A taboo is a social or cultural prohibition on an act. Although the act might not be illegal or punished, it is strongly derided and people raised within the culture are highly unlikely to do the act and highly likely to judge people who violate the taboo. The term was originally a Polynesian word used to describe a prohibition on contact with a person, animal, or thing.
What is a Taboo?
Every culture has some behaviors that are considered taboo. The prohibition on behavior might be explicitly taught, or the taboo might be learned based upon other values in the culture. For example, in mainstream U.S. culture it is widely considered taboo for a man to wear a dress in public. While this taboo is sometimes explicitly taught, in other cases the taboo springs from people’s implicit awareness that men and women are “supposed to” behave and dress differently according to societal gender norms.
In some societies certain taboos are encoded into the law; yet taboos are more commonly social prohibitions (as tends to be the case in industrialized societies). Sometimes these taboos are based upon religious beliefs.
Taboo and Culture
Different cultures have different taboos, and the social norms of one culture might be taboo in another. However, some anthropologists have argued that a few behaviors are universally taboo. These may include incest, cannibalism, and killing one’s parents or children. The psychiatrist Sigmund Freud argued that these were likely universal taboos. In some cultures, however, the taboo on these behaviors is lifted in some circumstances. Thus, it is likely that taboos are learned rather than a product of any inborn moral or social code, and taboos change based upon the needs and beliefs of a given society.
- Freud, S. (1983). Totem and taboo. London: Ark Paperbacks.
- Hicks, D. (2010). Ritual and belief: Readings in the anthropology of religion. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Last Updated: 08-26-2015
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