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Etic vs Emic: A Battle of False Dichotomies

By Nicole McEwen

And in the left hand side of the ring, we have Mr. Etic! He wins his matches with ageless wisdom and iron will, clamping down on his opponent until he has them positioned exactly where he wants them. And to the right, we have Miss Emic! A new contender, she has proven her prowess with nimble feet and spry wit, able to know exactly where her opponent is going whilst leaving her own movements open for interpretation.

If I had to hedge my bets in an ideological (or methodological) boxing battle, I would more than likely put my money on Miss Emic. Not because I believe she is inherently better, but because the match is taking place in an epistemological arena where she is better equipped to win. She’s been sponsored by the modern western paradigm, and trains in a gym where the ethos is “cultural relativity and love!” Meanwhile, Mr. Etic is unapologetically, almost dauntingly structured. Adaptable, perhaps, but structured nonetheless.

Ideally, the two shouldn’t be pitted against each other at all. Ethnography, as a holistic and reflexive process and product, should combine these methods, acknowledging that any new information is processed via the subjective lens constructed by (and for) people to view the world through. I have learned that ethnography is most powerful and useful when it employs all the tools at its disposal, combining their unique benefits – possibly to conquer social issues, or to interrogate the ethnographers assumptions and defeat detrimental patterns of thought.

Combining Etic and Emic methods to form a holistic approach to ethnography is not easy, however, when they exist in a world determined to falsify dichotomies. The more I think about them, the more it seems that they are transitional. Cyclical. This is a difficult notion to grapple with, because western epistemology is so dependent on divisions. A dichotomy may make it easy for the Westerner to understand a concept, but the cost of a simplistic perspective is sub-par, non-holistic, and ultimately disengaged ethnography. This is true not just of the Etic and Emic division. There is still a pervasive insistence on the dichotomous differences between anthropology and sociology, male and female, body and mind, qualitative and quantitative, science and art. Ethnography attempts holistic understandings, and holistic portrayals of those understandings, and it therefore brings the Western tendency to dichotomise under the spotlight- and exposes it for the weak farce that it is, crumbling at the first hit.

Ethnography is reflexive in a multitude of ways; it challenges itself, it challenges the assumptions of the ethnographer, and it challenges the dominant ethos of the society which the ethnographer has been shaped by. Ultimately, I have learned It’s a holistic and reflexive method that anthropologists (and many others) can use to examine an aspect of humanity.

“If there were a science of man it would be anthropology that aims at understanding the totality of experience through the structural context.” – Wilhelm Dilthey

Ethnography is uniquely positioned to analyze culture, lending itself to the anthropologist who seeks to learn about the world and its human inhabitants. It is a tool.


References: 1. Rolf Sältzer (1st ed.) German Essays on History, translator unknown; New York 1991, Continuum, The German Library,vol.49


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