Term of Art: Taboo

“Taboo: The term taboo derives from the Tongan ‘tabu,’ meaning ‘sacred” or ‘inviolable.’ However, its contemporary use is broader, most generally meaning a social and often sacred prohibition put upon certain things, people, or acts, which render them untouchable or unmentionable. The most famous taboo is the near-universal incest taboo, prohibiting sexual or marriage relations between particular categories of kin. According  to both Sigmund Freud (Totem and Taboo, 1938) and Claude Levi-Strauss (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969), society itself originated with the incest taboo. Other authors have stressed the function performed by taboos in society. Raymond Firth (in Symbols Public and Private, 1973) interpreted taboo as a mechanism of social control. In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas drew attention to the way in which taboo serves as a social marker, creating and maintaining social classifications.”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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