Emic: An explanation of a behavior or belief in terms that are meaningful to those involved. Culturally Embedded.These are two terms that are widely used in anthropology, and they're among the first terms discussed in any introduction to cultural anthropology class (such as the one I'm TAing for now). Here's the problem; there is no such thing as an etic explanation, that is, one that is culturally neutral. One could give an etic description, perhaps:
Etic: An explanation of the same phenomenon from the point of view of an observer. Culturally Neutral.
(Paraphrased from Wikipedia)
"He carries a bag filled with various items which have been discarded outside and places it in a large plastic bin on the edge of the grass."As opposed to an emic description:
"He takes out the garbage."However, any kind of explanation would have some cultural inflection. Thus "because it is trash day" might be an emic explanation, given by the person carrying the garbage to the curb. On the other hand, and anthropologist observing the behavior might say that he takes out the trash to keep it from filling his house. This is a functional explanation which might be considered etic, but is, in fact, grounded in a vast historical/social/cultural setting. That setting is essentially a Western, modernist one, which values "objective" "rational" over the "biased" and particular explanations given by most people. Not all etic explanations must be functional (though, by tradition, they often are) it could be genetic ("because his genes told him too") social ("because power made him do it") or based on any number of other approaches.
There's nothing wrong with taking an "objective" point of view, except that it is a delusion. To be "objective" is merely to take a Western/Modernist perspective. The claim that this perspective is "objective" hides the fact that it too is culturally embedded. Furthermore, it privileges the Western point of view by suggesting that it is more true than any other - thus emic explanations tend to have an air of superstition and irrationality around them.
This is not to deny the validity or value of etic explanations - they are true and they are useful. Sometimes they are better or more useful (or more just) than emic explanations; sometimes they are not. The point is to recognize that what we call etic explanations are not culturally neutral, they are simply embedded in a different culture than the emic explanations.
Framing it this way is both a challenge and an opportunity. By seeing etic explanations as culturally embedded in a modernist frame work, we must recognize that they are not inherently imbued with value - we must struggle to decide and demonstrate that the etic perspective is worthwhile. On the other had, the reward to be gained from this extra work, is the ability to value alternative perspectives, and the knowledge embedded in the emic understanding.