The Etic, Emic, and Everything In-Between: Some Reflections on Adele Reinhartz’s Response to Daniel Boyarin

Recently, Daniel Boyarin published a book titled Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. The goal of the book is to explore the history and usage of the term “Judaism”. Though I have admittedly not read the volume, Adele Reinhartz provides a helpful depiction of the Boyarin’s conclusions: “we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews” (Reinhartz 2019). As she notes later in her article, Boyarin’s conclusion is akin to his and Carlin Barton’s conclusion in Imagine No Religion (Fordham University Press, 2016), wherein Barton and Boyarin attempt to describe religion in antiquity without invoking modern the modern category “religion.”

Speaking of “Judaism” as a generic category, Reinhartz comments: “But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past” (Reinhartz 2019). I am inclined to agree with Reinhartz. Various authors express similar sentiments about the category of “magic” in the recent volume titled Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019). For example, Yuval Harari, known for his work on magic in ancient Israel and early Judaism, suggests “that an absolute split between the emic and the etic is impossible, and all attempts to trace the course of an emic approach are based on some presumption about the domain whose emic features we seek” (Harari 2019, 141).

My point in drawing attention to this is simple: many words in our vocabulary are, to echo J.Z. Smith’s perspective of religion, secondary categories [1]. Such categories don’t have a single definition; rather, they have 50 different definitions. The definitions depend on the particular contexts.

As Reinhartz and various authors in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic point out, the modern categories which we impose on texts are exactly that. They are modern. As such, it is always a challenge to objectively describe a culture or text purely based on its internal qualities.

That is to say, it is particularly difficult to strongly distinguish between emic and etic descriptions. Difficulties distinguishing between these two anthropological approaches lead me to a comment and question worth exploring. While texts/cultures can be described with etic or emic terms, such descriptions are, in reality, too optimistic and unrealistic, as these categories are not precise. As such, how can scholars more systematically and critically map out the space between etic and emic analysis?

Admittedly, I am not incredibly conversant with anthropology. If such studies are available within anthropology, I would love to read them. On the other hand, if such studies are not available, it may be a route worth exploring. Exploring it will enable scholars to better engage with texts and cultures by more precisely defining where they stand between etic and emic [2].

[1] By contrast, though, David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 20, comments on “magic” as a second-order category: “While helpful initially to highlight aspects of phenomena, the term “magic” remains too vague to rely on as a genuine second-order category of description – for magic as described here essentially permeates human language, material lives, and social interactions.” That is to say, based on his definition and approach to “magic,” it is always present in societies through time and space.

[2] Though it not available to me at the moment, The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC (Leiden: Brill, 2018) includes helpful discussions about methodology. There may be some fruitful routes presented within the volume.

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