Thomas N. Headland
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The Insider/Outsider Debate

Edited by Thomas N. Headland, Kenneth L. Pike, and Marvin Harris

Published in 1990. Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications, Inc.


This book had its genesis at a symposium of the 87th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 19, 1988. This special "Invited Session" was initiated by Thomas Headland, who served as its organizer and chair. The Session was sponsored by both the Program Committee of the American Anthropological Association and by the General Anthropology Division of the AAA. A year earlier Headland had proposed to Marvin Harris and Kenneth Pike that they meet together publicly to discuss their respective uses of emics and etics and to discuss the seeming discrepancies between their interpretations of the emic/etic concept. Both men agreed.

In January of 1988 we invited five scholars to participate as discussants on the panel with the three of us. Each of these had used the emic/etic concept in some way in their research and publications and, as the chapters of this volume demonstrate, each made significant contributions to the issue during the November symposium. These five discussants were Dell Hymes, Roger Keesing, James Lett, Gerald Murray, and Nira Reiss.

An estimated 600 anthropologists attended the symposium. During the one-hour discussion following the presentations of the papers, several members of the audience came to the microphone to ask questions of the panel or to make short comments. Those statements from the audience were not recorded and do not appear in this volume.

All of the original papers presented at the Session, except Keesing's, are published here. Ten papers were presented by the panelists. These included an introduction by Headland, Pike's paper, Harris's paper, a reply by Pike to Harris, and a reply by Harris to Pike. Papers read by the five discussants followed. Then Pike, Harris, and Headland each gave concluding statements. The chapters in this volume follow that sequence. All of the papers have been substantially revised in the light of our discussions in Phoenix. After the symposium, three other scholars were invited to write chapters for the volume: John Berry, Robert Feleppa, and Willard Quine. Their chapters appear herein as well.

In chapter 1, the book's introduction, Headland reviews the historical development of the emic/etic concept from linguistics to anthropology and then to its widespread use in other academic disciplines.

In chapter 2, Pike says that an emic unit may be seen as a component of mental-plus-physical behavior that is appropriate, contrastive, and etically variable in a patterned, cultural context, but observed or deduced as culturally relevant whether implicitly or explicitly. Emic units bridge the gap between idea and thing, between speech and experience (although skewing occurs).

Pike also says here that, in language, fusion of sounds leads to loss of distinctive words; in government, tyrannical repression of individual freedom leads to a variety of social entropy. In language, anti-entropy builds new patterns of linguistic meaning; in society, anti-entropy helps to reestablish social freedom.

In chapter 3, Harris first highlights Pike's emic/etic distinction as a major advance for the social sciences. Harris then reviews how concepts such as objective/subjective and mental/behavioral show the seriousness of the problem but not its solution. Yet by viewing etic descriptions as uninteresting except as stepping stones to emics, Harris says, Pike diminishes the value of his contribution. Etic descriptions of the mental and behavioral components of human social life are as essential for social science as emic descriptions. In rejecting etic analyses, he argues, Pike subscribes to the established idealist position that emic intentionality explains human social life. But, in fact, our most urgent social problems are unintended consequences contingent on etic conditions.

In chapter 4, Pike responds to Harris's essay, saying that the term etics applies both to a starting generalized system and to a procedure for entering into an unknown emic system. There is a cline, Pike says, between the start and end. Natives can be taught to apply both the system and the procedure to their own languages. Historical analysis of cultural data requires guesses as to the human relevance of physical things found, as, for example, an axe.

Pike adds that sentences may have different meanings for different people. Nor is the intent of a con man the same as the sum of the lexical meanings of his words. High-level behavioral purposes may affect low-level behavioral outcomes--and low-level purposes may affect high-level outcomes.

In chapter 5, Harris makes his response to Pike's essay. Here Harris comments on the problem of operationalizing tagmemic descriptions of nonverbal behavior; the need for both synchronic and diachronic starting points; the special status of linguistic reconstructions; the use of emes for etic descriptions; the special status of trained observers; defense of the etics of mental life and the emics of behavior stream; clarification of "materialism"; defense of the etics of speech; the role of vernacular terms in science; and the importance of breaking out of the hermeneutic circle.

