Emics is a term used by some cultural anthropologists to denote descriptions and explanations of human beliefs and behaviors in terms relevant to the native practitioners of the culture in question. The linguist Kenneth Pike coined the term emics from the linguistic term phonemics, the study of the system of sound contrasts used by speakers of a language to construct meaningful units: words and so forth. Pike used emics to denote a level of description of human behavior based on categories meaningfully relevant to the people performing the behavior.
Marvin Harris and other cultural materialists popularized the term within anthropology by using it to refer to native or folk explanations for cultural beliefs and behaviors. One of Harris’s best-known examples is his analysis of the Hindu Indian cattle complex. Hindus revere cattle as sacred and claim that their religion prevents them from killing or eating the cattle. This is, in Harris’s terms, an emic explanation for Hindus’ treatment of cattle. The emic level of explanation can be further divided into two categories corresponding to (conscious) belief and behavior: emic-mental (cattle are not killed or eaten because the Hindu religion has declared them to be sacred) and emic-behavioral (cattle are not killed or allowed to starve to death).
It is important to emphasize that in Pike’s original formulation, emics (along with etics) represented a level of description. Pike saw behavior, like speech, as composed of waves; humans, however perceive, categorize, and react to behavior in terms of particles, or contrastive units, which in the case of language correspond to phonemes. In more contemporary terms, we might say that behavior is analog, while human mental processing of behavior is digital. Pike’s goal of emic description of any human behavior is to present that behavior in terms and categories relevant to the native participants in the behavior. Harris and some other anthropologists use the term to represent a level of explanation. Emic explanations correspond very approximately to what some other anthropologists refer to as “folk models” or folk “explanations.”
- Harris, M. (1987). Cultural materialism: The search for a science of culture. New York: Random House.
- Headland, T. N., Pike, K. L., & Harris, M. (Eds.). (1990). Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate. Newbury Park: Sage.
- Pike, K. L. (1971). Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. The Hague: Mouton.