New Worlds Theory Post: Emic and Etic

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In my anthropology and folklore classes I dealt with a pair of terms I think have some utility to the writer of speculative fiction: emic and etic.

The terms derive from “phonemic” and “phonetic” in linguistics. Phonemes are specific to languages; they are not merely sounds, but sounds which have meaning, i.e. if you swap them out for a different, closely-related sound then you have a different word. (Whereas in another language those two things might be treated as interchangeable without affecting meaning.) By extension, then, an emic approach to studying a culture relies on and prioritizes the viewpoint of the culture and its members: their systems of categorization, the reasons they give for why things are done a certain way, and the meanings they attach to certain objects. In contrast, the etic approach relies on and prioritizes the viewpoint of the anthropologist and an exterior framework.

Described that way, you might think that of course the emic approach is better. But it’s not that simple; in fact, anthropology and other social sciences benefit from utilizing both approaches and seeing what details each brings to light.

Let’s take an example. A common etic approach to genres of folkloric narrative features categories like “myth” and “legend.” A myth, in this system, is defined as a sacred story held to be true, which explains the distant origin of some fundamental thing. (That’s one of the definitions, anyway. I’m avoiding a rabbit hole of scholarly debates here.) A legend, by contrast, is not a sacred story, though it is still believed to be true, and it generally takes place within human history. If it explains the origin of something, it will be along the lines of why a local hill has a particular name, rather than why death exists.

I’m far enough away from my own folklore studies that I can’t accurately describe a particular emic framework in detail any longer, but let’s say for the purpose of discussion that in a particular Native American tribe there’s a corpus of stories known as “Coyote tales.” Are they myths? Legends? Within their framework, that’s the wrong question. Some of them may be what the etic approach defines as myths, while others are legends, and still others are something else entirely. But those aren’t the categories the storytellers and their audiences are using to think with. Instead the defining characteristic is the presence of Coyote, whether he’s helping to create the world or losing a fight with a lump of pitch.

You’ll do a miserably bad job of understanding the significance of Coyote tales to the culture in question if you insist on breaking up that category to shove it into externally-created boxes. But if you want to think cross-culturally, to examine patterns in how human beings have explained the creation of the world and what this might tell us about contact between different groups or how the natural environment influences the motifs that get used, then it’s very helpful indeed to have a category like “myth” that you can use to sift out a particular type of story from the general mass of narrative.

How does this apply to fiction? It has to do with the underlying framework of the setting, and what the story treats as physically or metaphysically true vs. just an idea. We recently discussed disease; consider miasma theory as an example. You may write a story in which the characters talk about “bad air” causing illness — but do events play out in a fashion that supports that notion? Or does sickness in your book still spread in a fashion congruent with germ theory instead of miasmas?

We’re used to seeing fantasy that treats certain magical beliefs as true, i.e. takes an emic approach to the subject. In our world blowing air through the circle formed by your thumb and index finger won’t summon a wind for sailing, but in a novel it may do exactly that. If anything, we rarely see the etic view when it comes to magic in such stories: I’ve said before that there’s a dearth of superstition in fantasy, of habits people engage in or taboos they avoid just because that’s what they do, rather than it being clearly effective.

But when it comes to other aspects of the world, the etic view dominates more often than not. This isn’t surprising; unless an author makes a conscious decision to change the base conditions of the setting, the default will be what they believe and experience. Disease is spread by germs, not bad air; the sun is not dragged across the sky by a chariot each day, and it doesn’t require blood sacrifice to rise in the morning. Novels like Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters, which takes Aristotelian biology and Ptolemaic astronomy as literal truth and then spins out “hard science fiction” on that basis, are the exception rather than the rule.

In some ways that’s not a bad thing. I’d be disturbed to read a modern novel running with the assumption that certain human ethnicities are innately superior to others, or one where gay people really are responsible for God sending hurricanes and tornadoes to destroy cities. And past beliefs about mental illness include explanations ranging from “the afflicted are possessed by demons” to “it’s a consequence of your own sin,” which may well be hurtful to readers.

But when it comes to depicting real-world cultures or settings inspired by them, shifting to the emic approach can be utterly vital to grasping the spirit of the source. A setting based on the Tang Dynasty that includes the facts of traditional Chinese medicine but is openly dubious about the efficacy of those methods is going to do a bad job of representing the beliefs of its characters; it’s imposing the modern Western concept of medicine onto a different place and time. It’s one thing to question the skill of a doctor, but another thing entirely to question the validity of the whole framework your culture operates in.

Novels which commit to an emic cosmology in one facet or another fascinate me. Whether it’s taboos that must be respected, rituals which must be carried out, or mechanisms of action that don’t follow the rules as we understand them today, they open up all kinds of new storytelling opportunities — and increase our capacity to empathize with other points of view, too.

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New Worlds Theory Post: Emic and Etic — 10 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds Theory Post: Emic and Etic - Swan Tower

  2. Would the Astreiant Series (Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett) count as having an emic cosmology? It’s an astrological world.

    • It’s not one I’m familiar with, so I can’t say. But if astrology really and truly does have the force ascribed to it here — you really can predict somebody’s personality and so forth by when they were born — then yes, I would say so.

      • Yes, it does, although it’s not a personality thing. And if I remember Point of Hopes correctly, the astrological world building is key to solving the mystery.

  3. There’s a second level of emic/etic, too, epitomized by A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, and to a lesser extent by all of the Elvish lore quoted in Tolkein: Not just the narrator’s (or plural as it may be) worldview, but method of presentation. Especially, but not only, when there is what might be a true linguistic barrier between the narrator and the reader. There are lots of bad, bad examples out there, such as one Interminable Fantasy Series in which the author translates bad English love poems and pseudoballads in postindustrial Western forms backward into a supposed preindustrial milieu (including cringeworthy use of industrial musical instruments that require industrial materials and processes, such as the valved horn), but that shouldn’t take away from the good ones that make the reader really think about it.

    • Yes, language can be an aspect of this. But I’m honestly not a fan of stories that go too far in trying to present the “original” language of the setting — for me it more often becomes an irritating barrier than something that enriches the story.

  4. Then there’s the Lord Darcy series where eminent and respectable magicians lament how people keep going to hedge witches who will give them foxglove for heart complaints when it has NO magical signature for that at all. . . .

  5. why would you assume that people think that emic approaches is better for storytelling?
    but then now most of my reading consists of economics reports so…

    • Not specifically for storytelling; for study in general. These days we’re more respectful of a culture’s own way of viewing itself than we were in the early days of anthropology, so I often find that people assume it’s always better to use the culture-specific categorizations, explanations, etc., rather than to impose an external framework. But they’re good for different purposes, and we learn the most when we use both in their proper places.

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