests had the ability to decide which objects and actions were taboo, which gave them considerable political power. Historical accounts of Polynesian culture imply that revolts would take place when priests tabooed too many things. These revolts triggered legitimation deficits for religious leaders. Tribes would sometimes remove priests from leadership positions when they abused tabooing powers.

Cook also believed that taboo included the idea of something being sacred. In one of his reports, he discusses a human sacrifice and references the person as “taboo” and “consecrated.” Scholars are skeptical of Cook's interpretation because of its inconsistencies. For example, Christians using the same word to describe the holy cross and something detestable such as human excrement does not make sense. However, there are modern words, such as “bad” that carry multiple interpretations expressing opposite meanings. In some subcultures, something considered bad means that it is good.

By the late 1800s, the word taboo had become adopted as part of the English language. In the early to mid-20th century, scholars such as Sigmund Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss used the term to identify anything strongly prohibited within a culture. They avoided Cook's premise of interchangeable meaning. At that time, popular topics relating to academic work on taboos involved sexual relations, specifically incest.

The Incest Taboo

Many scholars believe that incest is a universal taboo. There appears to be a common prohibition across cultural lines where norms disallow members of a nuclear family to engage in intercourse. Sibling sexual relations are the most common form of this taboo. The key term is nuclear family; there are cultures that do freely permit sexual relations between uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, and first cousins. Moreover, limited knowledge of biological ties often supersedes the stigmatization of incestuous relationships involving distant relatives. Often taboo, however, are certain sexual relations not involving biological ties, such as stepfather and stepdaughter relationships.

Theoretical explanations for the incest taboo give insight into how taboos form. One theory is that incestuous relationships are known sometimes to produce offspring with genetic defects, so humans have a natural aversion to accepting them. Another theory proposes that women are sacred symbols of families, especially considering spiritual concepts related to fertility and the symbolism of blood that accompanies menstruation. Therefore, engaging in sexual contact with women within the family, especially during menstruation, came to carry a forbidden tone. Extending this concept, one theory argues encouraging marriage and sexual relations outside of the family ensures social bonds and cooperation needed for social order. Consider the case of arranged marriages facilitating political alliances.

In the contemporary United States, people did not even discuss the idea of incest openly until the 1980s. However, once the taboo barrier around public incest issues fell, research discovered that incest existed at higher rates than previously believed. With the topic breached, victims of incest felt more comfortable talking about their experiences, and advocacy groups argued that law enforcement should do more to investigate this once forbidden topic. The criminal justice system concentrated more resources on incestuous relationships, with a specific focus on issues such as child sexual abuse.

Forbidden Words

Some academicians have argued that the word taboo has outlived its usefulness. Indeed, in contemporary mainstream society, with many formerly prohibited behaviors now practiced openly, it may seem like nothing is taboo anymore. However, use of the taboo concept is still beneficial, specifically in terms of analyzing forbidden words. Forbidden words associated with taboos are just as important as the taboos themselves. Consider talking about death.

People will use an abundance of metaphors and euphemisms to avoid direct discussions of death. People say someone has “passed away” or is “no longer with us” and avoid directly stating that someone is dead. Groundbreaking research involving neurological responses to taboo words is taking place. One recent study used functional magnetic resonance imaging and found that internal inhibition for using taboo words involves a specific area of the brain scientists previously believed only responded to external social rules about word use. This implies that humans neurologically encode cultural norms for language use.

See also: Child Sexual Abuse; Constructionist Theories; Incest; Norms and Societal Expectations

Further Readings
  • Durkheim, E. (1963). Incest: The nature and origin of the taboo. Lyle Stuart New York NY.
  • Freud, S. (1913). Totem and taboo: Resemblances between the psychic lives of savages and neurotics. Routledge London England.
  • Lé vi-Strauss, C. (1969). The elementary structures of kinship. Beacon Press Boston MA.
  • Parsons, T. (1954). The incest taboo in relation to social structure and the socialization of the child. British Journal of Sociology, 5, 101-117. doi:10.2307/587649.
  • Severens, E.; Kuhn, S.; Hartsuiker, R. J.; Brass, M. (2012). Functional mechanisms involved in the internal inhibition of taboo words. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 431-435. doi:10.1093/scan/nsr030.
  • Steiner, F. B. (1956). Taboo. Cohen & West London England.
  • Walter, T. (1991). Modern death: Taboo or not taboo? Sociology, 25, 293-310. doi:10.1177/0038038591025002009.
  • Jason S. Ulsperger
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

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