What is Taboo? (Anthropology) | Anthroholic (2024)

Taboo is a concept that holds significant importance in understanding human societies and their cultural norms. Derived from the Tongan word “Tabu,” meaning “forbidden” or “prohibited,” Taboo refers to actions, behaviours, or subjects that are considered forbidden, offensive, or socially unacceptable within a particular culture or society. It encompasses a wide range of practices, beliefs, and Rituals that are considered to be improper or beyond the bounds of what is acceptable.

What is Taboo? (Anthropology) | Anthroholic (1)

Taboo has a rich historical and cross-cultural background, with its roots deeply embedded in Human Civilization. The concept of Taboo can be traced back to Ancient Societies, where certain behaviours or practices were deemed sacred, set apart, or deemed unfit for ordinary individuals. Taboos served as a way to regulate behaviour, maintain Social order, and reinforce Cultural values and norms.

Throughout History, diverse cultures across the globe have developed their own unique Taboos. For example, in many Societies, taboos surrounding sex, such as incest or adultery, have been prevalent to safeguard family structures and prevent Social disruption. In religious contexts, taboos often revolve around sacred spaces, rituals, or objects, such as the prohibition of entering Holy sites without proper purification. Additionally, taboos can be related to death, bodily functions, certain animals, food, or even specific Social roles.

The significance of taboo lies in its ability to shape Social behaviour, define cultural boundaries, and reinforce shared beliefs within a society. Taboos act as mechanisms for maintaining social order and guiding individual and collective conduct. By designating certain actions or subjects as Taboo, societies establish boundaries of acceptable behaviour and establish a sense of moral and cultural identity. Taboos often evoke strong emotions, such as fear, disgust, or shame, thereby influencing individuals’ thoughts, actions, and decision-making processes.

To fully comprehend the concept of Taboo, it is crucial to adopt an Anthropological perspective that considers the cultural relativity of taboos. What may be considered taboo in one culture may be completely acceptable or even Celebrated in another. Studying Taboo through an anthropological lens allows us to appreciate the diversity of human societies and gain insights into the cultural, social, and psychological dimensions of Taboo.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into various aspects of Taboo, exploring its functions, cultural variations, psychological underpinnings, and its relevance in contemporary society.

Cultural Relativity

The concept of cultural relativity plays a crucial role in understanding and studying Taboo. It emphasises the recognition that taboos vary across cultures and that what is considered taboo in one culture may not be in another. This notion highlights the need for an Anthropological perspective that considers the cultural context when examining and interpreting Taboos.

Cultural relativity acknowledges that each society has its own unique set of values, beliefs, and norms that shape its understanding of what is acceptable and what is considered taboo. For example, practices or behaviours related to sexuality, such as Nudity or public displays of affection, may be taboo in certain conservative societies, while they are more accepted or even celebrated in others. Similarly, the consumption of certain foods, such as pork in Islamic cultures or beef in Hindu cultures, may be considered taboo due to religious or Cultural beliefs.

Anthropologists approach the study of taboo with an understanding that cultural relativity is essential for meaningful analysis. They recognize that Taboos are deeply embedded in the Cultural fabric of a society and are shaped by Historical, social, and environmental factors. By considering the Cultural context, anthropologists can gain insights into the reasons behind the existence of specific Taboos, the functions they serve, and their impact on individuals and communities.

One key aspect of cultural relativity in studying Taboo is the avoidance of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism refers to the tendency to judge other cultures based on the standards and values of one’s own Culture. When examining Taboos, it is crucial to approach them without imposing one’s own cultural biases or moral judgments. Instead, Anthropologists strive to understand Taboos within the cultural framework of the Society being studied, respecting and acknowledging the diversity of beliefs and practices.

By adopting a culturally relative perspective, Anthropologists can explore the dynamic nature of Taboos. They recognize that Taboos may evolve and change over time, influenced by factors such as Globalisation, cultural contact, and shifting Societal values. Cultural relativity enables researchers to analyse how Taboos function within a particular society, how they shape individual and group behaviour, and how they contribute to the maintenance of Social order.

In conclusion, cultural relativity is vital in the study of Taboo. Recognizing that Taboos vary across cultures and that they are shaped by specific Historical, social, and environmental contexts is essential for a comprehensive understanding of this Complex phenomenon. Adopting an Anthropological perspective that considers cultural relativity allows researchers to appreciate the diversity of Human Societies, examine the functions and implications of Taboos, and avoid Ethnocentric biases.

