Theoretical Background: Insides, Outsides, and The Scholar of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon

Source: Russell T. McCutcheon, ed. The Insider / Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion. London: Cassell Academic, 1999.

The Study of Religion as a Cross-Disciplinary Exercise
Because much of the original work on the insider/outsider problem has been done in fields outside the academic study of religion, it is only fitting to open this anthology with articles that arise from fields outside the study of religion. The academic study of religion has developed into a cross-disciplinary field that draws on the work of a variety of scholars: any book on the study of religion will more than likely build on the work carried out by anthropologists, scholars of antiquity, economists, historians, literary critics, philosopher, psychologists, sociologists, to only name a few. The various stands that scholars of religion take to address the insider/outsider problem owe much to work carried out in these fields. The three pieces in this section represent the work of Horace Miner, an anthropologist, Alasdair McIntyre, a philosopher, and Clifford Geertz, also an anthropologist.

However, prior to introducing these three readings, we need to discuss two concepts of basic importance to the insider/outsider problem, concepts originally used in the study of language but quickly adopted by anthropologists.

Emic and Etic Defined
Emic and etic are technical terms the linguist, Kenneth Pike (1967), originally derived from the suffixes of the words "phonemic" and "phonetic"; the former refers to any unit of significant sound in a particular language and the latter refers to the system of cross-culturally useful notations that represent these vocal sounds. Although both words are derived from the same Latin root (phnma, meaning "sound"), phonemic designates the complex sounds themselves while phonetic specifies the signs and systems scholars devise to represent the manner in which the basic phonemic units of a language are to be pronounced and compared. For example, according to the International Phonetic Alphabet, reprinted in the front of most dictionaries, the characters that represents the sound made by the first consonant in the word, zip, is z, whereas the related but slightly different sound produced by the s in the word vision is designated by the character , both of which are not to be confused with the sound made by the letter s in the word sip (designated by s) or the sound of the sh in a word like ship (designated by ). Even though the same letter may be used in spelling certain words (such as the s in sip and vision), in practice, the letter is pronounced in many different ways. The characters of the Phonetic Alphabet provide a way to specify and symbolize these differences. Moreover, knowing how the d sounds in a word like dog, combined with our knowledge of the specific sound of the s in vision, allows us to combine the two sounds to represent what the j sounds like in the word jam (its Phonetic Alphabet character therefore is the combined d).

The point of all this is that while the phoneme represents the various units of sound that combine to produce a spoken word in a particular language (and any one language will have a specific, sometimes unique, set of phonemes upon which it is based), the phonetic representation of these sound units is based on an outsider's attempt to transcribe and compare these sounds in relation to a system of written characters that can be used in the study of all languages. Accordingly, phonetic analysis has an explicit comparative aspect to it.

That spoken sounds in just one language, let alone many languages, are a complicated affair is evident. To the proficient users of any language this may or may not be an interesting issue; after all, they are involved in using, articulating, developing a language for certain practical purposes. To these users the varied ways of producing the s sound might all just appear to be self-evident. But to a non-user of this language, the ways in which these subtle distinctions are produced by speakers is intriguing. How is it that one word comes out of our mouth and is not confused with another? And how can we compare sounds produced in two different languages? Speakers simply seem to know that they must shape their mouths and tongues differently to vary the sounds they produce. For example, think of the many sounds designated by the letter o, whether alone or in combination with other letters: goat, got, wagon, boil, boot, book, poor, pour, brow, and sour. Scholars who study phonetics will examine the mechanics of speaking these various words: if and how the tongue touches the teeth when the sound is produced (e.g., a lingual-dental such as th); how the lips are used (e.g., a labio-dental, with the teeth touching one lip, such as the sound of an f; a bilabial, produced with the two lips, such as the sounds of the p or b); or whether the tongue and the soft palate (the rear roof of the mouth) are being employed to produce a sound in the back of the mouth (such as in lingual-velars like k or g). Phonetics scholars, then, develop a comparative basis which is itself outside the language systems they are studying (after all, no language users write in the Phonetic Alphabet) to study not simply one language but the phenomenon of human language itself.

