Emic vs Etic: Understanding how insider & outsider perspectives interact when doing theology. An example from the Philippines.

Cross-cultural interactions are a part of my everyday life. Is there a theology of cross-cultural interaction? There have been many. Unfortunately they don’t always have good results. Take for example the whole residential school debacle in Canada that started from faulty theology codified in the doctrine of discovery but stemming from long-seated ideas of cultural superiority.

Churches quite often have deep seated assumptions about “the world” that aren’t in fact true. Case in point. When I was in Grade 5 our class received a Gideons New Testament (is that still a thing). Afterward we were all talking in the boot room about the NT and I said to one of my classmates, “What are you going to do? Rip it up?” He looked at me like I was crazy. What possessed me to say that? I had been told my whole life in Sunday school that the world was opposed to Christians. Guess what? That wasn’t true after all. It seems that I as a Christian had assumptions that were untested.

So how can we move away from assumptions towards actual empirical data about the world around us? Last week I wrote about how the church can partner with the world in things like this. Some commented that the post was short on the “How” so I thought that I might give a more concrete example. We need to develop ways to better understand the world to make sure that we are asking and answering the right questions – to make sure that the message we exegete from the Bible is presented in a relevant way to those who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. Anthropology can help us understand that. 

The following comes from planning some conversations I had with Filipino men about their masculinity and religiosity. I had heard that men are less religious than women but wanted to find out for myself if that was true. I decided to plan some research that tried to discover what is called the insider viewpoint.

Because many religious systems in the Philippines are from external sources, and because male participation in those systems is universally identified as being lesser than that of women, it is important to discover how Filipino males have constructed their understandings of pagbabalik-loob, pagkalalaki, and maka-Diyos. This calls for an emic approach to the problem rather than an etic one. Oxford defines emic as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in terms of its internal elements and their functioning rather than in terms of any existing external scheme.” Etic is defined as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in a way that is general, non-structural, and objective in its perspective.” Thus, an etic approach looks at the problem from outside, while the emic approach looks at the problem from inside. 

Origins of the Emic/Etic concept. Pike (1967) defined the terms etic and emic as “etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system,” while the “emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system” (p.37). Pike wanted to move from etics to emics.

There is a debate about the validity of using an emic approach in seeking to understand a culture on its own terms. In fact, this debate is behind the development of ethnoscience worldwide.  What is often missed in the debate is the reality that all forms of science are emic in that whatever frameworks or structures are developed are developed from the emic perspectives of a specific culture. They merely become etic once applied to another culture.  

Bennagen (1980) discusses the “Asianization” of anthropology “to help strengthen Asia’s rightful claim to its heritage as well as to its visions of man, society and culture” (p. 1; see also Mendoza, 2016).  

Geertz (Geertz 1973b) championed what some have called an “actor-centered view is central to Geertz’s work, however, it was never developed into an actual theory or model” (Hudson et al, 2009). 

Harris (1976) adapted Pike’s terms. For him, emic was the focus on a single culture while etic was the “comparison of two or more cultures as a means of identifying common characteristics” (Olive, 2014). Harris saw emics and etics as equally valid – there was no advantage to be gained from an etic approach and thus no need to try to discover the emic.

He has an example the difference between an emic and an etic understanding of male to female cattle ratios in India. Approaching the issue from an emic perspective, Harris says that locals identify the causes of higher mortality of male calves is due to a variety of naturally-occurring causes. Approaching the issue from an etic perspective, however, causes Harris to ascertain that higher male calf mortality is due to the locals’ manipulation of naturally-occurring events that are economically determined. Harris’ conclusion is that by relying solely on an emic approach, the researcher misses the etic realities of what he calls “bovicide.”  

I suggest that another factor may be at play here. Harris’ emic reasons for the ratio include “that males ate less than the females…. because they were not permitted to stay at the other’s teats for more than a few seconds” (p. 33). I find the words “not permitted” to be telling because here we have the locals themselves giving the reasons for why the male calves die. It seems that Harris didn’t follow up on this clue to discover what else the locals might want to tell him about this process.  

An indigenous approach here might be helpful. Enriquez (1994) discusses pakikipagkapwa, or Filipino interpersonal relations, as divided into two categories — Ibang-Tao [“outsider”] and Hindi-Ibang-Tao [“literally “not-‘other’-person” and therefore an insider”] each in turn divided into several other stages (see also Pe-Pua et al, 2000; Lapiz, 2010, refers to these as Tagalabas [“From the outside”] and Tagaloob [“From the inside”], respectively). Information passed from one person to another varies based upon the relationship between the two parties. If the two parties are in the Ibang-Tao category the informant will seek to pass on information that they perceive to be what the researcher wants to hear. If the two parties are Hindi-Ibang-Tao, then the information passed on more accurately reflects the reality. Pe-Pua et al recommend that “the first level under Hindi-Ibang-Tao, which is pakikipagpalalgayan-loob (level of mutual trust, understanding, rapport) should be reached, at the minimum, in order to be assured of good quality data” (Pe-Pua et al, 2000, p. 59).  