Taboos in Different Cultures

Taboos exhibit a fascinating array of diversity across cultures, providing insights into how different Societies define and enforce social boundaries. By examining examples of taboos from various cultures worldwide, we can explore how these taboos shape social behaviour, rituals, and norms within specific cultural contexts. This section will delve into Taboos related to sex, religion, death, bodily functions, food, and other areas, showcasing the cultural nuances and significance of these prohibitions.

  • Sexual Taboos: Sexual Taboos vary significantly across cultures. For instance, in many Western societies, incest is considered a severe Taboo due to its potential genetic and moral implications. In contrast, some indigenous cultures practise certain forms of Cousin Marriage, which are culturally acceptable and may even be encouraged. Similarly, attitudes towards hom*osexuality, premarital sex, and contraception vary widely, with some cultures embracing these practices while others strictly prohibit them.
  • Religious Taboos: Religious Taboos often govern behaviour, rituals, and practices within a given faith. For instance, within Islam, consuming pork and alcohol is considered Haram (forbidden), based on religious teachings outlined in the Quran. Hinduism has specific dietary Taboos that restrict the consumption of beef due to the veneration of cows. These religious Taboos shape dietary choices and influence social behaviour within these communities.
  • Taboos Related to Death: Death-related Taboos can be found across cultures, guiding behaviours and rituals surrounding death and mourning. In some cultures, touching or interacting with a dead body is considered Taboo, and specific rituals and customs must be followed to handle deceased individuals respectfully. Taboos regarding the naming of the deceased, discussing death openly, or particular burial practices vary significantly across cultures and religions.
  • Bodily Function Taboos: Bodily functions, such as urination, defecation, or Menstruation, are often associated with Taboos in many cultures. For example, some cultures consider it Taboo to discuss menstruation openly, leading to secrecy and stigma surrounding this natural bodily process. Similarly, in some societies, certain bodily sounds or bodily fluids are considered offensive and should be concealed or avoided in public settings.
  • Food Taboos: Food Taboos reflect cultural beliefs, religious practices, and dietary restrictions. For instance, in Judaism, the kosher dietary laws prohibit the consumption of certain animals, such as pork and shellfish. In Hinduism, dietary restrictions include avoiding beef due to the belief in the sanctity of Cows. These food taboos impact not only individual dietary choices but also influence communal eating practices and social interactions.
  • Other Taboos: Taboos can extend to various other areas of Social life. For instance, discussing certain topics, such as politics, personal finances, or marital problems, may be considered Taboo in specific cultures, leading to avoidance or secrecy surrounding these subjects. Some cultures may have Taboos related to specific social roles, such as prohibitions on women participating in certain activities or men engaging in domestic responsibilities.

The examples of taboos provided here highlight the cultural and contextual nature of these prohibitions. They demonstrate how taboos shape social behaviour, rituals, and norms within different Cultural contexts, reflecting the values, beliefs, and priorities of specific societies.

Functions of Taboo

Taboos serve various essential functions within Societies, playing a crucial role in maintaining social order, reinforcing cultural values and norms, establishing boundaries, and regulating behaviour. By examining these functions, we can gain a deeper understanding of the significance and impact of Taboos on individual and collective behaviour. This section will explore the psychological, social, and symbolic functions that taboos fulfil within Societies.

  • Maintaining Social Order: Taboos contribute to maintaining social order by establishing boundaries and guidelines for behaviour. They provide a framework of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable within a given culture, promoting social cohesion and reducing the likelihood of conflict and chaos. For example, Taboos surrounding theft and violence deter individuals from engaging in harmful actions, thus upholding societal harmony.
  • Reinforcing Cultural Values and Norms: Taboos play a significant role in reinforcing cultural values and norms. They act as mechanisms for transmitting cultural beliefs and expectations across generations. By designating certain behaviours as Taboo, societies communicate their collective judgments and reinforce the importance of cultural values. For instance, taboos related to honesty and respect emphasise the significance of these virtues in a particular Culture.
  • Establishing Boundaries: Taboos help establish and define boundaries between different social groups or categories. They contribute to the formation of group identities and foster a sense of belonging and cohesion within a community. Taboos can create a distinction between “us” and “them,” reinforcing the shared values and practices that define a particular cultural or Social group.
  • Regulating Behaviour: Taboos serve as regulatory mechanisms, guiding individual and collective behaviour. They help shape and mould behaviour by specifying what is permissible and what is not within a given society. By imposing sanctions or consequences for Taboo violations, societies discourage individuals from engaging in behaviours deemed harmful or disruptive. Taboos related to violence, sexual misconduct, or social etiquette provide guidelines for appropriate conduct.
  • Psychological Functions: Taboos also fulfil Psychological functions, evoking strong emotions and shaping individual psychology. They often tap into deep-seated human emotions such as fear, disgust, or shame, influencing individual thoughts, emotions, and decision-making processes. Taboos create a sense of moral order and provide individuals with a framework to understand right from wrong.
  • Social and Symbolic Functions: Taboos have Social and Symbolic dimensions, contributing to the formation and expression of social identity. They strengthen group cohesion by establishing shared norms and rituals, fostering a sense of collective identity. Taboos can also serve as markers of cultural distinctiveness, reinforcing the uniqueness and boundaries of a particular culture or Community.

