Notes on emic versus etic

In “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding” Clifford Geertz outlines a fundamental concept of anthropology:

The formulations have been various: “inside” versus “outside,” or “first person” versus “third person” descriptions; “phenomenological” versus “objectivist,” or “cognitive” versus “behavioral” theories; or, perhaps most commonly, “emic” versus “etic” analyses, this last deriving from the distinction in linguistics between phonemics and phonetics — phonemics classifying sounds according to their internal function in language, phonetics classifying them according to their acoustic properties as such.

Some thoughts:

  1. The precise meaning of the suffix “-icity” (at least when applied to existential terms) has been unclear to me. The problem has been in that no-man’s-land between registering the presence of light anxiety and actually doing something to relieve it. I know what each -icity word means (facticity, historicity, scientificity, etc.), I just wouldn’t have been able to explain to someone else what it means. The resolution turns out to be fairly simple. The suffix -icity indicates the root is to be considered from an emic perspective. X-icity mean X considered as an interiorized existential condition (which conditions exteriorized facts), rather than as a simple exteriorized fact. (Example: History is the record of past events. Historicity is being inside history as a participant, where each historic moment is understood to have its distinctive way of seeing history, and based on this historic vision, making new history. This condition affects an entire sense of reality, holistically.)
  2. Holism is a quality of the emic, and atomism is a quality of the etic. According to the hermeneutical circle, there is never an etic fact (a part) that is not articulated from an emic whole (a fore-understanding).
  3. Only the etic is quantifiable. The emic as such is discussable strictly in qualitative terms. The emic, however, since it generates an etic vision of reality (in phenomenological terms, its intentionality) will produce quantifiable entities. Attempting to grasp the emic in etic terms (such as statistics) is the factual and moral mistake of behaviorism.
  4. Epistemology knows only the etic. Mysticism and poetry tends to treat the etic primarily as a vehicle for indicating an emic vision. Phenomenology understands the etic in terms of the emic. Hermeneutics understands the interplay between etic and emic and attempts to navigate by etic triangulation other emic visions. Pragmatism might be applied hermeneutics to cultural ends. (Despite the name, pragmatism is much stranger than many showier forms of philosophy. Ever notice how the serious druggies try to look as normal as possible?)
  5. Buber’s I-Thou relationships regards the other as essentially emic. In I-it the other is regarded as essentially etic.
  6. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the practice of listening. It’s not primarily a matter of being considerate and letting the other talk (though that’s certainly a part of it). Real listening requires the entire battery of philosophies I listed above. Listening is inviting the other’s emic vision. One must allow the other to say what he is trying to say and to hear it without trying to force it into one’s own emic schema by stripping out its emic structure (that is, pattern of significance), retaining only its etic content. Then the listener must attempt to apply that structure concretely to his own experience in an attempt to show the other his understanding of what he has heard, and he must be open to the possibility that he has misunderstood. This restatement stage of listening, though, can be non-receptive and aggressive and be used to channel the speaker away from his emic vision toward the vision of the listener. (This is the hardest part of interviews: not asking leading questions or offering leading restatements that derail and rechannel, distort or otherwise damage the emic vision of the interviewee.)
  7. Subjectivity properly understood is emic, but it is so commonly misunderstood to be some kind of interior dimension of a more solid/concrete/real etic world that “subjectivity” has become ruined for all practical communicate purposes. On the contrary, it is the etic that is interior to the emic. The emic “interiority” of each other in our environment is in fact partially shares but largely transcends our own emic and etic vision.

Tree cross (alt palette)

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