A taboo is a social or cultural banning of an act. Although the act might not be illegal or punished, it is strongly derided. 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 (tabu). Captain James Cook introduced the term to the English language in 1771. The original word was used to describe a ban on contact with a person, animal, or thing.
What is a Taboo?
Every culture has some behaviors that are considered taboo. Food, dress, bodily functions, and courtship are common themes. Sometimes these taboos are based upon religious beliefs.
The ban on behavior might be explicitly taught, or the taboo might be learned based upon other values in the culture. Some examples of taboos include:
- In many Jewish and Muslim communities, people are forbidden from eating pork.
- In Western cultures which value youth, asking a woman’s age is often discouraged.
- In some Polynesian communities, people are forbidden to touch the shadow of a chief.
In some societies, certain taboos are encoded into the law. Yet taboos are more commonly social prohibitions (especially in industrialized societies).
Taboo and Culture
Different cultures have different taboos. 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. 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. Taboos may 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.
- Taboo. (n.d.) Encyclopedia Britanica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/taboo-sociology
Last Updated: 04-9-2018
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