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Role of Taboos in Society

Role of Taboos in Society

The phrase taboo is used to describe the implicit prohibition on engaging in a specific activity or desisting from engaging in it; these prohibitions are based and informed by the societal, cultural sense of which action or omission are excessively repulsive or too sacred. In traditional societies, taboos were indicative of which actions or omissions that were approved or disapproved by the deity(Michael 28).

Despite being unwritten taboos brought sanity to society; the taboos of any society asserted the traditions, the traditional education, superstitions of every society. In essence, taboo’s were a means through which early man attempted to explain nature and his own existence in the best way that he could. Taboos, therefore, were specifically tailored to appropriate fate and invite fortune based on the natural laws of cause and effect.

Concept of Taboo

The phrase taboo is derived from the Polynesian word, ‘tapu’ which means forbidden. Traditionally, taboos were developed by religious leaders to be used as instruments for the moral guidance of their followers. Taboos were designed to offer guidance and protect the sanctity of life and the sanctity of the places of worship.

Importance of Taboos

Taboos play the imperative role of maintaining and bringing social order. Before the creation of the criminal justice system taboos were used as the means of regulating the behavior of a group of people. In fact, it is impossible to ignore the similarities between the characteristics of the traditional taboo system and that of the criminal justice system we enjoy today. Taboos were specifically tailored to govern the behavior of their people and prescribe sanctions to anyone who breaks or engages in activity that is considered taboo.

Taboos are rich in culture and belief; in essence, taboos are synonymous with culture in the sense that they are informed by the cultural beliefs and practices of people.  In effect, each time a person breaks a taboo, they have gone contrary to the cultural beliefs and identity of people.

Like criminal law, Taboos have a deterrent effect; in an attempt to promote social cohesion, taboos automatically ban the engagement in immoral and antisocial behavior. Such behaviors include prostitution, adultery, fornication, theft, sexual immorality, and fighting.

In as much as we are still reluctant to admit it, taboos continue to dictate a large part of our lives including the level and attitudes towards cross-cultural interaction.  The reality is that taboos continue to thrive and develop in an era that was thought to be one of taboo-smashing. In the past, taboos have gotten too much negative attention and are seen to be medieval and backward. However, we cannot purport to sieve what we think to be bad and label it taboo and label what we think to be good as being standard procedure(Michael, 22).

We cannot ignore the role of taboos in shaping every sphere of our beings; and also appreciate that taboos existed based on societal and cultural beliefs. Indeed, taboos come in all shapes and sizes and are imposed on us from a very young age and from when these cultural beliefs and practices are imparted people get aware of what truly lies behind prohibitions.

Behind the prohibitions lies the true intention of taboos, which is; preserving harmony and well being in and of the society, preserving life and its quality, preservation of the environment and cultural tolerance (Mary, 52).

In the information age, our social and cultural values have embraced the well-being virtues of modernization, democracy, qualitative education over quantitative education, and critical consciousness. All human behavior at least in the information age is significantly influenced by these norms either passively or actively(Mary, 52). On the other hand, the vices of today include; dependency, bribery, corruption, dictatorships and the abuse of human rights.

            Can we get rid of Taboos?

Taboos are not static, like culture the views of society on a particular topic change. These changes in attitudes and beliefs are inspired by different factors leading to the tipping point of the societal belief. The tipping point theory holds that where a body of resistance builds up to such a point that a dam breaks and the public suddenly demands another way is found and the older way discarded.

The fact that the old way is replaced with a new way of thinking is part of the growth of a culture that is also embodied in the taboo system; beliefs inform culture, culture informs taboos. None would exist without the other. For example, gay marriages in the last century were thought to be taboo. However, at this time and age judging people based on their sexual orientation is considered wrong and unacceptable making it ‘taboo.’


Like there exists many cultures across the globe, taboos to come in all shapes and sizes; they even boil down to taboos shared within one family. In as much as we belong to the enlightened generation, the reality is that our life continues to be influenced by our beliefs and practices. The fact that we do not use the phrase taboo anymore, our lives are influenced by interaction with different cultures.

Human beings are social beings and based on this nature we cannot escape the influence of cultural interaction on every sphere of our lives and being. While we maintain the power of choosing what to believe and what not to believe or practice, we should aspire to make decisions from an informed point of view without any bias aforethought.

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