CIRCUMCISION: A Riddle of American Culture

Reed D. Riner, Ph.D.

Presented at The First International Symposium on Circumcision, Anaheim, California, March 1-2, 1989.


      Circumcision is considered, because of its continued prescription in spite of substantial objective evidence for its contraindication, as a riddle of American culture. Traditional Euro-American explanations for the practice, as a prophylactic against sin, insanity, and sepsis are reviewed in historic context, and found unsatisfactory. Findings of a cross-culturally comparative investigation support the theory that circumcision symbolizes subordination to a fraternal interest group. The cultural connotations of the uncircumcised and circumcised groups are developed and the traditional explanations and contemporary practice are reconsidered and interpreted in this context.


      Why do I call circumcision a riddle of American culture? First, because of the fact that it has become enough of a public issue that we are gathered here to discuss it, and second because of the fact that a significant part of the American medical establishment persists in prescribing and perpetuating the contraindicated practice of genital mutilation, when all other industrialized countries have almost or completely abandoned the practice. These seem sufficient reasons to consider the practice a riddle of American culture".

      That is not, however, how I encountered circumcision as a cultural riddle. I encountered it as a riddle in teaching introductory anthropology with Marvin Harris' text, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches,1 and Cannibals and Kings,2 two books organized in terms of cultural riddles, such as "Why is the cow sacred (in India), and the pig taboo (in Semitic Cultures)?"

      Another of Harris riddles is (why) the virtually simultaneous emergence of the universal religions, and in this context why, especially, the emergence of Christianity? In this latter context he asks, "Why were Peter, James and John", a group he calls the Jerusalem Triumvirate, "so violently opposed to Paul's version of Christianity?" The answer to this last riddle hinges on circumcision, but by answering that specific riddle a more general riddle emerges which Harris avoids: this is the more general cultural riddle of circumcision and the other forms of genital mutilation.

      The riddle of circumcision is a very good riddle to teach with: it is emotion-laden and it is titillating - so it grabs students' attention: It provides an excellent example of why one should be suspicious of any one society's explanation of its own cultural practices, most especially one's own culture's explanations of itself: It demands that we employ the cross-cultural, cross-temporal comparisons and the interdisciplinary, holistic perspective that together are the hallmark of doing anthropology: and by answering the riddle anthropologically we find out a lot more about our own culture than we expected to.

      I propose to lead you along this same line of inquiry, through a sequence of three steps or components of the riddle:

I. How has our own culture explained, or rationalized, circumcision, in the past and into the present ?

II. What other answer is apparent when we address this same question - why circumcision? - to a sample of diverse cultures ?
and, finally

III. What are the immediate, and the continuing sociocultural consequences of persisting in the practice?

      The answer to these questions runs in historic progression from sin through insanity then bifurcates into a medical and hygienic explanation on one band, and a sanity and normative explanation on the other hand, and leaves an aesthetic rationalization dangling somewhere between these.

I.  A Look at Our Own Culture

      From Biblical times, at least, we have had a taboo, a religious injunction prohibiting sexual pollution in the forms of incest, adultery and masturbation; these three are often treated collectively, as they all are concerned with the control of human reproduction - and it is not getting ahead of my argument to note here that no one of these can be adequately policed by any kind of mundane, secular organization. Enforcement is therefore more effectively referred to a higher authority, to supernatural sanction and taboo.

      Reasons for wanting to preclude incest and adultery seem more morally and practically apparent than reasons for wanting to forestall masturbation. Circumcision was prescribed as one way of preventing a person's fall into these sins of pollution. (Allow that reasoning in Biblical contexts was not scientific - but as we'll see, symbolic, and more precisely metaphorical.)

      Consequently through history up to the Enlightenment bans against incest and adultery were more consistently enforced than bans against masturbation - but the association between sin and masturbation - with circumcision as the prescribed prophylactic-persisted nonetheless. Unfortunately theological and moral reasoning are not adequate to explain cultural practice - for the very reason that they are cultural practice, and any such explanation is only tautological. This fact began to be recognized by in the new rationalism and naturalism of Enlightenment thinkers, and they attempted to explain the associations; between sexual pollution and circumcision in the more empirical terms of insanity rather than supernatural terms of sin.

