Emic-Etic debate

Aboriginal hollow log tombs. National Gallery,...
Aboriginal hollow log tombs. National Gallery, Canberra, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The emic-etic  debate originates from the work of linguist Kenneth L. Pike. It’s sometimes called the insider-outsider problem. The emic-etic debate has far-reaching implications for the social sciences.

In anthropology, the emic model refers to an indigenous people’s understanding of their own cultural representations, whereas the etic model is an outsider’s perspective of those indigenous cultural representations.

These categories have been roundly critiqued. Emic models are often said to have been discovered by an outside researcher but current trends question the neutrality of external observers. So formalized statements made by external observers are seen as exogenous constructions, making any supposed emic theory about a people’s beliefs unavoidably etic.

The idea that theories developed within the humanities and social sciences are social constructions instead of uncovered, formerly hidden truths leads to the area of poststructuralism and postmodernism.

Aboriginal art on a man hole by Ole Reidar Johansen
Aboriginal art on a man hole by Ole Reidar Johansen via Flickr

Other questions arise that are seldom addressed by social scientists. For instance, we cannot be certain that each member of an indigenous community believes in their group’s cultural representations, or if each member believes in the same way. Could some be pretending to believe for material security or social expedience?

And concerning religious officials, might some secretly doubt but feign certainty not just for the previous reasons but also, perhaps, for fear of being wrong and offending a deity?

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  1. i’m looking for two ethnographies on a similar subject (one emic and one etic) so that i can compare them. does anyone know where i should look?



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