Chapter 2: The Emics and Etics of Religion: What we Know, How we Know it, and Why this Matters

The Insider/Outsider Debate - New Perspectives in the Study of Religion - George D. Chryssides

Steven J. Sutcliffe [+-]
University of Edinburgh
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Steven Sutcliffe, University of Edinburgh, is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He specialises in the study of alternative religion in modernity and in the modern history of the study of religion/s. He is author of Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices (2003), co-editor (with Ingvild Sælid Gilhus) of New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion (2013) and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality (2000). He also edited Religion: Empirical Studies (2004) and is a co-editor for the Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies monograph series. His current research includes the archive of the Scottish conscientious objector and ‘simple life’ practitioner, Dugald Semple (1884-1964), and the social and cultural history of the Gurdjieff-Ouspenskii movement. He is President of the British Association for the Study of Religions between 2015-2018.


The author argues that the method encoded as ‘emics’ and ‘etics’ constitutes a theoretically stronger research instrument in the study of religion than the vague ontology of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, both because it yields more precise and tractable knowledge specifically about the research objects of the study of religion, and because it can be operationalised effectively across adjacent disciplines such as ethnography, social anthropology and history. Sutcliffe provides a detailed account of the origin of emic/etic in Kenneth Pike’s extrapolation from phonemic/phonetic in his work in linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s, its development in Marvin Harris’ cultural anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s and its application in the study of religion. The author provides a critique of the insider/outsider model on grounds of its implicit commitment to a politics of identity, contrasting with the cognitive or epistemic commitment of emics and etics. Drawing on Geertz’s distinction between ‘experience near’ and ‘experience distant’, it is argued that everyone is capable of rendering both emic and etic accounts of ‘what is going on’ – and of moving between them, thereby generating a potentially powerful translation effect. To be able to differentiate between emic and etic accounts of a phenomenon creates a simple and practical epistemological tool that fosters cross-cultural, comparative interpretation and encourages interdisciplinarity, especially across the human sciences. Although the chapter will be predominantly meta/theoretical in design, including the history of emic/etic scholarship, this chapter employs simple practical examples from the new age/holistic field, showing how the emics/etics of religion can be operationalised.

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Sutcliffe, Steven. Chapter 2: The Emics and Etics of Religion: What we Know, How we Know it, and Why this Matters. The Insider/Outsider Debate - New Perspectives in the Study of Religion. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. 30-52 Nov 2019. ISBN 9781781793442. Date accessed: 18 Sep 2019 doi: 10.1558/equinox.27423. Nov 2019

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