What do you really want to know about the past?

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.



20 thoughts on “What do you really want to know about the past?

  1. I like mainly the emic approach for the most part. Yet I do want some of the etic approach, so I can see the reasons behind the way the people thought. Probably not much of a help to you, sorry.

  2. This strikes me as a variant of the Two Cultures debate. I dislike it–not the debate, but the suggested of either/or. It’s a useful way to approach a field, interesting, but not IMO a useful conclusion.

    I grew up with this kind of binary thinking. In England, one had to choose the Arts or Sciences early (I was 13). I got stubborn and would not choose. I did both.

    At university, I ran into the same problem. I began several different degrees, hoping to find just the right subject; but it wasn’t the subject, it was the culture–the artificial divide. I abandoned higher education/academia in disgust. Or perhaps despair.

    As a writer, I refuse to choose. I write novels. Though some critics fall into the typecasting trap others see what I’m trying to do: bring everything together; see a whole rather than a divide. That, at least, is what I tried to do with Hild. My hope is that it reflects my interest in both the emic and etic approaches to the world. I think we need both. Call it eic.

    1. Anthropology is one of the few areas that appreciate both, even if people practice primarily one or the other. 13 is way too early to choose. This is I think one of the benefits of the US college system forcing people to take general studies and not making them choose a major on the first day.

      You found your niche as a novelist. I suspect this is one of the reasons that a lot of people don’t make very good novelists. I wouldn’t – my attempts at short stories are awful.

      1. As the split in the Stanford department clearly exemplified, there is an incommensurability between the ways of life developed by social/cultural anthropologists and those who see themselves as doing science. Practices and the ways of justifying truth claims are entirely different. There are social, historical and economic reasons for this, many of them specific to the US.

  3. As an historian, I was taught that you cannot find out ‘what really happened’ and the model of history that I have always enjoyed can perhaps be characterised as the ‘Rashomon’ approach, from the film of that name by Akira Kurosawa (is that how you spell his name?) Essentially, each observer of an incident in a medieval Japanese forest has a different version of what took place. As an approach, I think this works particularly well for understanding war and conflict.
    However, I came to history via demographic/economic history and was therefore exposed to the value of counting things. This remains an important strand in my thinking. To take the Rashomon incident, counting only tells you how many people were there and how many of them died or were injured/raped, but as an approach, it can be very helpful. i am not sure that it is any easier to arrive at definitive answers (the size of early medieval armies, for instance, or the population of Britain before the Anglo-saxon advents, or death rates from the Plague of Justinian), but asking those questions can be very illuminating.
    To compound things further, I ended my career as an historian of medicine and did, indeed, believe in the dangers of retrospective diagnosis. Do I now? Well yes and no. I suppose I believe that asking what the cause of a past epidemic ‘really’ was or what some historical figure ‘really’ died of are perhaps not the most interesting sorts of questions and certainly not the most interesting questions for a social historian because they tell us less about the past than asking what people thought they died of, and, of course, why.
    Bede, for instance, is full of stuff about the healing powers of saints and anything they may have touched. This belief is surely interesting in its own right, quite apart from current beliefs about miracles. But am I interested in what diseases/health problems early medieval people ‘really’ suffered from? Well yes, of course I am. Am I interested in whether Anglo-Saxon healing practices were efficacious? Well yes, of course I am.
    So the short answer to your question, Michelle, is that I have an open mind about both etic and emic approaches. To me, it is all about interesting questions and how best to answer them. I come back to something I used to ask undergraduates when discussing this sort of ‘What is History?’ question: is it about getting your facts right? or is it about asking whose facts you are getting?

    1. I think if you are using a narrative source like Bede then you have to understand his reasoning and values. This is what got me into studying his theology and hagiography.

      As for interesting questions, that depends on your point of view. If you are studying suffering then it must matter what kinds of symptoms they are suffering from.

    2. Palaeopathologists inevitably ask what people “really” died of. Historical demographers often do so too. Or rather, both attempt to answer an implicit question, by using methods unavailable at the time.

      There are epistemological and methodological problems which are not the issue here. Scholars and scientists must ask the questions appropriate to their disciplines and grapple with their own difficulties.

      However, these are surely not historical questions or answers. They are too modern-minded, too presentist. I would suggest that it is the business of historians to approach as closely as possible the thoughts and actions of the people under study, to understand the logic of the past. Historians do not have the expertise to do anything more than unquestioningly appropriate the research debated in other disciplines.

      If there were various clusters of patients’ signs and doctors’ symptoms that went under the label “pox” or “plague,” can the historian justify disentangling them in order to provide several modern labels? Despite the descriptions of an epidemic in 15th-century Florence, we “really” know that it couldn’t have been bubonic plague because it happened at the wrong time of year. Do we?

      Quite apart from the reliance on a particular modern epidemiological model, what would that tell us about how ailments were classified, experienced and treated in the past? It is difficult to see how ahistorical discussions can be justified, within the discipline of history.

      Retrospective diagnosis provides us with no historical knowledge of the past and hinders our understanding of change. It is about us, not them.

      1. Well you have made the classic emic argument but I disagree on retrospective diagnosis. I don’t believe you can rule out plague based solely on the time of year. There are too many variables in epidemiology to use it to rule anything out.

        1. I don’t say one can rule it out, but I have seen a well received book by an MD/PhD which did just that. I would regard the contemporary diagnosis and response as the subject matter for historians.