      One needed only to visit the new mental asylums of the 16th and 17th Century to see for one's self the persistent associations between incest, adultery and masturbation on one hand and insanity on the other. Here we are more concerned with the connection than the erroneous direction of effect and cause. If circumcision had been recognized as an effective prophylactic against such derangements in the past, why certainly it should have that game effectiveness in the present.

      The earliest major work we can identify espousing this point of view is Onania: Or The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightening Consequences In Both Sexes Considered. This classic work identified masturbation as a religious sin with dire psychological consequences in the forms of both physical and mental diseases, most particularly masturbatory insanity, which science would late reclassify as hysteria. By 1750 Onania had seen 19 editions, some 38,000 copies in all of the major European languages, and was one of the most widely read scientific, medical works of its day.

      This `mania with Onania' continued. In 1758, a Swiss, Dr. Samuel Tissot, published a strictly medical approach to the problem. He argued that masturbation weakened the mind and the body, caused physical and mental ills including masturbatory insanity, again, hysteria, neurotic behavior, adolescent rebellion, frigidity, epilepsy, wars and other medical ills, including also, no doubt, that inarguable evidence of pure animality, hair on the palms of one's hands. Dr. Tissot endorsed circumcision as the effective prophylactic against these ills.

      In 1858, the medical community went on record endorsing the clitoridectomy to avert frigidity, to prevent hysteria, and to make women generally more sexually responsive. In 1891, the President of the Royal College of Surgeons reiterated the position in On Circumcision as Preventative of Masturbation. In 1893, this position was further reinforced by Circumcision, Its Advantages And How to Perform It. And in 1905 Dr. Tissot's classic was reissued, still the definitive work on the subject.

      Here let me note that the aggressive prescription of genital mutilation may have reached its peak sometime between 1875-1900 and that the clitoridectomy was being regularly performed in the American South right up to 1937.

      What cultural sense can we make of the Onania and circumcision mania? The facts certainly do not speak for themselves; rather we have to consider this practice in a broader, cultural context.

      The period we have just addressed, from 1750 to the early 1900's coincided with the great western cultural transformation that we call the Industrial Revolution and the formative period of the Capitalist Era. We label this revolution for the change in technology and consequent politico-economic developments, but it is the sociocultural consequences that are pertinent to our line of argument. These sociocultural changes include:

1. A wrenching, rapid transition from the large, extended, patrilineal and patrilocal rural, agrarian style family and household to urban households characterized by neo-local residence patterns, wage-labor employment, nuclear families and the increasing independence of women. Just a few years ago we saw this transformation re-enacted in the televised saga of the Walton family, but in the wake of the Industrial Revolution this kind of transformation was happening to virtually everyone.

2. Particularly this transformation, these now divisions in productive, and reproductive, labor both provided and encouraged alternatives to a quartet of traditional core values, namely: the work ethic, especially the work-for-family ethic; delayed gratification, especially delayed (and more or less arranged) marriage; the family's most especially the father's, right to control the sexual impulses of children, and the role of women.

      This set of core values, of organizational and control principles, was challenged on all fronts by the necessities and the opportunities of the new, more independent and autonomous, urban, middle-class life-styles.

      Simultaneously with this domestic sociocultural revolution, science generally, but medical science particularly was striving to consolidate its newfound abilities, its skills and knowledge, and its authority - not to neglect its political authority. We can fix this trend in our time-line, by noting that the American Medical Association was organized in 1847. This was a scant generation before the peak intensity of the prescription for universal circumcision.

      We will recall the significance of this sociocultural transformation and control crisis in the concluding section.

      Then, rather dramatically in 1932, sin, insanity and medical rationalizations, as a lot, were scuttled as the accepted rationalization for circumcision, in favor of the cancer-prevention argument, hygiene.

      To illuminate this hygiene rationalization, I have to recall to you a previous classroom lecture concerning cultural notions of dirt and pollution. What anthropologists have discovered to be universal about 'what is dirty' follows very simply from the way we Americans define what a weed is. "A weed is any plant growing where it is not supposed to" - including the poor, lonely petunia in the onion patch. Now there's a dirty song for you. This is the key to explaining not only our folk ideas about pollution and hygiene, but also all dirty humor and dirty behavior; it is putting something, nothing, where it is not, properly and culturally, supposed to be, like putting your hands in your pants.