Taboos fulfil important functions within societies. They help maintain social order, reinforce cultural values and norms, establish boundaries, and regulate behaviour. Taboos also have psychological, social, and symbolic dimensions, shaping individual and collective identity and contributing to the overall fabric of a Culture.

Taboo and Identity

The relationship between Taboo and individual or group identity is complex and Multifaceted. Taboos play a significant role in the formation and expression of personal and collective identities, including those based on gender, Ethnicity, and religion. By examining this relationship, we can gain insights into how taboos shape and influence the construction of identities within societies. This section will explore how taboos contribute to identity Formation and expression.

  • Formation of Personal Identity: Taboos contribute to the formation of personal identity by shaping individual behaviours, beliefs, and values. They act as social and cultural markers, guiding individuals in understanding what is considered acceptable or unacceptable within their society. Taboos related to appearance or clothing choices, for example, can influence an individual’s self-perception and identification with specific social groups or subcultures.
  • Expression of Collective Identity: Taboos also play a role in the expression of collective identity, such as gender, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. They define social roles and expectations, reinforcing the boundaries of these identities within a given culture or community. Taboos related to gender roles, for instance, shape the expectations and behaviours associated with masculinity or femininity within a society. Similarly, religious taboos prescribe specific behaviours or practices associated with a particular faith, contributing to the expression of Religious identity.
  • Negotiation and Resistance: Taboos can also be sites of negotiation and resistance within identity formation. Individuals or groups may challenge or reject certain taboos as a form of asserting their own identities or advocating for social change. Marginalised groups or individuals seeking to redefine or expand their identities may challenge taboos that limit individual freedoms or Reinforce inequalities.
  • Psychological Implications: Taboos can have Psychological implications for individuals and their identities. Violating or adhering to taboos can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or moral conflict, influencing the way individuals perceive themselves and their Identities. Adherence to religious Taboos, for example, may contribute to a sense of religious identity and moral integrity, while violation of taboos may lead to feelings of alienation or internal conflict.

Taboos and identity are intertwined in complex ways. Taboos contribute to the formation and expression of personal and collective identities, influencing behaviours, beliefs, and values. They reinforce Cultural norms, provide a Framework for understanding group identities, and can be sites of negotiation and resistance. Understanding the relationship between Taboo and identity provides insights into the intricate connections between individual and collective experiences within Societies.

Evolution and Change

Taboos are not Static; they evolve and Change over time within societies. The transformation or abandonment of certain taboos is influenced by various factors, including Globalisation, cultural contact, and shifting Societal values. Understanding how Taboos evolve provides insights into the dynamic nature of cultural norms and their impact on social behaviour. This section will explore the evolution of Taboos and the factors that contribute to their transformation.

  • Globalization and Cultural Contact: Increased globalisation and cultural contact between Societies have facilitated the exchange of ideas, values, and practices. This exposure to different cultural perspectives can challenge existing taboos, leading to their adaptation or abandonment. Western values and ideas, for example, have influenced traditional Taboos in various societies, particularly regarding gender roles, sexuality, and individual freedoms.
  • Shifting Societal Values: Societal values are not static and can change over time. As social attitudes, norms, and priorities evolve, certain taboos may lose their relevance or be reassessed. Changes in societal values can lead to the modification or abandonment of Taboos that are no longer deemed appropriate or practical. For instance, Taboos related to interracial relationships or LGBTQ+ rights have shifted in many societies as acceptance and inclusivity have become more prominent.
  • Social Movements and Activism: Social movements and activism play a vital role in challenging and reshaping Taboos. Activists advocating for gender equality, racial justice, or LGBTQ+ rights often challenge and seek to break down Taboos associated with these issues. Through their efforts, they contribute to the evolution and transformation of Societal norms, leading to the reevaluation of existing taboos and the emergence of new Social boundaries.
  • Technological Advances and Media: Technological advances and the proliferation of media platforms have significantly influenced the evolution of Taboos. Access to information and diverse perspectives through digital media has exposed Societies to alternative viewpoints and cultural practices. This exposure can lead to the questioning of existing taboos and the adoption of new perspectives. Social media, in particular, has provided a platform for public discussions and debates surrounding Taboo topics, shaping public opinion and driving social change.
  • Generational Shifts: Generational shifts contribute to the evolution of Taboos. As younger generations come of age, their values, attitudes, and priorities may differ from those of previous Generations. This generational divide can lead to the reevaluation and modification of traditional Taboos. Younger generations may challenge Taboos upheld by older generations, advocating for greater inclusivity, openness, and progressive Social norms.