Another hallmark of Filipino communication is pahiwatig [“hint”], or indirect communication. According to Maggay (2002)ang pahiwatig marahil ang pinakalaganap at maaaring masabing pinakabuod ng ating kulturang pangkomunikasyon” [“the hint is perhaps the most widespread and possibly the best summary of our culture of communication”] (p. 24). It is also defined as “hindi tuwirang pagpapahayag sa isang bagay, idea, o saloobin” [“a thing, idea, or thought is not revealed in a direct manner”] (UPDF) or as “di tuwirang pagpapaabot ng mga mensahe” [“messages are not delivered in a straight way”] (Maggay, 2002, p. 24). Information is revealed over a period of time and is not given all at once. The pahiwatig is an invitation for the researcher to dig deeper to find out the truth that is not yet fully revealed. Jocano (1999) speaks of a multilevel process of communication starting with pahiwatig [“hinted at”], moving through pabatid [“informed about”], and finally into pahayag [“revealed”]. Thus discovering truth in the Philippine context is an extended affair as layer after layer of truth is slowly revealed as the relationship between the researcher and the researched draw ever closer together. 

Now granted, Harris’ example is from India that may have different cultural norms from the Philippines, but that doesn’t belie the fact that there was “truth” in the emic investigation that Harris perhaps didn’t explore fully. Harris’ own example shows that the locals did reveal the cause of the ratio (i.e. “males …. not permitted” to eat) but there is no evidence that Harris pursued the conversation to it’s fullest extent.  

Thus in Harris’ example above, the farmers themselves are revealing the reality behind the ratio differences in an indirect way and inviting him to discover more through further communication.  

I argue that an indigenous approach to the issue would have led to Harris’ realization that the locals were in-fact telling him the reasons for cattle ratios but that his framework was unable to adequately aid him in this discovery. Thus his use of an etic framework allowed him to see a disconnect between the ideology (killing cattle is prohibited) and economy (cows are more economically advantageous than bulls) of his subjects in India. Imagine the study Harris could have had in discovering in partnership with the locals their strategies for dealing with the needs of both their ideological system and their economic system!  

The emic approach and Philippine studies of masculinity. The emic approach is common in Philippine studies.  

Pingol (2001), in her study of Ilocano men, states that she want to focus “more on emic rather than etic – the men’s understanding of themselves, how they construct themselves, how they remain men in their own eyes, or as viewed by their relatives and their community” (p. 16). 

Zialcita (2005) also takes an emic approach because it “looks at the data from the point of view of the actor; it seeks to understand in their own terms the reasons advanced by the actor for his thinking and acting” (Kindle location 1924).  

Mojares (2006), in his discussion of trying to recreate the way early Filipinos thought, struggled with the pull of emic and etic. He talked of trying to find a middle ground between “a facile universalizing and the exoticizing of difference; between the location out of which we are speaking and that ‘nation’ we are moving towards; between the need for political constructions and the awareness of their fictive character; between the claim to moral ascendancy and the practical requirements of power; and between the importance of the ‘native’s point of view’ and the dangers of turning it into a fetish” (p. 7)  

Moving into our present study, Houtman offers insights into understanding religiosity without using the frameworks developed by organized religions.  

Emic, Etic and our Problem. Houtman (2014) suggests that the study of religion can benefit from an emic approach. Rather than focusing on general definitions researchers should instead “let those under study decide whether and how religion is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’. It is they who can tell researchers in what sense they consider themselves ‘religious’ and/or ‘spiritual’, what exactly this means for them, and whether and how all this drives their behavior beyond the strictly private realm” (p. 20).  

There are in existence in the Philippines a variety of sets of preconceived notions of what it means to be a man or to even be a godly man. These have been formulated in the various world religions that have taken hold in the Philippines, especially Christianity and Islam. Christianity can be further subdivided into two sometimes-opposing conceptualizations that need to be understood on their own. A look at the intersections between maka-Diyos, and pagkalalaki would benefit from an emic approach. However, this study’s desire for an emic approach to the issue of Filipino male spirituality[1] is not so much a desire to ignore external structures and definitions and to favor indigenous structures and systems. Rather it is based on a desire to discover what, in fact, these indigenous emic structures and systems are. To date there has been very little work done to develop a philosophy or a theology connected with Filipino male spirituality. 

