Friday, November 13, 2009

Etic Vs. Emic Perspectives: Insider Vs. Outsider


For students and researchers of religion or other aspects of culture (ethnologists, cultural anthropolgists, etc.) an important distinction has arisen, emphasizing the importance of the observer role. Observations about any given subject can either be from an outsider's perspective using their "foreign" values and standards, or the observation can attempt to emerge from a perspective within the tradition, with respect to the values, standards, and imaginations that reflect the subject's and NOT the observer's.

This approach is considerably more sympathetic and sensitive to the diversity of worldviews, cosmological imaginations, and cultural practices that exist in the world. It was the old imperial or colonial practice of observing then judging the "savage." Today, the lens has been reversed, such that we study our OWN culture as the odd or "savage" one, respecting indigenous practices as having stood the test of time amongst other admirable traits.

This concept was borrowed from Linguistics (the study of Language). In linguistics there are two terms "phonetic" and "phonemic". The phonetic description of a sound is just it's physical, outward characteristics. A phonemic one will understand that two sounds that may sound different, may actually just be two different variants of the "same" sound given different environments or contexts.

So, likewise, an etic perspective is one that comes from without and does not understand the underlying structure, within the peculiarities of that language. Whereas, emic perspectives understand that practices that may seem different may better understood within its own context and situation from where it arises.

One important outcome of this is to reject the very notion of the possibility of a "neutral" observer, one who can lead us to an objective truth. In fact, we're increasingly seeing the world as complex, contradictory, and dynamic. Observations of any subject is inevitably tainted with some perspective, biases, or standards. So it is better to understand practices within their own respective cultural world.


--The Brain Demon

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