      This anthropological, cross-cultural understanding of "what's dirty" shows us that, however dramatic the apparent change of categories, the hygiene argument for circumcision was really just as arbitrary as the preceding sin, insanity, and medical rationalizations, and more like them than different from them, as each in its way was concerned with preventing one from putting something where is was not, culturally, supposed to be, thus causing some kind of pollution and posing a threat to the proper social order.

      Historically simultaneous with the hygiene argument, we must also acknowledge the psychoanalytic assessment of circumcision. This psychoanalytic argument was more by intent an explanation than an endorsement of circumcision for however often it has been used as an endorsement. This argument is also the ultimate appeal for the psycho-sociological normative argument, that when a boy discovers that he is, or is not, intact like the other men in his family and peer group then he likely will feel stigmatized, excluded, even traumatized by the difference. We will recall the socio-economic, class-membership significance of this argument also in the last section.

      The psychoanalytic/normative argument for circumcision is predicated on the culturally normative assumption of the early Industrial Revolution science that the human body is an energy machine, both physical energy and psychic energy (the two were equated, that is, the two were not differentiated or distinguished from each other). The psychoanalytic theory was developed by applying the physical law of the conservation of energy in (mistaken) analogy to a construct that was conceived of as `psychic energy,' and could as easily be dissipated. (This sounds like spiritualism again. In fact it was.)

      Without belaboring the point, and recapitulating anthropology's debunking of most of Freudian psycho-histrionics, the psychoanalytic argument has been that circumcision is an effective antidote to the universal (which it is not) Oedipal impulse, and a way of ineluctably establishing proper identification with the culturally approved male role model, and all that that entails, including the normative argument.

      In previewing this sequence of permutations of our own cultural rationalizations from sin through insanity, to medical and hygienic on the one hand, and psychoanalytic and normative on the other, I said we would finally arrive at an aesthetic rationalization dangling between today's two dominant explanations. The only comment I can offer regarding the aesthetic rationalization is that it probably provides final proof of the position that "Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder."

      If we ask our own culture, "Why circumcision?," that is the answer, or the set of answers in various combinations, that we get, or do not get, because they offer no objective causal explanation of the association between masturbation, incest, adultery, frigidity and adolescent rebellion on the one hand and circumcision on the other. Nor do traditional theories explain why the circumcision should have any prophylactic effect against the former or the ills attributed to them.

II.  What answer does a cross-cultural, cross-temporal, and interdisciplinary, holistic inquiry into circumcision give us?

      Seeking the answer to the riddle of circumcision in the context of our own, or any other single culture seems to do more to confuse our understanding of the issue than to clarify it. In fact it amounts to generalizing from a sample of one.

      An alternative way to get at the sociocultural meaning of circumcision, and all of the related forms of genital mutilation, is a four step process in which we take a large sample of cultures, identify the cases in which circumcision occurs, determine what those cases have in common that distinguishes them from all other cases, and finally, consider that explanation back in the context of our own culture.

      The first three of these are the steps that I want to follow in this section of my presentation; the fourth I reserve for the concluding section. In considering what these cases have in common, I will group the traits under four headings: the historic/geographic distribution, social organization, socio-psychological consequences, and ritual/symbolic expression.

      We will begin with a large sample of cultures, drawn from the Human Relations Area File, that encyclopedic database that indexes the world's cultures, past and present, and enumerates the many specific traits that characterize and distinguish each of them. This sample has been restricted to pre-industrial, pre-empire societies because the larger societies, especially industrial level societies, are a heterogeneous mix of many cultural traditions. This mixing would confuse our intent to discover the sociocultural associations with circumcision in unbiased cultural contexts.

      The sample that I am referring to has been further skewed in favor of systematic representativeness of both geographical distribution and levels of cultural complexity. It includes 144 band, tribal, chiefdom and simple state level cultures.

A. The Geographic Historic Distribution

      From this sample we shall select out all societies that report any incidence of genital mutilation: that is circumcision, but also the more exotic sub-incision or super-incision of males and the clitoridectomy and infibulation of females. (Do any of the more exotic practices need description?)

      We find that only 23 of the 144 cultures in the sample report occurrence of any of these. This is definitely a minority practice, something that must occur only under special circumstances. There is no reported incidence of any form of genital mutilation, male or female, across all of aboriginal North and South America, for example.

