The Emic and the Etic


In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition on _"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art_. The technique employed by the curators was one of juxtaposition, as the works of modern artists appeared alongside a selection of primitive artefacts. The exhibition proved to be controversial. In an article entitled Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, Thomas McEvilley criticised the exhibition for confusing emic and etic knowledge. In invoking the emic and the etic, McEvilley raised the spectre of the "Manichean struggle between 'materialism' and 'idealism'" that dominated anthropological theory in the sixties and seventies (Ortner 1984:134). Although the terrain has moved on a bit the struggle has not completely subsided, and so it is worth re-examining the concepts of the emic and the etic.

While the emic and the etic are theoretical concepts (actually borrowed from linguistics), they arise directly from a question of method: How can I know about the world? There are in fact many ways of knowing about the world, and the emic and etic serve as a means of differentiating between them. The distinction between emic and etic is one of perspective and evaluation, as Marvin Harris writes:

Emic operations have as their hallmark the elevation of the native informant to the status of ultimate judge of the adequacy of the observer's descriptions and analyses. The test of the adequacy of emic analyses is their ability to generate statements the native accepts as real, meaningful, or appropriate... Etic operations have as their hallmark the elevation of observers to the status of ultimate judges of the categories and concepts used in descriptions and analyses. The test of the adequacy of etic accounts is simply their ability to generate scientifically productive theories about the causes of sociocultural differences and similarities. (Harris 1979:32)

Made in this way, the distinction highlights the fact that that etic knowledge will tend to have universalist pretensions and therefore be susceptible to charges of ethnocentrism. At the same time, emic knowledge will tend to be culturally specific and therefore open to charges of relativism. It is on the basis of the former strategy that McEvilley proceeds in his attack on MoMa:

By demonstrating that the 'innocent' creativity of primitives naturally expresses a Modernist aesthetic feeling, one may seem to have demonstrated once again that Modernism itself is both innocent and universal. (2003[1984])

In McEvielly's view, it is fine for MoMA to evaluate objects on the basis of modernist aesthetics but trying to attribute native behaviour to a kind of proto-modernist impulse is a step too far. It is unlikely that the natives would recognise modernist aesthetics in their own work, or even that they would see their work as being primarily aesthetic in the first place. This is one reason why Alfred Gell rejects the notion of an anthropology of art that is defined primarily as an "elucidation of non-western aesthetic systems" (1998:2), in favour of viewing art as a system of action.

A favourite anthropological example of the difficulties of viewing non-western artefacts through an aesthetic lens is that of Malangan figures. In their own context of Papua New Guinea, these objects serve as a sort of vessel for the dead, and are intended to be destroyed once they have fulfilled their ceremonial purpose. While they are highly prized as aesthetic objects by western collectors and museums, a purely emic analysis would resist attempts to classify the carvings as anything other than junk.

There are some potential difficulties with emic knowledge. First, while emic analyses are less likely to impose concepts and categories (like modernist aesthetics) on the participants, such analyses are more difficult to generalise (Latour & Woolgar 1986:38). This potentially limits their usefulness.

Second, it is easy to see why an emic analysis is open to charges of cultural relativism. This becomes abundantly clear when one is unwilling to privilege one form of knowledge over another. However, Harris (and many others) are certainly willing to do just that:

We must recognize that there are many ways of knowing, but we must also recognize that it is not mere ethnocentric puffery to assert that science is a way of knowing that has a uniquely transcendent value for all human beings. In the entire course of prehistory and history only one way of knowing has encouraged its own practitioners to doubt their own premises and to systematically expose their own conclusions to the hostile scrutiny of non-believers. (Harris 1979:27)

It is worth noting that in this passage, science as a system of knowing is being judged and evaluated precisely according to its own criteria for what makes a good system of knowledge. This is part of the reason why many anthropologists find the distinction between the emic and the etic difficult to swallow:

'Etic/emic' distinctions are false because all knowledge is ultimately 'emic' ... Harris' 'etic' is at best the 'emic' of the historian of science. (Cohen cited in Fisher & Werner 1978:198)

The problem is compounded because in practical terms there is a power imbalance between observers and participants and therefore between etic and emic knowledge systems (Latour & Woolgar 1986:38). In the end, it is the verdict of other anthropologists and social scientists that will carry the day. It is as if the emic knowledge of the social scientist must go to some lengths to mask its own emic-ness.

Against this conception of the emic and the etic, there are anthropologists who, drawing on the terms' linguistic origins reject the notion of an emic that is necessarily opposed to an etic (Fisher & Werner 1978). They find the root of the opposition deeply embedded within a particular epistemology:

It appears, however, that all anthropologists who utilize the terms share an epistemology with Harris which posits a fundamental distinction between mind and behavior, which calls for different operations to explore these two realms, and which draws a hard line between the cognitions of actors and the conscious cognitions of scientists.(Fisher & Werner 1978:197)

It is here that we find the biggest distinction between Harris's Cultural Materialism and the contemporary New Materialisms: Harris is willing to accept (and even relies on) a mental world that is somehow separated from the material world. Neo-materialists are not willing to accept this, insisting that knowledge about the world cannot exist outside of the material world. Here the etic and the emic serve less as a means of distinguishing between methods of judgement and evaluation and more as a reminder of that such methods are necessarily legion.

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