Sociology Index


Norms, Social or Cultural Taboo

A taboo is social or cultural prohibition. Disregarding taboo is generally considered a deviant act by society. Taboo is a polynesian word, first encountered by Captain Cook, meaning literally ‘marked off’. Taboo is putting of a person or thing under temporary or permanent prohibition or interdict, especially as a social custom.

Taboo also means forbidden to general use or to a particular person or class of people. Taboo is a customary prohibition or interdict. Also, the system or custom, especially in certain societies, by which such prohibitions occur.

Taboo refers to those special articles or symbols within a culture that are given a distinct status as either sacred, metaphysical or dangerous. Taboo may mean set apart for or consecrated to a special use or purpose.

Tabooism is a system of taboo. Vegetarianism, halal and kosher food can be regarded as part of restrictions one is expected to adhere to. There can be taboo of the use of certain words and topics in social conversation.

A taboo is an "unthinkable" action that even the thought of violating it triggers social punishment. We consider a model in which deliberating over breaking a taboo provides information on possible private benefits but entails social costs.

The strength of the taboo is endogenously determined. We examine how taboos can change and disappear over time and analyze the relationship between social heterogeneity and the effectiveness of taboos. We extend our model to societies in which individuals may choose among several identities, characterized by different taboos and characterize the conditions that give rise to a multi-identity society.

Food taboos: their origins and purposes - Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2009, 5:18
Abstract: Food taboos are known from virtually all human societies. Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. Dietary rules and regulations may govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and – in traditional societies – preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc. On a comparative basis many food taboos seem to make no sense at all, as to what may be declared unfit by one group may be perfectly acceptable to another. On the other hand, food taboos have a long history and one ought to expect a sound explanation for the existence (and persistence) of certain dietary customs in a given culture. Yet, this is a highly debated view and no single theory may explain why people employ special food taboos.

This paper wants to revive interest in food taboo research and attempts a functionalist's explanation. However, to illustrate some of the complexity of possible reasons for food taboo five examples have been chosen, namely traditional food taboos in orthodox Jewish and Hindu societies as well as reports on aspects of dietary restrictions in communities with traditional lifestyles of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Nigeria. An ecological or medical background is apparent for many, including some that are seen as religious or spiritual in origin. On the one hand food taboos can help utilizing a resource more efficiently; on the other food taboos can lead to the protection of a resource. Food taboos, whether scientifically correct or not, are often meant to protect the human individual and the observation, for example, that certain allergies and depression are associated with each other could have led to declaring food items taboo that were identified as causal agents for the allergies. Moreover, any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of "belonging".

Human Origins and Taboo - J. C. MCKERROW - Nature 144, (23 December 1939)
Abstract: we think of the evolution of man from some anthropoid stock as the evolution of mainly instinctive (innately conditioned) behaviour into mainly customary (socially conditioned) behaviour, we can both see the possibility of the formation of a larger group than the family one characteristic of extant anthropoids and can relate the said possibility to the facts of taboo and totemism.

Taboo - Nature 155, 440-440 (14 April 1945)
PROF. HUTTON WEBSTER is well known from his earlier books on "Primitive Secret Societies" and on "Rest Days". His new book, on "Taboo", collects together from ethnographical literature a mass of data concerning t ie ritual prohibitions found in what are commonly called 'primitive societies'.

Family, Kinship and the Origins of the Incest Taboo - Maryanski, Alexandra
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association
Abstract: The near universality of the incest taboo against inbreeding between three sets of dyads in nuclear kinship units is an ideal topic for co-evolutionary analysis that is, the interaction effects between biological and sociocultural processes during the course of hominid and human evolution. Drawing from primatology, neurology, the sociology of emotions, evolutionary biology, anthropology, clinical psychology, and sociology, this paper not only seeks to shed new light on the origins of the taboo itself, but also on variations in (1) the power of the taboo to regulate mother-son, brother-sister, and father-daughter sexual relations; (2) the differences in the rates of incest among these incestuous dyads; and (3) the resulting differences in the psychopathologies that emerge when the taboo is violated.

The incest taboo? A reconsideration of Westermarck - Gregory C. Leavitt
Idaho State University, USA, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 4, 393-419 (2007)
The ongoing discussion between social scientists who espouse some variety of socio-environmental theory (for examples see Leavitt, Incest and Inbreeding Avoidance: A Critique of Darwinian Social Science, 2005: 215 and Leavitt, `Disappearance of the Incest Taboo', American Anthropologist, 1989) and those who advance Darwinian selection principles (human sociobiology, Darwinian social science, behavioral genetics, or evolutionary psychology) have often focused their debate on the incest taboo and the avoidance of inbreeding. Acknowledged by many as an important cultural universal, the incest taboo has commonly been recognized by Darwinian social scientists as the most compelling instance supporting the premise that complex human behaviors can result from natural selection. Human sociobiology forwards the argument that natural selection mechanisms will favor outbreeding because inbreeding is deleterious. By contrast, socio-environmentalists have made the case that the incest taboo is a socioculturally derived solution to important practical problems found in human social life. In this article, I not only challenge the commonly held notion that inbreeding is injurious, but also argue that inbreeding is often harmless and even fitness-enhancing. If so, Westermarck's hypothesis that children raised together naturally trigger selection mechanisms for sexual avoidance is highly questionable. Rather, incest and inbreeding avoidance are diverse practices related to environmental circumstances.