      Within the set of 23 cultures there is a clear pattern regarding the incidence of the kinds of genital mutilation that are practiced. We have accounted for the majority of cases where this is done neither to boys nor to girls. In the remaining 23, we find cases where genital mutilation is done to both boys and girls, or to boys but not to girls, but never a case where it is done to girls and not to boys. This suggests that female genital mutilation is somehow dependent on the cultural presence of male genital mutilation, and that if we explain the latter we have, for the most part, explained the former. In other words, despite the more exotic variations, it will be sufficient for us to explain just ordinary, garden-variety circumcision on which male sub- and super-incision and female clitoridectomy and infibulation are dependent.

      These 23 cases show a very distinctive geographic clustering. There are three distinctive, evolutionarily unrelated, culture areas, three discrete groups of similar, related cultural traditions. These three groups are: the Semitic Mid-East, North and East Africa crescent, and the Melanesian, New Guinea, Australian culture areas.

      Despite their distinctiveness as cultural/historical areas, these three areas represent only two basic subsistence types. The primary modes of subsistence in these areas is (or was, typically) either a nomadic pastoralism, i.e., herding, advanced horticulture, i.e., garden cultivation, or, as in the NE Africa crescent, some combination of these two. These are not all desert, sandy-terrain cultures.

      While these kinds of subsistence patterns are employed in other culture areas, here they are invariably associated with a particular kind of household, domestic and social organization.

B. Social Organization

      All of these 23 cultures are organized in terms of strongly patrilineal, patrilocal, polygamous households. They are all of a population size (derived from the success of their subsistence strategy) that family lineages alone are not sufficient to accomplish all the communities' organizational needs. Therefore all 23 societies also exhibit some form of strong, supra-household, male solidarity groups. These fraternal interest groups may take the form of clans, of age grades, of secret societies, or some other, but in some form a strong, supra-household male solidarity, or fraternal interest, group is always present.

      These kinds of societies are, additionally, characterized by chronic internal conflict and warfare, a device that maintaining a land base sufficient to each sub-groups subsistence needs. This trait entails the development of high degrees of male individuality and autonomy, a consequent premium on male self-control and, in compliment, tight contractual control over women and jural control over children.

      This particular combination of traits, patrilineal decent, patrilocal residence, polygamy, the presence of strong fraternal interest groups, internal warfare, male individuality and control over women and children - distinguishes our sample of 23 from all of the remaining 121 cultures.

C. Psycho-Social Consequences

      This constellation of societal, structural features results in several practical and psycho-cultural consequences distinctive cultural signature. The matters of practice include: a relatively low protein diet that entails the consequences of prolonged nursing, and a marked postpartum, postnatal, taboo on intercourse, and males sleeping away from their wives, so that prepubertal boys are more intimately associated with, and primarily socialized by, a community of mothers and siblings.

      There are three pertinent psycho-cultural consequences following from the practical, adaptive arrangements in the 23 cultures of our sample. These psycho-cultural traits are not, then, culturally universal, but are in fact the cultural, structural consequences of the particular, practical and, given the circumstances, adaptive cultural arrangements. In these cases, they are the presence of:

      1. A pervasive male legitimacy anxiety, expressed in the content of myths, folk tales, jokes, insults, and socio-political accusations. Bastardy is taken very seriously.

      Conversely, this male legitimacy anxiety is virtually absent in matrilineal, matrilocal societies; there natal legitimacy is determined by who one's mother is. In patrilineal, patrilocal, polygamous societies there is always room for doubt.

      Also the culturally entailed correlative, the virginity anxiety surrounding the females, is emphasized, exaggerated in patrilineal societies, and effectively absent in matrilineal societies for comparable reasons.

      2. A structurally built-in double-bind relationship between father and son, Freud's misperceived Oedipus Complex. The double-bind relationship follows from the fact that father in patrilineal systems must satisfy contradictory role relations with his son, both as warm, nurturing male role model, and as primary source of legitimacy, discipline, rewards and punishment.

      Malinowski showed long ago that the Oedipus Complex was absent from Trobriand Island culture, and from matrilineal cultures generally, because mother's brother, a member of her lineage, and her son's family, is responsible as the primary source of discipline, rewards and punishment, so that father, who is not a lineal family member, is expected to be, indeed can only be, a warm , nurturing male role model.