The Emic and Etic Viewpoint Applied
Therefore, we can now understand what he meant when Pike specified that while the "etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system," the "emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system" (1967: 37) Roughly, then, emic is to the inside as etic is to the outside. An important clarification, however, is that the emic perspective is not simply to be equated with the insider's own viewpoint; for, in the case of language, language users are extremely proficient at speaking their language, at making this or that sound distinct from other sounds, but they are often hardly interested in studying it. By even attempting to reproduce, rather than simply produce, a sound faithfully, the linguist has already acknowledged that she or he is a student of the language under study and is not to be confused with a speaker of the language. Even if the linguist is a native speaker of the language, there is a difference between simply using a language, on the one hand, and discussing, systematizing, and comparing those uses, on the other. It would seem, then, that even insiders can become outsiders.

The emic perspective, then, is the outsider's attempt to produce as faithfully as possible--in a word, to reproduce--the informant's own descriptions or production of sounds, behavior, beliefs, etc. The etic perspective is the observer's subsequent attempt to take the descriptive information they have already gathered and to organize, systematize, compare--in a word, redescribe--that information in terms of a system of their own making--the International Phonetic Alphabet for example. This theoretical system proposed by the student is therefore the basis for comparison and analysis when she or he studies other languages, cultures, societies, religions, etc. For example, one might ask, "Does this language have sounds that can be represented by the ?" Or, "Does this society have an aspect which can be analyzed in terms of the economic category of class, and then compared to other societies which also have classes?" If, for instance, one were interested in determining the history of a spoken language, entailing the identification of the family of which it is a member (e.g., "Does Italian share anything in common with French, and how are they both related to German, Latin, or Sanskrit?"), such etic, comparative study would be crucial. If, however, one wished simply to learn the language for oneself, or only to describe customs as accurately as possible, there may be no such need to develop the comparative basis afforded by the etic perspective.

Which Perspective is Authoritative?
What is of particular interest is the degree to which a researcher emphasizes either of these two perspectives. Which viewpoint is to be authorized? Is etic scholarship to be judged by the informant? (For example, one might dispute that the s can be represented in terms of so many different Phonetic Alphabet characters, for an s is simply an s.) Is the informant to be judged by the comparative conclusions reached by the observer? (For example, a researcher might conclude that language X is simplistic when compared to language Y.) Does scholarship operate apart from the concerns of insiders or is it intimately connected to their lives? Is the goal of scholarship on human behavior, beliefs, and institutions, to have the people whom we are studying agree with our conclusions and generalizations or, is it instead, the goal of developing logical, scientific theories on why it is that humans do this or that in the first place, regardless of what they think? To whom do scholars of human behavior answer?

The Canadian scholar of the study of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is widely known for authorizing the religious insider when it comes to judging the quality of scholarship. Cantwell Smith stated quite unequivocally that no statement made by the scholar of religion is valid unless the religious believer could accept it as correct. If this rule were to be accepted, then insiders become the final authority in determining what is and what is not a correct statement about their religion. Perhaps such a rule has some value in ensuring that the scholarly description of the insider's behavior and claims is accurate but does such a rule apply when the researcher is attempting to determine just why it is that one insider acts this way and another acts that way? Or what of the case where the researcher finds an intriguing gap between the insider's claims and their behavior? Could not the insider be acting for reasons of which they are not completely aware? Should not the study of human behavior be clearly based on criteria outside those of the actors themselves?

