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Emic and etic descriptions

Emic and etic descriptions

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 (Week 4)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/2.1.2

Required readings

Thomas Hylland Eriksen “Fieldwork and Ethnography,” in Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 32–51.

The story of “fieldwork”: Malinowski in the Trobriands

  • W. H. R. Rivers and expeditionary methods (e.g. Rivers 1914)
    • Survey questionnaires and diffusionist hypotheses
    • Salvage ethnography
  • Bronislaw Malinowski and the Cambridge expedition of 1914 (Malinowski [1922] 1932, especially pages 1-25)
    • Immersion in one place
    • First-hand observation of actual happenings
    • Imponderabilia of everyday life and typical pattern of behavior
    • Key words, technical terms, verbatim quotations

Another story of fieldwork: Layard on Atchin

  • Rivers and John W. Layard on Atchin (Tsan) island in the New Hebrides islands (today in Malakula, Vanuatu) (Layard 1942)
    • Abandoned by Rivers, who got frustrated
    • Left alone to make friends
    • Adopted by another outsider: Mari
    • Participated in a big collective project: The revival of the Maki

Yet another story of fieldwork: Gomberg-Muñoz and The Lions

  • Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz wanted to understand the ways in which undocumented immigrants from Mexico made a living in Chicago (Gomberg-Muñoz 2011)
  • Met with her fellow workers separately and in social occasions outside of work
  • Worked in a restaurant, as a waitress, not a busboy
  • At work, she used “head notes” and expanded on them after hours
    • Work in the restaurant is “The Busboy Show” (Gomberg-Muñoz 2010)
  • Her informants (that is, research subjects), their restaurant, and the collective name for them are all pseudonyms

Survey questions

I did ultimately conduct a household survey about people’s gardens, food, and income.

I thought my questions were quite simple. I wanted to ask

  • Who were members of the household?
  • What kinds of food did people grow?
  • What did they do to earn money?

Even what I thought was basic was actually more complex

  • Garden: oya, or yaheyahe (or, yaʻwayaʻwala)?
  • Family and/or household: susu (but this concept also refers to a matrilineage).

Learning how to ask

I had to learn to listen before asking.

But if I only listened, then a lot of what I needed to know would remain unstated, so I had to ask.

  • Example: tetela (lineage history)

Fieldwork methods are all based on an ongoing conversation between the outsider and the insider.

Writing ethnography

Ethnography is a a form of writing that cultural anthropologists use to help people understand a way of life as a cultural system.

An ethnography is (usually) a book written by someone who has conducted participant-observation fieldwork

Ethnographic writing must always balance emic and etic descriptions.

  • Phonetic transcription is a spelling of a word as it sounds
    • ˈhyʋæː ˈpæi̯ʋæː
  • Phonemic transcription is a spelling of a word using the basic sounds of a specific language
    • hyvää päivää

For Mel Spiro, anthropology makes what is “familiar strange” and what is “strange familiar” by moving from a particular cultural worldview to a “third set of concepts — that, anthropological concepts” which try to be neutral (Spiro 1990, 49). This third position is the etic perspective.

Analytic and synthetic perspectives

etic is to emic as analysis is to synthesis




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oral historical narrative describing a lineage’s founding, migration, and descent

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mortuary feasting

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the stylized expressions of deference and circumspection by certain* relatives toward the matrilineal kin of a deceased person

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veʻahihi (respect)

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* Specifically the affines and the patrifilial relatives, etic terms for kinds of kinship which I won’t explain today.

Survey: Is there a difference between ethnography and journalism?

This question is inspired by a question asked by a student in this class on Monday. It really doesn't have an easy answer. What you do think? (This is a survey question. Go to Quizzes on Canvas, scroll down to Surveys, and answer yes or no—either counts.)

The password for today's lecture question is difference (not “different” :P)

Ethnographic writing: You are there

Ethnographic descriptions generally take the form of narrative so that the reader can imagine themselves as part of what is described


Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. “Fieldwork and Ethnography.” In Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 32–51. London: Pluto Press.

Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2010. “Willing to Work: Agency and Vulnerability in an Undocumented Immigrant Network.” American Anthropologist 112 (2):295–307. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01227.x.

———. 2011. Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://books.google.com?id=9tb0SAAACAAJ.

Layard, John W. 1942. Stone Men of Malekula. London: Chatto and Windus. http://books.google.com?id=Z6etvQEACAAJ.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1922) 1932. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd. http://archive.org/details/argonautsofthewe032976mbp.

Rivers, W. H. R. 1914. The History of Melanesian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/2.1.2.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/28 20:02 by Ryan Schram (admin)