      This built-in double-bind relationship between father and son receives further expression and reinforcement in the fact that in patrilineal, patrilocal societies this good/bad father is in principle, and generalized from actual practice, omni-present, omniscient and omnipotent, and the person who's role must be `taken over,' in some way supplanted or otherwise internalized, as the boy becomes a man. Notice that this latter is an activity of adult adaptation, not a matter of early childhood experience.

      In matrilineal, matrilocal societies this further conflict is precluded, as mother's brother lives away with his won wife's family, and returns to instruct, reward and punish only on special occasions; and the boy, rather than supplanting this relationship with his mother's brother, will grow into a similar, complimentary relationship with his own sister's sons.

      3. The third psycho-cultural consequence of our distinctive trait cluster is the development of a cross-sex identity crises in boys as they approach maturity and manhood from a life experience dominated by mothers and siblings and the specter of the good/bad, often absentee, but nonetheless all-powerful father.

      At this point, in conjunction with the presence of intra-cultural warfare, these kinds of cultures find it necessary to provide special training in aggression, in the manly behaviors associated with warfare, and the male role generally, for the boys.

D. Symbolic, Ritual Expression

      This special training in aggression for boys, and provision for their orderly passage from boyhood to manhood, is organized by a pubertal rite of passage. These rites have a common format wherever they occur. The boy or boys to be initiated are placed symbolically and physically in a kind of magic circle, separated from their natal community (and their identity in that community); they are transformed, by actions of ritual specialists acting on behalf of the community, in a sequence of activities that almost invariably includes a progression through: a `last meal,' their `death,' circumcision, and indoctrination.

      The length, severity and amount of elaboration in this phase of the rite varies; at one extreme the Tiwi, an island people off the north coast of Australia, kept their boys in this phase of 14 years as the recipient partners in institutionalized homosexuality, perhaps one of the most graphic transmissions of the adult male role model.

      The third and final phase of the pubertal rite of passage is characterized by the `new man's' reincorporation, symbolized as a rebirth into his natal society in the role, and with the privileges and obligations of an adult man.

      On close inspection of our cluster of 23 circumcising cultures, we find that circumcision is not in fact invariably accomplished in the context of the puberty initiation rite. In cases it is; but in one case it occurs later in young adulthood, in 10 it occurs earlier in childhood, and in 4 it occurs in infancy. For three cases there is no date. Anthropologists suspect that at least some of the 14 pre-pubertal cases may be historic displacements from the puberty initiation rite. Regardless, in all of the cases, circumcision precedes and proves to be an obligatory pre-requisite to marriage, that single most inarguable prerogative of manhood, the formation of a new kinship and politico-economic alliance, a new household, a new family, a new branch of the tree.

      We must identify, in addition to the cultural context of circumcision, also who are the culturally specified participants of the rite, and their relationships to one another. In this regard, we find, again, a constant pattern. First, and most obviously, kids never voluntarily do this kind of thing to themselves, which tells us a lot right there. Rather the dramatis personae of the rite are: the members of the male solidarity group one or more ritual specialists qualified to act on that group's behalf: collateral members of the candidate's patrilineal descent group who have, explicitly or implicitly, called for the rite: the father: and his son. The rite is always a public, never a private, performance.

      As we inquire into the social, ritual and power relations among these actors in the sacred circle, we approach the anthropological explanation of traditional circumcision.

Toward Explanation

      Walter Goldschmidt and John Greenway offered one of the earliest assays at an explanation: The severity of a rite of passage is directly proportional to the importance of the information communicated in the rite.3

      In severity, circumcision is the most extreme of all rites of passage. Circumcision evokes a generalized stress or trauma response, increased adrenaline flow, accelerated heart beat, increased wakefulness and irritability. All obstetrical nurses know this. It is the kind of state that Sargent, in Battle For the Mind,4 specifies is requisite to effective brainwashing and other forms of ideological conversion. Goldschmidt and Greenway continue: The combination of pain, ritual and moralization more indelibly inculcate the values in the instruction.5

      The secrets, and effective transfer of the adult male role, especially in strongly patrilineal, patrilocal societies, are the key to the perpetuation and prosperity of the lineages and the culture. That much makes sense, but the Goldschmidt-Greenway explanation does not make so much sense with regard to the 14 cases of infant and pre-pubertal circumcision.