These are precisely the concerns of a well known anthropologist, Marvin Harris (1979). He has argued that the goal of scholarship on human behaviors is not to determine what the insider might mean by their beliefs or actions but, instead, to discern explanations for why it is that they do or think what they do. Accordingly, Harris critiques Pike for authorizing the emic at the expense of the etic. According to Harris, Pike maintains that although scholarship necessarily starts with etic categories and theories it should attempt to shake off the inevitably insufficient outsider categories in favor of the proper insider understandings. Instead of attempting to determine (and thereby authorize) the insider's beliefs, Harris is interested in studying the material (e.g., political or economic) causes behind human behaviors and beliefs. Therefore, he critiques the "emic bias" in Pike's work for, in Harris's opinion, such a bias prevents comparative, analytic study where no insider claims are privileged. According to Harris, our goal as scholars is not simply to report and repeat what our informants tell us, for that makes us simply passive documenters of indigenous claims. Instead, and contrary to such scholars as Pike and Cantwell Smith, Harris argues that although research on human institutions and beliefs begins with descriptive information, the overall goal is to develop a generalized theory of one's own making and testing that can be used to elucidate all sorts of human behaviors. After all, in developing a theory of religion in general, no one religious viewpoint could come to dominate for we are not attempting to develop a Christian theory of religion, a Hindu theory of religion, or a Buddhist theory of religion. Instead, we are seeking criteria from outside each of these particular systems so as to compare and then explain them all together. Simply put, for Harris etic or analytic scholarship is not constrained by the way in which the people we study say they act or think. Instead, it is constrained by the rules that comprise rational, comparative, scientific analysis.

Our High Places of Safety?
Although this initial survey of Pike and Harris's thoughts will not settle the issue, it does bring into sharp relief that there is something at stake in addressing and settling the insider/outsider problem. Simply put, the future of the human sciences are at stake for, depending on how one settles the insider/outsider problem, scholars of human behavior could either be seen as observers capable of making novel claims about the causes of human action or as participants making autobiographical claims of no necessary analytic consequence.

To begin our study, this chapter opens with what has become a classic (and fun) essay for illustrating some of the perils of the insider/outsider problem. Although Miner's study of the body rituals of the intriguing Nacirema people was first published in the U.S. in 1956, this ethnography (or a descriptive account of people's customs and behaviors) is still one of the most effective means for placing readers in the midst of the difficulties of making claims about "other" people, their motives, feelings, and the value of their cultures. Whereas for some readers, Miner is being descriptively accurate in his remarks on these "exotic" people, to others his tone is consistently condescending and judgmental, while to yet others he is engaged in a complex form of satire, especially the ironic way in which the famous anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, is quoted at its close regarding the "high places of safety in the developed civilization" from which the scholar works. A careful reading of his article will therefore demonstrate the complex ways in which apparently neutral description often carries with it both interpretation and evaluation, as well as suggest the difficulties of distinguishing a stable "us" from a "them." The moral of this story? The apparently simple task of talking about other people is not as simple as it may at first appear.

Can Sceptic and Believer Understand Each Other?
"In any discussion between sceptics and believers," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening line to his essay, "it is presupposed that, even for us to disagree, it is necessary to understand each other." This often overlooked assumption is precisely what MacIntyre examines in his well known essay. He is interested not in whether the sceptic and the believer can agree on this or that matter, but whether they can establish a shared basis upon which they would later base such agreements or disagreements. In other words, can they even understand each other?

For anyone either to agree or disagree with another person, they must first understand just what the person is talking about and what they are claiming. For two people even to be engaged in a conversation of any kind presupposes at least one crucial thing: that they are both talking about the same thing (and in the same language). If they are not, they soon end up talking past one another and, even if they continue to speak, their conversation comes to a bitter end. For instance, if two people were conversing on the role played by religion in human affairs, they would not get very far if for one of them "religion" constituted the revelation of a loving deity and for the other religion was merely a psychological delusion--they are clearly not talking about the same thing. For either to arrive at an understanding of other's position, they must already have understood and appreciated the assumptions and vocabularies of their dialogue partner. This common starting point makes their conversation possible--two people speaking different languages or defining their terms in different ways can hardly converse with one another. For conversation to take place, then, the partners need a degree of commensurability; they need a common measure, a common basis, upon which to build.