Taboos are not static but evolve and change over time. Factors such as Globalisation, cultural contact, shifting societal values, social movements, technological advances, media, and generational shifts contribute to the transformation and adaptation of Taboos within societies. Understanding the dynamic nature of Taboos provides insights into the influence of cultural forces on social behaviour and the continuous Reshaping of cultural norms.

Taboo and Power Dynamics

Taboos are not merely cultural norms; they can reflect and reinforce power dynamics within a Society. Certain groups may create or manipulate Taboos to maintain their social, political, or economic dominance, while others may challenge or resist Taboos as a form of cultural or social resistance. Understanding the relationship between Taboos and power sheds light on how they can be utilised as tools of control or mechanisms of resistance within a society. This section will explore how taboos are intertwined with power dynamics.

  • Creation and Maintenance of Power: Taboos can be created and enforced by those in positions of power to maintain their dominance over certain social groups or preserve the status quo. The creation of Taboos serves to legitimise and protect existing power structures by controlling or restricting the behaviour, beliefs, or identities of subordinate groups. For example, Taboos related to inter-caste marriage or religious conversion can reinforce social hierarchies and uphold the power of Dominant groups.
  • Control of Social Norms:.Taboos related to political dissent, gender roles, or expressions of sexuality can reflect and reinforce power imbalances, limiting the agency and autonomy of marginalised groups.
  • Taboos as Tools of Oppression: Taboos can be employed as tools of oppression to maintain social, economic, or political inequality. By stigmatising certain behaviours, identities, or practices, Taboos marginalised and excluded specific individuals or groups, further entrenching their subordinate status. For instance, taboos related to the expression of indigenous cultures or Languages can suppress Cultural diversity and perpetuate colonial power structures.
  • Resistance and Subversion: Marginalised groups can challenge, resist, or subvert taboos as a form of cultural or social resistance. Challenging Taboos becomes a means of asserting agency, reclaiming cultural identity, and challenging oppressive power dynamics. By challenging and subverting taboos, marginalised groups disrupt existing power Structures and advocate for social change.
  • Taboos and Cultural Change: The transformation or abandonment of Taboos can be linked to shifts in power dynamics within a society. As power dynamics evolve, Taboos may be challenged or reevaluated, leading to cultural shifts and the emergence of new social norms. This process can be driven by social movements, activism, or changing societal values that challenge existing power structures and norms.

Taboos are intertwined with power dynamics within a society. They can reflect and reinforce power imbalances, with certain groups creating or manipulating taboos to maintain dominance. Taboos can be tools of control and oppression, limiting the agency and autonomy of marginalised groups. However, taboos can also be challenged and subverted as a form of Resistance against oppressive power structures. Understanding the relationship between taboos and power dynamics provides insights into the ways cultural norms can perpetuate or challenge existing power imbalances.

Psychological Perspectives

Taboos have significant psychological dimensions, shaping people’s reactions and adherence through emotions like fear, disgust, shame, and guilt. The Psychological Underpinnings of Taboo can be explored through various theoretical frameworks, including Psychoanalysis and cognitive Psychology. Understanding the Psychological aspects of Taboo provides insights into the deep-rooted mechanisms that influence individual responses and behaviours. This section will examine the psychological dimensions of Taboo and relevant theories that shed light on these phenomena.

  • Emotional Responses: Taboos evoke powerful emotions that influence people’s reactions and adherence. Fear reinforces Taboos related to dangerous or harmful behaviours. Disgust is linked to taboos surrounding bodily functions, certain foods, or sexual practices. Shame and guilt are prevalent emotions associated with violating Taboos, as individuals may feel moral transgression or Social disapproval.
  • Psychoanalytic Perspectives: Psychoanalytic theories, such as those by Sigmund Freud, provide insights into the psychological underpinnings of taboo. According to Freud, Taboos stem from repressed forbidden desires or instincts in the unconscious, serving to maintain Social order. The fear of punishment or social exclusion associated with taboo violations originates from internalised moral codes and societal norms.
  • Cognitive Psychology: Cognitive psychology offers another perspective on the Psychological dimensions of Taboo. Cognitive processes like categorization and schema formation influence how individuals perceive and interpret taboos. Taboos are often Associated with strong cognitive schemas that guide thoughts and behaviours, leading to automatic reactions or avoidance of Taboo subjects. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that individuals experience discomfort when their beliefs or actions contradict Societal taboos, motivating them to adjust their behaviour to reduce this dissonance.
  • Socialization and Learning: Psychological perspectives on Taboo emphasise the role of socialisation and learning in shaping individuals’ adherence to societal norms. From an early age, individuals learn and internalise Taboos through processes like observational learning, reinforcement, and punishment. Socialisation provides the knowledge and understanding of what is considered Taboo in a particular cultural context.