      Bruno Bettleheim, considering this social, ritual situation in a psychoanalytic perspective, concluded that what we are seeing is a projection, an acting out on the real world, of psychic anxieties and conflicts of the individuals. Anxieties are indeed present: the legitimacy anxiety, that wants public resolution: "This is my legitimate son." The cross-sex identity crises, that demands unequivocal male role identification, and special training in aggression for the males: the father-son double-bind relationship that needs some kind of amelioration, and: the more widely shared anxiety that the young man's new household and family may signal a schism in the solidarity of the lineage. Loyalty and submission to the fraternal interest group must be publicly acknowledged.

      But the ethnographic evidence suggests that we are pursuing a dead-end. The paternal blood relatives, not the father, call for performance of the rite. The fathers attest publicly to the legitimacy of their sons by presenting them, in fact reluctantly, for the ritual, for their symbolic sacrifice to the authority of the fraternal interest group. Bettleheim interprets the circumcision as surrogate castration. In presenting their sons, the fathers act out their own submission to the male solidarity group, to that group's authority over the disposition of their son's penises and the potential each promises to deliver.

      As matter of ethnographic fact, the fathers more often take the role in the ritual of defenders and comforters, of nurses for their sons. The symbolic sacrifice is performed by ritual specialists on behalf of the male solidarity group for the satisfaction of the collateral patrilineal kin, and not especially for either the son or for the father. And the specialists are, otherwise, typically priests who via ritual sacrifice regulate the allocation of meat protein in a society where it is otherwise scarce.

      We have to fault Bettleheim's explanation for attributing all motivation for circumcision to individual psychodynamics and the resolution of early childhood anxieties. This is overwhelmingly a ritual of adults, by adults, and for adults. The boys and their foreskins are tokens in a larger game this line of explanation led Frank Young6 to conclude that the circumcision ritual is a loyalty oath and political deal among adults, both a testament and a promise of continued solidarity within a group threatened by fission, threatened by a rebellious son possibly starting his own competing politico-economic enterprise. Young's explanation is based on structural and cultural features that effect and involve everyone, features that transcend the variations in individual psychodynamics, structures that are not caused by individual psychodynamics, but collective psychodynamics that are the result of particular, situationally adaptive cultural structures.

       Karen and Jeffery Paige,7 whose research on the subject is, to date, the most thorough and exhaustive, come to the following more comprehensive conclusion:

Thus, the principal elements of a fraternal interest group theory of circumcision are apparent in ethnographic descriptions of circumcision rites. The ceremony is not designed to impress the child since the age at which it occurs varies from infancy to adulthood; as a pre-requisite to marriage, it occurs at a time when the father's political and military potential becomes an immediate source of concern to his lineage. The theory states that the primary purpose of the operation is to demonstrate loyalty to agnatic [paternal] kin in general and to the village elders in particular. Representatives from both groups are generally present at the circumcision, often take active roles, and sometimes order that the ceremony be performed. As the theory suggests, the father is reluctant to expose his son to the risks of the operation and generally participates in a supportive or defensive role if at all, while hazing and brutality are largely under the control of lineage elders or other consanguineal kin [paternal cousins and uncles]. Despite his reluctance, the father is forced to permit his son to participate in the ceremony either by direct orders (in centralized political systems) or by social pressure, the stigma attached to an uncircumcised son and the social prohibition against his marring. This prohibition means that a father who wishes to expand his family power base must have his son submit to the operation or forfeit the son's assistance in continuing his line. Descriptions of the ceremony indicate that, as earlier theories suggested, they are often brutal and sometimes result in castration or death, but the fraternal interest group theory suggests that the brutality is required as a vivid demonstration of the father's loyalty to his own kin, not the result of the father's or is son's unresolved psychological conflicts. Finally, the role of consanguineal [patrilineal] kin is, as the theory suggests, ambivalent and these consanguines [relatives] frequently take overtly or covertly hostile roles in the ceremony. The evidence from ethnographic accounts of circumcision, then, support the contention that they are obligatory demonstrations of fraternal interest group loyalty.8

      Thus far we have considered two explanations for the reasons of circumcision: that from our own culture which entails ideas of sin, medical practice and hygiene, insanity and normative behavior, and a global, ethnographic explanation that entails social control by a fraternal interest group. These two explanations likely seem to be diametrically opposed. I suspect, in fact, I intend that this opposition is creating some cognitive dissonance for you. The third sociocultural significance and consequences of circumcision, is dedicated to resolving that dissonance.