What happens, then, when the conversation partners are in fact speaking radically different languages or when their speech involves radically different set of assumptions and vocabularies? Is understanding possible in this case? This is MacIntyre's question: Can the sceptic understand the believer (or vice versa)? For, as MacIntyre portrays them, these two people start with sets of assumptions so different that they are in fact incommensurable--there exists no shared or common system of measure that unites their discourses. It is not so much that the sceptic and the believer are, as the old saying goes, "like apples and oranges," for both of these are fruits, both inevitably share some important aspects and, therefore, they are commensurable. Insomuch as one believes a loving deity exists (believer) and the other does not (sceptic), the sets of assumptions that ground their conversation are, to MacIntyre, incommensurable. Simply put, a gulf lies between them and because of this they cannot hope to understand each other. The closest they can come is that each understands the claims of the other but in a completely different way from the other's own self-understanding. For example, whereas some believers understand their references to "God loves me" to refer to a powerful but caring being that exists apart from, and nurtures, the world, the sceptic who had read even only a little Freud would have little choice but to understand such "God-talk" as the result of the believer's own deeply felt insecurities.

The implications for the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion should be clear: according to MacIntyre, outsiders cannot hope to understand insiders (and vice versa). To phrase it another way, to understand an insider one must become an insider; to understand is to be. Although his article is specifically about Christian insiders, it is nonetheless applicable to all believers: according to him, "understanding Christianity is incompatible with believing it . . . . Thus, sceptic and believer do not share a common grasp of the relevant concepts".

In a later chapter we will again return to MacIntyre's provocative argument. Donald Wiebe, a Canadian scholar specializing in the relations (or lack of) between the study of religion and theology, tackles MacIntyre's thesis and suggests that there is much at stake in the way in which MacIntyre understands scholarly research to come about. In other words, Wiebe argues that MacIntyre's understanding of what is involved in coming to an understanding requires attention if we are to overcome the great divide MacIntyre sees between insider and outsider.

Or is it All Just a Question of Degree?
But is this divide between insider and outsider as great as MacIntyre presumes? Instead of being limited only to either the insider's or the outsider's viewpoint, we might ask whether there is a mediating position in this debate. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz might provide just such a position. Geertz argues that, instead of seeing the insider and outsider positions as polar opposites, involving an either/or from the researcher, perhaps it is all a question of degree. Using a terminology capable of suggesting the relative, more-or-less nature of one's viewpoint (that of experience-near and experience-distant perspectives), Geertz suggests that we have misunderstood the work of studying other people if we think our only options are either an "ethnography of witchcraft as written by a witch" or "an ethnography of witchcraft as written by a geometer." The challenge--or, as Geertz puts it, the trick--is to take the experience-near concepts of our informants and to place them "in illuminating connection with experience-distant concepts theorists have fashioned to capture the general features of social life." Where an informant might talk of "fear," the psychologist might talk of "phobia"--but just what are the relations between these two concepts? Surely fear does not exhaust the notion of phobia, demonstrating that the usefulness of such scholarly categories as "phobia" is, at least in part, to be judged by the degree to which they can be used to distinguish and compare, on one level, the similarities and differences in the reports and behaviors of the people we study. Therefore, where the scholar strives to compare, interpret, and explain what they think the insider is experiencing, the informant is most often involved simply in experiencing it.

To demonstrate just what is involved with moving from experience-near to experience-distant concepts, Geertz investigates the differing conceptions of "self" or "person" (both of which are experience-distant concepts) that he has studied in three different societies (Java [now Indonesia], Bali, Morocco). Unlike Pike, Geertz does not prioritize the insider's (or experience-near) concepts and experiences. Unlike Harris, Geertz does not aim to provide an explanation of their experiences and behaviors. Unlike MacIntyre, Geertz does not presume that the starting points of insiders and outsiders are incommensurable. Instead, by means of admittedly comparative, experience-distant categories, he aims simply to interpret and understand what it is that someone might mean when they say or do this or that.

Although this opening chapter ends with Geertz's intermediate position, this should not suggest that this position wins the day. It will be left to readers, as they work their way through the following chapters, to make their own decisions as to the relative merits of the various positions scholars take to solve the insider/outsider problem.

Harris, Marvin 1979. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Random House.

Pike, Kenneth 1967. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd edition. The Hague: Mouton.