Taboos possess significant Psychological dimensions, with emotions like fear, disgust, shame, and guilt influencing people’s reactions and adherence. Theoretical frameworks such as psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology offer insights into the psychological underpinnings of Taboo. Understanding the psychological aspects of Taboo deepens our comprehension of how emotions, cognitive processes, socialisation, and learning shape individual responses to Taboo subjects.

Contemporary Taboos

In contemporary society, new Taboos and emerging Taboo topics have emerged, intersecting with traditional ones and shaping social dynamics. Issues related to technology, sexuality, social media, and the environment have become significant areas of Taboo with social implications. Understanding these contemporary taboos provides insights into the evolving social landscape and changing boundaries of acceptability. This section will explore current Taboos and emerging taboo topics in contemporary society.

  • Technology: The rapid advancement of technology has brought forth new Taboos and Ethical dilemmas. Concerns around privacy and data security have emerged with the increasing collection and use of personal information by tech companies. The integration of artificial intelligence and automation has raised questions about job displacement and Ethical implications. These technological Taboos intersect with traditional values of privacy, autonomy, and fair employment practices, influencing social discourse and Policy-making.
  • Sexuality and Gender: Discussions around sexuality and gender have undergone significant shifts, leading to the emergence of new Taboos. Topics such as LGBTQ+ rights, non-binary identities, and gender fluidity challenge traditional societal norms and taboos surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. These emerging taboos intersect with established taboos related to Heteronormativity and traditional gender roles, triggering debates and controversies around equality, acceptance, and Human rights.
  • Social Media and Online Behavior: The rise of social media platforms has given rise to new forms of Taboo and social expectations. Cyberbullying, online harassment, and the spread of misinformation have become Taboo topics that intersect with societal values of empathy, respect, and truthfulness. The public disclosure of personal information, Digital privacy, and the effects of social media on mental health have also become subjects of Taboo discussions. These emerging taboos reflect the need to navigate and address the challenges posed by the Digital age.
  • Climate Change and Environmental Taboos: Climate change and environmental degradation have become increasingly Taboo subjects due to their potential implications for economic interests and lifestyle choices. Discussions around the need for sustainable practices, reducing Carbon footprints, and the role of corporations in environmental conservation have been met with resistance in some circles. These contemporary Taboos intersect with established Taboos around Consumerism, economic growth, and traditional energy sources, highlighting the complexities and conflicts involved in addressing environmental challenges.
  • Social Implications: Contemporary Taboos have significant social implications, shaping public discourse, policy-making, and cultural attitudes. They reflect changing societal values, challenging existing norms, and Contributing to the evolution of cultural practices. By highlighting the boundaries of acceptability, these taboos prompt conversations about inclusivity, Human rights, technological ethics, and environmental responsibility. They provide opportunities for individuals and societies to reevaluate their beliefs and engage in critical discussions about the direction of social progress.

Contemporary society has seen the emergence of new Taboos and Taboo topics in areas such as technology, sexuality, social media, and the environment. These taboos intersect with traditional ones, triggering debates and shaping social dynamics. Understanding and addressing these contemporary Taboos are essential for fostering inclusive, ethical, and sustainable societies.


In conclusion, the study of Taboo from an anthropological perspective provides valuable insights into the dynamics of human societies. Taboo is a complex and evolving concept, influenced by factors such as cultural relativity, globalisation, and societal values. It serves various functions, including maintaining social order, reinforcing cultural values, and regulating behaviour. Taboos evoke powerful emotions and can be analysed through psychological frameworks like psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology.

Contemporary society presents new taboos and emerging taboo topics, challenging traditional norms and reflecting changing values. These taboos intersect with established ones, driving public discourse and shaping cultural attitudes. Understanding Taboo is essential for comprehending Cultural dynamics, power structures, and social identities.

As Societies evolve, Taboos will continue to transform. Ongoing research is necessary to stay attuned to societal changes and grasp the complexities of contemporary life. By recognizing the relevance and evolving nature of taboo, we can foster cultural understanding, promote inclusivity, and critically engage with the social and Psychological forces that shape our collective existence.


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