III.  The Sociocultural Consequences of Circumcision

      We have examined, thus far, two quite contrary explanations for the practice of circumcision. The explanation provided within our own culture entails consideration of sin and taboo, of insanity and social conformity, and of medical illness and hygienic considerations. These explanations have in common their advocacy of circumcision as a prophylactic against culturally disapproved behavior, masturbation et al., and as a means to ensuring culturally proper behavior.

      The alternative, ethnographic explanation for circumcision appeals to circumcision's symbolic function as a permanent, dramatic and public demonstration to all parties involved of the loyalty and subordination of the father and the son to the interests of a fraternal interest group.

      In this concluding section, I will clarify how these two, seemingly antithetical explanations, are in fact intimately connected and pertinent to understanding the issue of circumcision in our own society.

      The ritual of circumcision results in exposure of the glans penis to permanent public view, set off by an irreversible, and highlighting, frame of scar tissue. This is a mark of more than just a biological transformation; biologically it is, in fact, irrelevant. Rather circumcision is a powerful, multi-message, therefore symbolic, and only symbolic, statement of social and cultural transformation.

      Circumcision creates a biological boundary and simultaneously a sociocultural boundary; the scarring separates males of a society into two categories, into dichotomously opposed categories: the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Circumcision simultaneously creates a social boundary, creates two opposed social groups, and creates a specified relationship between these two groups. The scar is emblematic of this sociocultural division, and of the proper relationship between the categories it creates. We can discover more of the cultural meaning, and the implications og circumcision by identifying the significant and contrasting features of these dichotomous social categories.

      The circumcised belong to the group which is fully male, dominant, public, and legitimate. The uncircumcised belong to a group characterized by the opposites of these traits; they are other than properly male, sub-ordinate, private and not yet legitimate.

      The circumcised are tame and domesticated in the sense that they conform to the established cultural order. The uncircumcised are, by contrast, potentially wild, aggressive, rebellious and insubordinant of the established cultural order.

      The circumcised are defined, set apart in their proper cultural place, hence, controlled and predictable. The uncircumcised are not so defined; they remain amorphous, unpredictable, indiscriminate, promiscuous, and without proper place, hence, potentially polluting and dirty, where the circumcised are clean.

      These contrasts appeal to more than a merely social boundary; this is one expression of the boundary that distinguishes everything that is culture, man-made, public, orderly, domesticated, sane and clean, from everything that is not culture, from nature that is disorderly, wild, insane and dirty. And circumcision moves the boy, irreversibly, from uncontrolled private nature into controlled public culture, into the role of legitimate participant. The individual's actual behavior is irrelevant. The categories are a priori characterizations, stereotypes, of a kind a person. The ritual and scar of circumcision imposes and communicates this distinction and meaning in every culture.

      It is this symbolic significance of circumcision that explains why circumcision in so closely associated with the ban against masturbation, masturbation results in putting one's seed somewhere, anywhere other than into a culturally controlled and approved sexual, economic and political alliance. It explains why that "elsewhere" is categorically and unalterably dirty .

      It explains why James, Peter and John so opposed Paul's version of Christianity. In rejecting circumcision, Paul openly rejected the legitimacy and authority of Judaism, particularly of the fraternal interest group that included Jesus' own kin, in proselytizing the new religion.

      And it explains why the uncircumcised and the masturbators are stigmatized as prone to wild, rebellious, disruptive, generally improper, dirty and likely insane behavior. The ritual of circumcision removes this stigma and, symbolically though not at all practically, the potentials of such anti-social behaviors.

      It is pertinent to note that this stigma is the stereotype that dominant American society has projected on ethnic minorities; that is, not only on Blacks, American Indi      ans, Hispanics and other immigrants, but also on the born-at-home, rural, breast-fed and typically uncircumcised, as opposed to hospital-born, urban, bottle-fed and typically circumcised. These distinctions illustrate continuation in our own society of the cross-culturally invariant meaning of circumcision which ethnographically and historically has been used to set apart classes and ethnic groups to establish and maintain dominant and subordinant relations, both within and between societies.

      The boundary imposed on nature by circumcision is an expression of man's effort (and here I use the gender specific term advisedly) to impose his control on nature, in particular on the natural tendencies of society. When man, and the fraternal interest group, perceives any loss of control of that part of nature, of that valued resource, of their own authority and legitimacy, the typical reaction is to attempt to intensify the traditional modes of control, in this case the desired control is moral commitment to the propriety and the social category distinctions drawn and reinforced by circumcision.

