When you think about the past, what do you really want to know? Do you want to know what people thought and felt, their philosophy or understand their spin? Or, do you really want to know what really happened? What was their world really like, not what they said it was like? Sure we are all a little curious about both, but when push comes to shove, what do you want to know the most? Where will you invest your time? These are really two very different approaches. I’ll soon be reviewing two books here that both look at nature in the Middle Ages and take opposite approaches.
The best example I have found of these diametrically opposed approaches is on medieval epidemics. Some historians will argue that it doesn’t matter what the disease was, all that matters is its demographic effect. Scientists will argue that you can’t really know anything about the epidemic without trying to characterize it medically/biologically, if not identify it. For many classically trained historians of medicine, retrospective diagnosis is not only a fool’s errand and waste of time, but bad practice. It is taking a lot of coaxing for them to accept scientific evidence that can identify the disease, and alas, some will look for any little uncertainty to cling to to reenforce their training. Scientists don’t help themselves by writing awful historical introductions to their papers relying on secondary sources that are themselves vintage to say the least.
Anthropology has been dealing with both approaches for a long time. In 1967, linguist Kenneth Pike first proposed the terms emic and etic to describe the two approaches. Etic, from phonetic, refers to measurable and observable traits. For Pike this meant the body structures and environments that effect human sound production, and today speech and language pathologies. Emic, from phonemic, refers to human interpretations of sounds that vary by culture to produce different languages and interpretations of sounds. Pike’s book, published in 1967, was met with mixed success but his concept of emic and etic approaches has stuck. Moving beyond linguistics, the terms can be applied much more broadly.
An emic approach is interested in how people conceptualized and understood their world. If you want to know what they were thinking or what they believed, then you are asking an emic question. This is a humanist oriented approach used to study literature and language, cultural history and anthropology, religion and philosophy, art, etc. To study the past, this approach relies over-whelmingly on manuscripts, inscriptions and art (or interviews).
An etic approach is interested in what the world was really like using observable and ideally measurable data. If you want to know what caused a famine, not just what contemporary people attributed it to, then you are asking an etic question. This is science-oriented approach used by climatologists, biologists, archaeologists, ecologists and environmental historians, economists and some historians, (for example those who study military science or technology). The etic approach may also use manuscripts, some narratives but more likely technical drawings, tax rolls, manoral accounts, and other records. The etic approach is values physical data like climate proxies (ice cores, tree rings, etc), osteological analysis, pollen analysis, and analysis of physical remains.
Many fields use both approaches to a greater or lesser degree. Anthropology is a prime example, but even here subdivisions develop with some competition. For example, (from what I have seen) cultural anthropology and medical anthropology primarily use emic approaches while archaeology and biological anthropology use etic approaches. Likewise, academically linguistics is split into departments of language and literature, vs. departments of speech pathology and therapy. On the other hand, there are historians who use a lot of archaeology in their work along with manuscripts. I’m thinking of early medievalists in particular. One of the advantages of fields like Anglo-Saxon studies is that it can unite both approaches in a single field.
So what is your approach to history? Emic or etic? I am curious what approach my readers favor, so please leave a comment.
Emic and Etic, Wikipedia.
Harris, Marvin. “History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1976, 329–50.
Green, Monica. “Taking ‘Pandemic’ Seriously: Making the Black Death Global” The Medieval Globe, issue 1 (forthcoming)
Addendum: I admit that I used poor judgement in regards to using disease as an example of the emic/etic distinction. I failed to understand the importance of Monica Green’s priority in applying the concept to medieval disease, plague in particular, as previously discussed on the discussion list MedMed-L and in the forthcoming issue of The Medieval Globe (which I am also a contributor to). My intention was for this post to be a preamble to a review of Richard Hoffmann’s book An Environmental History of Medieval Europe and his independent use and discussion of emic/etic evidence, which is planned as the next post for this blog. I apologize to Dr Green and recommend her forthcoming article to you.