Criticisms of Emic-Etic approaches. There are no pure cultures and thus no pure emic-etic divide. All cultures use their own frameworks to evaluate the things they experience and sometimes these frameworks are in an etic form and sometimes in an emic form.

As Guillermo (2003) said, having too much focus on the emic removes any reason for interpretation to begin with. “The complete unification of the consciousness of the social scientist with an increasingly transparent object of analysis would be none other than the end of hermeneutics itself.” Which raises the question of for whom is the interpretation? It implies a cross-cultural facet that is essential to the process. Certainly someone within the culture is in no need of a hermeneutical framework but also someone who is completely outside of a culture can use no other framework than the one she brings with her. Of course, this is beside the point that no culture is pure or unsullied from outside influences. The key is finding a balance between the two that allows each side to see the other’s perspective and perhaps gain some understanding on their own. Thus, there must be a dialogic aspect to research. 

But the fact that there is cultural relativity (ala Franz Boas) implies that some level of hermeneutics is needed in understanding what one sees. For example, the sight of two men walking down the street hand-in-hand has different meanings in different parts of the world. Growing up in Canada two males holding hands was undeniable evidence that the two were in a homosexual relationship. However in the Philippines best friends not only hold hands but walk unashamedly down the street with their arms around one another shoulders. It is only through dialogue between etic and emic actors that one can determine the hermeneutical key. The goal of balancing the emic with the etic guides this research into a specific series of frameworks. 

I propose that seeking the insider view is a key part of church ministry. Only by having conversations with others can we discover our own blind spots and find ways to connect in meaningful ways with others.

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.


1. The history of term Filipino is long and storied and beyond the scope of this paper. Coupled with this is the terms’ grammatical gender: Filipino refers to males and Filipina refers to females. Thus the term “Filipino male spirituality” is technically redundant. However since this redundancy is not necessarily seen nor understood outside of the Philippine context, for clarity this paper will use the term Filipino to denote people from the Philippines, regardless of their gender. 


References:

Bennagen, P. L. (1980). The Asianization of AnthropologyAsian Studies, 18, 1-26.

Enriquez, V. G. (1994). Pagbabangong-dangal: Indigenous psychology and cultural empowerment. Quezon City: Akademya ng Kultura at Sikolohiyang Pilipino.

Geertz, C. (1973). Religion as a cultural system. In C. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Fontana Press.

Guillermo, R. (2003). Exposition, Critique and New Directions for Pantayong PananawKyoto Review of Southeast Asia, 3.

Harris, M. (1976). History and Significance of the emic-etic distinctionAnnual Review of Anthropology, 5, 329-350. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.05.100176.001553

Houtman, D. (2014, September). Pure religion and real sacrality: Authenticating Religion beyond Institutions and Traditions. Paper prepared for the summer seminar: Religion and Culture in a Globalized World, Questioning our Research Frames, University Centre Saint Ignatius Antwerp (UCSIA) University of Antwerp.

Hudson, S., Smith, C., Loughlin, M., and Hammerstedt, S. (2009). Symbolic and interpretive anthropologies. In Anthropological Theories, Department of Anthropology, The University of Alabama. 

Jocano, F. L. 1. (1999). Working with Filipinos: A cross-cultural encounter. Quezon City: PUNLAD Research House. 

Lapiz, E. (2010). Pagpapahiyang: Redeeming culture and indigenizing Christianity. [Manila: Christ Strengthening Ministries.]

Maggay, M. (2002). Pahiwatig: Kagawiang Pangkomunikasyon ng Filipino. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University.

Mendoza, S. L. (2016). Doing “indigenous” ethnography as a cultural outsider: Lessons from the Four SeasonsJournal of International and Intercultural Communication. doi:10.1080/17513057.2016.1154181

Mojares, R. B. (2006a). Reconstituting the mental life of sixteenth-and seventeenth century Philippines. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 34(1), 1-10.

Olive, James L. (2014). Reflecting on the Tensions Between Emic and Etic Perspectives in Life History Research: Lessons Learned [35 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 15(2), Art. 6.

Pe‐Pua, R., & Protacio‐Marcelino, E. A. (2000). Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology3(1), 49-71. doi: 10.1111/1467-839X.00054

Pike, K. L. (1967). Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior. In K. L. Pike, (Ed.), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Nature. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 37-72. doi: 10.1515/9783111657158.37

Pingol, A. T. (2001). Remaking masculinities: identity, power, and gender dynamics in families with migrant wives and househusbands. Quezon City: UP Center for Women’s Studies.

Zialcita, F. N. (2005). Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University. Kindle version.

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