      This control crisis reaction explains the `Onania mania' that accompanied the social transformations of the industrial Revolution. It was an effort, albeit an effort in vain, to control behaviors such as the break-up of the patrilineal, patrilocal rural household, that could not be otherwise effectively policed. And the argument was couched, not in terms of sin and taboo, but In their modern, more `rational' but still symbolic equivalents, insanity, conformity and hygiene.

      It does not matter that the effort to intensify the traditional modes of control is counter-productive, that typically it more rapidly erodes the credibility of its proponents. The proponent's argument is about the symbolic propriety and cultural appropriateness of a gesture, and the particular kind of social and cultural order that gesture represents.

      No amount of empirical, statistical evidence will dissuade the proponents. Statistical evidence argues from the position of, indeed it is, a description of nature. The intent of the circumcision argument is, antithetically, cultural. The argument over circumcision is, then, another face of that irresolvable argument that rages between religious fundamentalists and biological evolutionists, one is talking culture, the other nature.

      I promised that in conclusion we would come back to circumcision as a riddle in American culture, and see more clearly into the motivations and dynamics of our own culture than we perhaps cared to. The history of the circumcision issue since publication of the 1975 American Academy of Pediatrics study, the one that says `If it works, don't fix it,' illustrates the argument I have developed.

      Recall the image of the actors involved in the circumcision ritual - the members of the fraternal interest group and their designated specialists. Their counterparts in our society are the American Medical Association (and perhaps others, yet to be identified). Their opponents are the AAP and associated medical and para-medical organizations including nurses mid-wives, advocates of breast feeding, holistic healing, etc., but also insurance companies. This latter might seem an odd alliance apart from understanding the symbolic, significance of circumcision. But in light of that understanding we can see nature as "nurture" and nature as empirical statistics in opposition to a man-made, arbitrarily imposed cultural order.

      This opposition is aggravated by the radical change in social categories, roles and divisions of productive and reproductive labor which are consequences of our current Telectronic & Biogenetic Revolution, a transformation of our own society and culture comparable to the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.

      The other actors in the ritual of circumcision include the collateral kin (perhaps paternal, perhaps not), the father and his son. Literature distributed by the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) includes anecdotal evidence that, in our society, much of the contemporary motivation for circumcision is less apt to come from parents than as encouragement from the collateral kin. The theory predicts, for example, that paternal kin are more apt to urge circumcision than are maternal kin. This begs more careful substantiation by a medical anthropologist, or ethnographer.

      The anthropological explanation of circumcision as an American cultural riddle also predicts that there will be a control crisis reaction, a back-lash, an attempt by members of the fraternal interest group, perceiving a threat to their interests, to intensify their traditional modes of control. It predicts a 20th Century expression of the 18th Century Onania mania. That circumcision is a current issue provides support to that prediction. Our medical ethnographer might also clarify for us what, more precisely, the interests and pre-conscious assumptions of that fraternal interest group are, i.e. if its members would be willing to cooperate.

      By elaborating the characteristics attributed to the circumcised and the uncircumcised, we have brought together the traditional and ethnographic answers to the riddle "why circumcision?" We have seen how a social ritual - circumcision - creates a social reality, dichotomous classes in an asymmetrical relationship. And we have seen historically how this has been rationalized in a succession of related metaphors: sanctity and sin, cleanliness and pollution, propriety and impropriety.


Reed D. Riner, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona, 86011.


  1. Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches. New York: Random House, Vintage. 1974.
  2. Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings. New York: Random House, Vintage. 1977.
  3. Greenway, John. The Inevitable Americans.
  4. Sargent, William. Battle for the Mind. New York: Harper & Row. 1959.
  5. Greenway.
  6. Young, Frank, The Function of Male Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-Cultural Test of an Alternative Hypothesis, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 65. pp. 379-396.
  7. Paige, Karen Ericksen. The Ritual of Circumcision, Human Nature, vol. 1, no. 5 (May 1978): pp. 40-48.
  8. Paige, Karen Ericksen & Jeffery M. Paige. The Politics of Reproductive Ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1981. pp. 156-157.

Other References:

  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1966.
  • Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Randon House, Pantheon. 1970.
  • Freilich, Morris. Myth, Method and Madness, Current Anthropology.

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