Norms & Taboos: Right vs. Forbidden

You cannot depict Mohammed in any form in a Muslim culture.

You cannot handle meat, fish, or eggs as a Brahmin in Hindu society.

Why?

Because both are taboo.

Taboos are a type of social norm which are far more serious than folkways or mores. They are so entrenched in a culture’s DNA that the behaviors are inherently banned.

Unlike folkways (right vs. rude) and mores (right vs. wrong), taboos are completely forbidden.

Religious Imagery

Jesus Christ is often represented in icons, sculptures, paintings, and other religious artworks.

Buddha is depicted as a rotund man, frequently in meditation and at peace with the world.

Various Hindu gods and goddesses are shown in full color at religious temples and in books.

However, as with many Islamic traditions, it is strictly taboo for anyone to depict the prophet Mohammed, because doing so is thought to “encourage the worship of idols,” as the BBC puts it.

This taboo is so strict that it hedges into law (a social norm we’ll discuss next week) and, if violated, is met with a death sentence.

This illustrates how serious taboos can be. Along with laws, they are the strictest social norms of any given society.

Food Taboos

Food taboos appear in most societies, as well. These, again, can often be the result of religious doctrine.

As Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow writes in his 2009 article, “Food taboos: their origins and purposes”:

“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.”

The author goes on to say that food taboos are illogical when compared with each other, as one group might consider a food “unfit” for consumption, while another group deems it fit. And both groups survive. On the surface, there seems to be no logical explanation for why certain foods might be harmful for one human and perfectly safe for another.

However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a culture’s history often explains its dietary taboos and customs.

One example given is Jewish dietary laws, which include fasting days and kosher eating, along with other traditional unifying food taboos.

As Benno Meyer-Rochow notes:

“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’.”

This is the very definition of social norms, in a nutshell. They maintain identity, provide cohesion, and enable members to belong to something bigger.