Defining Taboo

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Defining Taboo

“One might say that taboo deals with the sociology of danger itself […]”[1] Yet even this definition is too restrictive. As taboo deals with restrictions of either the universal or the particular, it is interesting how taboo itself cannot be restricted in its definition. No single definition can encompass what it means for something to be taboo. However there are certain categories and words that repeat when discussing taboo, namely that it revolves around some form of restriction.

At the beginning of Franz Steiner’s book Taboo he attempts to define taboo, but instead ends up introducing several possible definitions. Nevertheless, he creates a significant outline for the meaning of the word. Steiner writes that taboo focuses on four aspects: 1) obedience and ritual significance; 2) specific and restrictive behavior in dangerous situations; 3) protection of individuals; 4) protection of society.[2]

These categories are heavily related to taboo, but I think it is important to point out two things. First, the “dangerous situations” here might be real or imagined. Second, despite taboo having a focus on the individual, the society as a whole is needed to create a restriction. In other words, society creates taboos and individuals perpetuate them (or destroy them in some instances.)

Here then are four categories for which I think most taboos exist:

1. Protection (real or imagined)

2. Disgust

3. Fear

4. Exclusion or Inclusion (segregation)

Although a definitive definition is hard to come by, a simple way to understand taboo is to make it synonymous with restriction or prohibition. This however is perhaps too narrow a definition for understanding reasons behind taboo.


[1] Franz Steiner, Taboo (New York: Psychology Press, 2004) 20-21.

[2] Ibid.

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