Sunday, 7 August 2016

On Being Emic

A recent discussion on FB turned upon the emic/etic distinction. For those who might be unfamiliar with the terms, the emic/etic distinction emerges out of Americanist anthropology, and was coined by the linguistic anthropologist Kenneth Pike. The emic refers to the attempt to understand persons of other cultural contexts from within their own perspective, whereas the etic refers to the attempt to understand such persons from within our perspective. It is the difference between trying to "think as" versus "think about," between trying to see the world as others see the world and trying to situate others within our own vision of the world. Emic thinking is frankly far more difficult than etic thinking, as it is not just about thought but also about empathy. And as certain candidates for high office in the United States demonstrate quite readily, not everyone is equally endowed with empathy.

When studying anthropology at the undergraduate level, it was drilled into me that one cannot get to the etic before really grasping the emic (it should be noted that I studied in a context deeply influenced by the Americanist tradition of cultural anthropology, in which Canadian anthropology has always participated deeply due to the fact that the first American anthropologists often carried out fieldwork among our indigenous persons; the British tradition of social anthropology would tend to approach things somewhat differently). Before one can really understand others on one's own terms, one must understand them on theirs. Understanding others on one's own terms is completely appropriate: it is what allows one to construct for oneself a coherent reality that includes other persons within its ambit. But to the extent that one has not yet adequately apprehended others on their own terms then what one is integrating into that coherent reality is not those persons but rather a bad pastiche of those persons. (BTW: it literally goes without saying that what one is integrating into one's reality are constructions, not the literal persons, but I will say it anyways).

Anthropologists are primarily concerned with studying others who are our contemporaries, but I think that the above lesson applies equally well to studying the ancients (something which Americanist anthropology, which includes in its ambit the archaeology of the Americas, is well-experienced at doing). In fact, I would argue that the same insight that drives the Americanist anthropologist to give heuristic priority to the emic is identical to that which drives Meyer to give heuristic priority to the intention of the author. Before I can make judgments about, for instance, to what extent material in Acts is to be useful for reconstructing past events, I must first know what the author of Acts (let's call him Luke, for convenience) means to communicate. If he means to communicate fiction then the probability that he can inform us greatly about the past course of events decreases greatly. A writer who means to communicate actual courses of events is hardly free from error in so doing, but is more likely to achieve this aim than someone for whom it's not an aim at all. And we can only know this by what we can reasonably define as an emic analysis of the text. Indeed, in principle the only thing that differs between the work of the anthropologist and the work of the historian in such instances is the character of the data with which each works: the anthropologist works with living persons, their activities in the present; the historian with the artifacts left behind by such activities.

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