Re: Naive question

Julia E Smith (
20 Dec 1996 14:48:53 GMT

In article <>,
Ted<> wrote:

>Is there a particular reason that the distinction is made in the way that
>it is? I understand that the emic is one particular approach to the
>study of human culture; however, it seems to me that the 'etic' could be
>further subdivided into several approaches. Just off the top of my head,
>the etic seems to cover sociological, geopolitical, geophysical,
>biological, climatological, and other different approaches.

To understand the "reason" for this distinction, I'm going to explain
where it comes from. Emic and etic are derived from two terms used in
linguistics: phonemic and phonetic, which refer to ways of recording
"utterances," i.e. words. A phonetic description describes in
an absolute, culturally independent manner *exactly* how a word is
uttered. That is to say, all kinds of things that may or may not have
meaning (tone, aspiration, location of tongue, etc.) within that given
cultural context are described. A phonemic description describes a word
in culturally relevant terms, ignoring those "things" above (tone,
aspirations, etc.) that are not relevant in that cultural context.

An example: In English, there are two different ways to pronounce the
phoneme /k/ that we record in normal writing with a "k" or "c." One is
aspirated, that is, it is accompanied by a small explosion of air. The
other is not. In some languages, that difference is important for
conveying meaning. In English, it is determined by the location of that
sound; it has no meaning. To demonstrate, say these two words:
cat tack
The same set of sounds, just in a different order, you might say. But,
put your hand in front of your mouth, and you'll feel the difference in
the /k/ sound. A phonetic description of these two words would include
the aspiration; a phonemic would not, because *in English* the distinction
between the aspirated and unaspirated sound conveys no meaning, but is
based solely on the position of that sound in the word.

Now, back to emic and etic. They predate Harris, but their use was
largely popularized by Marvin Harris. I don't think that anyone would
argue that merely placing an etic label (like "rite of passage") on an
experience (like that of Mormon women giving birth) would be sufficient to
understand it. That label helps us to relate that process to other
similar processes; how it is like and unlike other examples of "rites of
passage." The other way in which etic labels are important is in doing
large-scale (usually statistical) cross-cultural comparisons. However,
just putting the label on it doesn't (as has been already observed) tell
us what's going on at any real deep level; it doesn't help us understand
what meanings people who experience it give to it. To really understand a
language system, or a cultural system, we need *both* emic and etic
"explanations;" neither one alone gets us what we want to know.

Now, Harris also used the idea in a somewhat different way, that
privileges etic explanations. He's basically a vulgar Marxist, and he
tends to see emic explanations for behavior as "false consciousness." So,
he ran around explaining the economic/environmental reasons for all kinds
of religious behavior (most famously the "sacred cows" of India and the
Jewish prohibition on eating pigs and other kinds of animals). These
external/economic/etic descriptions, he suggests, are more "real" and
"accurate" than the internal/religious/emic descriptions. However, what
he doesn't seem to see is that his approach has not been very useful in
telling us why other people living in the same environment don't have
these same religious prohibitions.

To put it in terms of Mormons again, etic descriptions of having a child
as a rite of passage does not explain to us why the experience of having a
child is more important to Mormons than it is to other folks living in the
United States. To answer that question, we have to look at all those
"emic" factors that were discussed in the previous posting.

Julia Smith
University of Pittsburgh