In chapter 6, Berry first reviews the tension between two research traditions in cross-cultural psychology: one working intensively within a single culture in order to understand indigenous psychological phenomena and how they are related to cultural context, and the other working comparatively across cultures in order to understand broad patterns of relationships between behavioral and cultural variables. Berry explains how this tension can be resolved, and the two approaches integrated, by the adoption of the emic and etic concepts of Pike. His chapter outlines a conceptual and operational framework for the pursuit of both the indigenous and comparative goals, using examples from research on intelligence and attitudes.

In chapter 7, Feleppa considers the prospects for anthropological methodologies that place heavy emphasis on emic analysis. Proponents of such approaches often align themselves with Pike and against Harris out of a conviction that studying culture according to preestablished etic procedures impedes the discovery of cultural diversity, and they seek to use emic analysis to expand the etic language of ethnography to encompass a potentially wide range of cognitive diversity. Feleppa considers the impact on this controversy of the semantic critiques of W.V. Quine and Donald Davidson, with emphasis on the constraints on diversity entailed by an interpretive rule of "charity."

In chapter 8, Hymes indicates that the original notions of 'emic' and 'etic' are not what anthropological combat-myth has made of them, and that the views of Pike and Harris are not as diametrically opposed as sometimes thought. Nonetheless, he says, there are differences. He suggests what may be ultimate limits of each, and that Harris's cultural materialism may accommodate language as verbal tools. Finally, Hymes stresses the commitment of both Pike and Harris to grounding in, and discovery of, empirical reality, as distinct from pick-and-choose, fly-at-dusk model building.

In chapter 9, Lett defines emics and etics in epistemological terms. He proposes a distinction between the source of knowledge (the manner in which it is obtained) and the nature of knowledge (the manner in which it is validated). According to Lett, the emic/etic distinction is absolutely essential to the social sciences. He argues further that the goal of anthropological research should be to obtain both emic and etic knowledge, but that etics are, for some purposes, demonstrably superior to emics.

In chapter 10, Murray identifies common epistemological ground which Pike and Harris share, and posits a three-phase evolution of the emic/etic construct: the emergence of a core linguistic usage, Pike's mentalization of emic analysis, and Harris's subsequent reformulation and prioritizing of etic analysis. The diachronic, causal focus of Harris's model appears more powerful for the analysis of evolving social systems than Pike's synchronic, acausal model derived from linguistic methodology. The chapter concludes by discussing the paradoxical invocation of the emic/etic distinction in support of social causes as diverse as Bible translation and abortion.

In chapter 11, Quine suggests that the emic/etic contrast has been generalized only loosely from the phonemic/phonetic distinction; hence, he says, the uncertainties and divergences. Analogous or not, however, the mental/behavioral distinction is vital, and so is insider/outsider. Quine argues that neglect of them can engender misconceptions about linguistic universals, about belief, and about the status of science.

In chapter 12, Reiss argues that the semantics of emics and etics in Pike's and in Harris's paradigms emerge from competing basic scientific metaphors and are radically different in their significance. Within cultural materialism, she says, an etic approach to speech acts reflects an interest in analyzing the functions of speaking at levels other than that of linguistic comprehension. Reiss outlines how, at these levels, speech acts may be described through emic mental, emic behavioral, etic mental, and etic behavioral approaches, as well as through juxtaposition between these descriptions.

In the final two chapters (13 and 14) Pike and Harris respond to the essays of the other authors and, again, to each other.

The overall goal of this book is to focus on the history, significance, and application of the emic/etic concept, as seen by Pike, who first introduced the terms into linguistics and anthropology, and by Harris, who has utilized them to develop his view of anthropological theory. The ten authors here attempt to show how the concept can bring us to a better understanding of human nature and behavior.

On behalf of all the participants we want to thank the two sponsors of our Invited Session, the AAA Program Committee, and the General Anthropology Division. We also wish to acknowledge the help of our research assistant, Stewart C. Hussey, and of Betty Eastman for her editorial assistance. We wish to acknowledge, too, our gratefulness to Doris Bartholomew, Betty Casad, and others of the Summer Institute of Linguistics who graciously arranged a small evening party for the eight panelists, along with other "emic/etic specialists," after the Session. It was a relaxing way to unwind after an intense four-hour symposium.

Thomas N. Headland
Kenneth L. Pike
Marvin Harris
February 1990