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01 February 2010

Emic and Etic

Emic: An explanation of a behavior or belief in terms that are meaningful to those involved. Culturally Embedded.
Etic: An explanation of the same phenomenon from the point of view of an observer. Culturally Neutral.
(Paraphrased from Wikipedia)
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:
"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.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

The question of the objective orientation is not culturally relative. The objective description is cognizant of presenting descriptions to an audience interested in comparing cultures, the culture-bound description is not. Although most rigorously cultivated in the west, it is not a uniquely western orientation. Eastern cultures have individuals and schools that have done this too in various epochs. It is arguable that everyone needs to do this at some micro-level in humanity, but relatively rarely is it elevated to an institutionalized field of practise. This is of course not to deny the relevance of adjudicating the underlying agenda of the person expressing an objective orientation.

Jeremy Trombley said...

I disagree with the statement that the objective orientation is not culturally relative. All orientations are situated in a particular historical, cultural, and social context. What are referred to as Etic or objective perspectives are meant to describe and explain other cultures' beliefs and behaviors to a largely Western audience - they are, therefore, presented in a Western framework. Find an "etic" description/explanation of some ritual or belief, and ask yourself, would this description be acceptable or understandable to all cultures across the board? Generally, I think you'll find the answer is no - it makes sense only from a Western (i.e. Modern) perspective.

This process of translating from one culture to another, as you say, is not unique to the West, but the Western explanation tends to be privileged and given a certain authority as ultimate Truth. Whereas the so-called Emic perspective is imbued with an air of superstition. It's this claim to ultimate Truth that is problematic since it masks the situated nature of the "Etic" perspective.

Anonymous said...

Hello. You say "Find an "etic" description/explanation of some ritual or belief, and ask yourself, would this description be acceptable or understandable to all cultures across the board?" I would parry that such a standard is not the standard by which to adjudicate objectivity. Why? I don't yet know how to articulate!;)

I agree that in the conceit of having annexed objectivity much violence has been wrought against indigenous cultures. This is an important critique to persecute.

But I disagree that the objective mode in itself is essentially and thoroughly western. Civil conflict would have required resolution through the objective mode. It is famously and truly said that the Native American nations numbered 500 for centuries before western colonization. We underestimate the complexity of indigenous histories; trading, tribal differences, persecuting warfare and brokering peace, to presume that they survived without a mode of objectivity and, I'd venture to say, a degree of cosmopolitanism.

Jeremy Trombley said...

You said in your previous comment: "The objective description is cognizant of presenting descriptions to an audience interested in comparing cultures, the culture-bound description is not."
Maybe I misunderstood, but to me that implies that an Objective explanation would be universally meaningful no matter which culture you're reading it from. That's what I was referring to in the statement you quote above.

I guess I would ask, what is your definition of "Objectivty"? I agree that inter-cultural conflict requires some ability to see beyond one's own culture, and I'm sure many individuals possess this ability and most cultures to varying degrees.
That's different from Objectivity, to me. Objectivity is a claim to some underlying, culturally unbiased, universal (T)ruth (which is the premise of etic explanations as well). While such a thing might exist, I think we can only understand it and talk about it through culture (and psychology and other things as well). Furthermore, I don't think this kind of Objectivity is necessary for harmony between cultures or a kind of cosmopolitanism to exist.

Anonymous said...

I would say, in practice at least, objectivity is an orientation more than primarily an hypostasis in itself. I am not sure I can provide a rigorous definition of the term as it is a very politically charged term with many vectors of "contestation" issuing to it.

Yes it is a misreading to imply standards of "universally meaningful" to my reading of "objectivity".

Colonialist "objective" readings deny the objective mode to other cultures, overstate the transcendence of etic readings, and believe they operate from an inherently more civilized culture. I wouldn't conflate these tendencies as the objective mode itself.

Perhaps we could agree that certain objective perspectives in the western academe are nuanced, empathetic, cognizant of lacunae inherent in cross cultural evaluation and account for their own genetic conceits, while others are more towards being simply conceited and forwarding a superiority complex.

I also agree that a faux objective attitude in the academe and journalism is by and large unreleflective towards its culturally conditioned assumptions. But this is a pathological pseudo-objectivism, not objectivity in a healthy form.

I would say that the facets of indigenous objectivity I described are more than "seeing beyond one's own culture", but also making higher order synthesis of more comprehensive truth values, which could rightly be called a practice of an objective mode.

That last sentence could stand for my definition of objectivity.

I enjoy this forum to articulate and exchange perspectives on these important issues.

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