          Equally, there have been books which have argued on the basis of an absence of rats or speed of transmission. These depend on specific models of plague epidemiology, to dismiss such events as the Plague of Eyam or the original outbreak in England.

          I would regard the retrospective diagnosis of the Plague as Athens, assuming that it happened, as an excellent project for a palaeopathologist but a misleading one for a student of Thucydides.

  4. I am currently working on a Dark Ages novel and am interested in portraying the mindsets of Celts and Druids. By your definitions, the novel itself is emic and what it is portraying is emic. However the research I am doing is a combination of etic (historical facts of kingdoms, religions, settings) and emic (myths, poems, histories). I want was much historical accuracy as I can manage, but in service to a story that I want to tell of a shadowy historical character.

  5. I think I would like both but mostly etic because that would help us understand why they chose to do certain things. Cheers!

  6. I’m definitely emic in my approach to manuscripts and narratives – asking what stories meant for Anglo-Saxons, not whether they got the stories ‘right’. But all of the groundwork for that is etic: I can’t even begin to play the fun emic games until I’ve made some attempt to understand where people were coming from.

    So, say, childhood experiences, education, and the realities of warfare really matter before I can begin to assess what ceremonies, stories, and art may have meant to eleventh century audiences. And where a manuscript actually was, and what was actually done with it, are the fundamental bases for thinking about variant possible receptions of and engagements with what it contains.

  7. The problem is that these terms are philologically indefensible,as you cannot create a new substantive concept (albeit an abstract one, and one you want to use as an adjective) out of a word’s ending, which carries no semantic information. The dichotomy is valid, if a little tedious; but the terminology applied is completely invalid.

    1. That is prescriptive, not descriptive. In like manner, it is not permitted to ever split an infinitive.

      The users of a natural language create and change words in all sorts of ways. One might as well decree that a word cannot be legitimately formed out of a Greek prefix and a Latinate noun. Television.

      The terms, “emic” and “etic,” were coined in the early 1950s by the linguist Kenneth Pike, and have been widely used ever since, in several disciplines.

  8. I found the post very interesting but agree with Martin Smith. In fact, there is no need for these terms if, as I suspect, the subject reflects the divisions of the brain, as brilliantly described by Ian McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. All disciplines need both approaches and archaeology is benefiting from experimental archaeology (and, now, skyscape archaeology). As (yet another) writer of historical fiction I need to understand the psychology of my characters. This will have been largely determined by their place and time, but there is an element that is universal. In research I’m as interested in maps as personal letters: everything feeds the imagination that, in the end, produces the story. Facts are ingredients but it takes a cook to make the dish. (PS. Just because you can’t write short stories doesn’t mean you couldn’t write a novel).

  9. I find the terms limiting. When I look at the world around me, it is a combination of things, not just one or the other. History has grown, we no longer look only at leaders but also populations. We are required to have a world view. We have had two “plagues” since the 1900’s–the flu epidemic of 1917, and HIV/Aids. We know biologic that caused them. We know the overall death rates, how leaders responded, effects on the economy. Yet, the stories of these events have been fully told yet. How did communities, individuals respond? Work to be done.

  10. Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. Michelle Ziegler’s post, “What Do You Really Want to Know About the Past?,” Heavenfield blog, 24 June 2014, suggests the utility for the history of disease of the emic/etic distinction that anthropologists have used on and off for the past several decades to distinguish analytical stances that privilege internal (to the culture) systems of explanation and interpretation vs. “universal” comparisons that look at a culture against external frames of reference that can provide some semblance of commensurability. Since February of this year, Michelle has had access to the draft of a paper of mine that, to my knowledge, is the first study to suggest the utility of using both emic and etic perspectives to explore the history of disease. Specifically, I argue that it is time to put the tired phobia about retrospective diagnosis behind us, precisely because the emerging disciplines of paleogenetics and paleopathology are allowing us to understand the evolutionary and epidemiological histories of infectious diseases in new ways.

    My essay—Monica H. Green, “Taking ‘Pandemic’ Seriously: Making the Black Death Global,” in “Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death,” inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe 1, no. 1 (Fall 2014)—will be forthcoming in Fall 2014. My essay and all the contributions to the special inaugural issue of the journal, will be made available open-access; you can find the advance Table of Contents here: http://www.arc-humanities.org/upcoming-issues.html . Once the essay is published, I will welcome further debate about whether or not genetics can be accepted as a useful historical tool. (Note that I don’t endorse the idea that material existence constitutes what “really” happened as opposed to conceptual understandings or emotional experiences. Both are equally “real” for the historian.)

    So, looking forward to further debate on this matter in the Fall. In the meantime, you may wish to look at this article in the New York Times, which hints at the new interpretations that are now developing for another “medieval” disease, leprosy: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/science/leprosy-still-claiming-victims.html.

    Monica H. Green, Professor of History, Arizona State University, https://asu.academia.edu/MonicaHGreen.

    1. Of course, we have the question of what it is that historians properly study. There has been a reaction against humanistic history, but do we want to say that history is about something other than humans?

      I don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm for palaeopathology, Monica, but it would be as well to bear in mind that the influence of Creighton and Shrewsbury, for example, was not particularly helpful for the English-language historiography of plague. Indirectly, they cast very long shadows

      Historians are not well placed to assess the status of models developed in other disciplines. They tend to jump on trains that have already left the station, as Keith Thomas did with anthropological functionalism.

      Anyway, good luck with the project. I don’t regard retrospective diagnosis as a shibboleth, however clumsily it has been used.

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