"The neologisms 'emic' and 'etic,' which were derived from an analogy with the terms 'phonemic' and 'phonetic,' were coined by the linguistic anthropologist Kenneth Pike (1954). He suggests that there are two perspectives that can be employed in the study of a society’s cultural system, just as there are two perspectives that can be used in the study of a language’s sound system. In both cases, it is possible to take the point of view of either the insider or the outsider.
"As Pike defines it, the emic perspective focuses on the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society…. The native members of a culture are the sole judges of the validity of an emic description, just as the native speakers of a language are the sole judges of the accuracy of a phonemic identification.
"The etic perspective, again according to Pike, relies upon the extrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for scientific observers…. Scientists are the sole judges of the validity of an etic account, just as linguists are the sole judges of the accuracy of a phonetic transcription. …
"… [T]he terms 'emic' and 'etic' should be seen as adjectives modifying the implicit noun 'knowledge.' Accordingly, the distinction between emics and etics has everything to do with the nature of the knowledge that is claimed and nothing to do with the source of that knowledge (i.e., the manner by which it was obtained)."
I think it is safe to say that the emic-etic distinction is not too unlike the distinction between objective and subjective in philosophy. As Lenzi argues on his blog, although "objectivity is impossible," yet an etic anthropological methodology is of great value as we "attempt to find ways that help us overcome known biases, like our own cultural baggage when it comes to some contemporary religions." Then, however, a commenter on Lenzi's blog objected, "I want to leave room for a caution that moving towards 'objectivity' can leave distortions of the very things we're trying to understand. If we were to talk to a living practitioner of an ancient religion (via a time machine) and point out that we don't shudder before the ancient gods the practitioner might very well respond by saying that if we don't shudder before them than we don't really understand them." Whereupon Lenzi replied, "[A]n insider's take on their own religion is [sic] data to be interpreted[,] not an authority to be believed. An insider doesn't determine my methodology. I do."
Fair enough, I guess.
Until I read the following by Lett:
"The validation of emic knowledge thus be- comes a matter of consensus--namely, the consensus of native informants, who must agree that the construct matches the shared perceptions that are characteristic of their culture. … Etic constructs are accounts, descriptions, and analyses expressed in terms of the conceptual schemes and categories that are regarded as meaningful and appropriate by the community of scientific observers. An etic construct is correctly termed 'etic' if and only if it is in accord with the epistemological principles deemed appropriate by science (i.e., etic constructs must be precise, logical, comprehensive, replicable, falsifiable, and observer independent). The validation of etic knowledge thus becomes a matter of logical and empirical analysis--in particular, the logical analysis of whether the construct meets the standards of falsifiability, comprehensiveness, and logical consistency, and then the empirical analysis of whether or not the concept has been falsified and/or replicated."
Immediately I wondered, "Are not the insider-outsider boundaries themselves etically defined? In which case, does not the etic stance preempt and subjugate whatever claims are made emically? And are not the etic methodological criteria themselves emically defined (viz., by the scientific 'insiders')? In which case, do not the etic criteria themselves begin dissolving into just another set of emic claims?"
Such questions do not, admittedly, amount to a formal, or even coherent, objection anything Lett or Lenzi claim. Nonetheless, I am dubious about how Lenzi can coherently maintain his methodologically etic approach to an intrinsically emic phenomenon, namely, religion. Indeed, Lenzi states in his blogger profile that he is a secular biblical scholar that "approach[es] the Bible and religion as products of human culture that can be fully interpreted and explained without recourse to theological assertions." Fair enough––although, what "secular" means in modern and postmodern discourse is already rife with theological baggage. Confer, for instance, Michael J. Buckley's twin books on the origins of atheism, Charles Taylor's recent book on the secular age, Alister McGrath's book on the twilight of atheism, David Bentley Hart's latest book on the delusions of modern atheism, as well as Alasdair McGrath's various books on religion, ethics, tradition, and secular modernity.
But I'll ignore that lexicographical snag for the moment.
The heart of my worry is this: if an insider does not actually dictate to an outside observer the limits and aims of the latter's methodology, what prevents the subjects under anthropological study, qua critical outsiders relative to the anthropologist(s) observing them, from viewing those scientists as just one more clump of provincial insiders? Insofar as etic inquiry is itself a communal, human endeavor, it is an emic activity, and therefore stands in need, or at least is wide open to, an external, etic framework for being properly understood. Otherwise, whatever the scientific insiders claim about their work is only so much emic handwaving. To rephrase Lenzi, an anthropologist's opinions on his own field of inquiry are data to be interpreted, not an authority to be believed. An insider, whether scientist or peasant, doesn't determine my methodology. I do. Is this, then, not a more academic case of Sneetches arguing about who should or should not have stars on their bellies?
I hardly want to argue for thoroughgoing relativism, but Lenzi's methodological objectivism seems all too confident and none too self-critical. Once more, skeptics are not consistently skeptical. My objection, further, is not merely a "clever" semantic ploy. Rather, I think the problems underlying Lenzi's, if I may, "etic chauvinism" are related to the much more interesting and perilous problem of the long-standing secular myth of objective reductionism.
