What’s not Etic about an Emic Perspective?

The question of who is better suited to describe religious practices, the initiated practitioner or the distanced scholar, the “insider” or the “outsider”, has long haunted religious studies. The question suggests a binary opposition that conceals both the lived experiences of scholar-practitioners and the nuance present in all great scholarship. This binary opposition, or the tendency to dichotomize, also form the basis of the terms “etic” and “emic”. 

The terms were coined in 1954 by linguist Kenneth Pike, who argued that the tools developed for describing linguistic behaviours could be adapted to the description of any human social behaviour. Emic and etic were derived from the linguistic terms phonemic and phonetic respectively, where phonemics refers to elements of meaning and phonetics refers to elements of sound. In the study of religion, emic has come to describe the perspective of the subject, while the term etic indicates the perspective of the observer/researcher. It is also generally understood that the term emic describes a culturally- specific position (or the “small perspective”) while the etic describes a universal position (or the “bird’s eye view”). The possibility of a truly objective description was discounted by Pike himself in his original work; he proposed the emic/etic dichotomy in anthropology as a way around philosophical issues about the nature of objectivity. But, as often is the case, the general use of the terms have taken on a life of their own. 

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