One of my favorite philosophers, Derek Melser, himself a secularist, has written persuasively about the ineluctable incoherence of a strictly objective science in an ineluctably human world. In my review of his book, The Act of Thinking, I claimed that, according to Melser, thought is not a proper object of scientific scrutiny or explanation, since detecting-- let alone understanding and explaining-- human action requires empathy, that is, requires the concomitant action of being willing-and-able-to "enter into" the action being perceived. Indeed, Melser argues, it is impossible by definition to have scientific knowledge of human actions. Science requires repeatable objectivity not influenced by human subjectivity, whereas as action-theory requires empathy and personal subjectivity. A science of language and behavior are strictly impossible, since understanding language––i.e., knowing what's going on when certain sounds are emitted––requires cooperative use of it with the speaker being viewed. But since science by definition limits itself to an objective, non-participatory "view," a purely scientific observer is asymptotically removed from "what it takes" to understand language. And, for a Melserist, if one cannot understand and mimetically simulate what is happening when one observes what-is-happening, then one can't reasonably explain what is happening. The more objective science becomes, the less traction or right it has for "getting" the language events and treating them as meaningful (i.e., intentional); and the more involved science becomes in the meaning and use of language, the less objective it is.
In his notebook for 2007, Melser claims "Psychology, cognitive science, linguistics qua science, evolutionary psychology, etc., and perhaps all the putative social sciences should go by the board. The problem is that, to the extent one adopts a truly objective, scientific attitude, to that extent the necessary empathic component is excluded." Then in a draft of a later essay, "Verbal Communication: from pedagogy to make-believe" (2008), Melser writes even more forcefully along the same lines:
"…people's actions are not suitable for scientific scrutiny on the grounds that empathy is required for the observation and identification of actions and this empathising is incompatible with scientific objectivity (Melser 2004, Chapter 11). … In order to understand what an action is, what it is to 'do' something, one needs to empathise, to activate one's status as a personal agent – and this is something the objective scientist is not allowed to do. His job is to observe things and events in an entirely detached and impersonal way. Being unable to objectively define one's subject matter should be a significant setback for the would-be scientist of empathy.
"However, even if the proscription on scientists' empathising is ignored (as it seems to be in the social sciences generally) there is a more acute problem, or a more acute version of the same problem, inherent in the study of verbal communication. … A pretence exists only to the extent that the parties to it maintain it. Consider two standard means of getting someone on the other side of the paddock to come and stand beside you: making the 'come here' gesture, or bawling Come here! … The pretence, to which both speaker and hearer are parties, is that the arm movement or the speech is the action, 'the hearer's going to stand beside the speaker.' Within this pretending game, what the speaker is therefore doing is 'demonstrating' the hearer's approaching him, as a means of soliciting it.
"For the would-be scientific observer of the transaction there is a problem though. If he stays outside the game and tries to observe it objectively he sees the arm movement and the speech qua somatic event and/or sound, but the speaker’s 'demonstration of the hearer's approach' will not appear to view. If one is not party to a pretence, it ceases to 'exist'. And the hearer's subsequent approach will be inexplicable. On the other hand, if he throws objectivity to the four winds and participates in the pretence, the arm movement and the speech qua physical events will effectively disappear off his radar. They will be replaced by the speaker’s pretended 'demonstrating the approach of the hearer'. Either way, only one aspect of the transaction will be observable at any one time.
"It is only when one alternates in and out of the game … that we seem to see the speech or gestures and the activities they conjure juxtaposed. Our everyday concepts of 'word' and 'language' presuppose just this sort of rapid alternation – seeing speech as a physical phenomenon, then responding to it as one would in an actual communication session. … But who is going to allow 'rapidly alternating between objectively observing something and playing a pretending-game with respect to it' as a scientific procedure?"
Melser's claims are relevant to a scholar of religion in that, just as a linguist's proscription against subjectivity in favor of an objective, etic methodology effectively renders obtuse what he is observing, so, e.g., Lenzi's methodological insistence on divorcing religion from its intrinsic claims as a theological, mystical phenomenon likewise renders obtuse what he is exploring. The more he sees on the outside, the less he sees on the inside. The religionists under critical, secular scrutiny know this as well as a family knows how poorly a guest in their home could grasp the countless nuances of humor, respect, rhythm, etc. in the home merely by "watching them carefully and dispassionately." Knowing something best, we say in English, means "knowing it inside out."
Interestingly, two of the oldest and most intransigent definitions of humans are zoon logikon and homo religiosus, that is, "animal endowed with speech" and "religious man." Burkert himself suggests the strong links between language and religion in the human world by saying "Language itself, as a signifying system, seems to be in need of an 'ultimate signifier,' the absolute, god" (Creation of the Sacred, p. 27, n. 96). If we can't really grasp a language without entering it, and without allowing it to enter us––without "meaning" it and without allowing its intrinsic, dynamic sense-schema influencing our grasp of the world––can we, by analogy, really expect to "get" religion without entering it, and without receiving it––without really "meaning it" on some level, and without allowing its claims to influence our view of the world? Perhaps, but call me a skeptic.