Folding together emic and ethic in a psychological field test


In her recent book Natural Reflections (Smith 2010: 2–5), B. H. Smith explains how, in the early 1950s, Marion Keech, resident of a town in the U.S. Midwest, called on newspapers to let them know of a coming flood. It was going to be the first in a series of catastrophic events, leading to eventual worldwide cataclysm. Keech had been told about these forthcoming occurrences by aliens through the medium of automated writing. Along with a small set of devotees, she prepared herself in the countryside of Minnesota. Now, shortly after having made her knowledge public, Keech got five additional followers. At least this was what they claimed to be. Who were these newcomers? Neither anthropologists, nor secret agents, they were a group of psychologists. Alerted to the existence of the millenarians through newspaper reports, they had decided to conduct a “field test”, a natural experiment to test their psychological theory. This theory had to do with the tendency of people to remain convinced of their prior beliefs in spite of disconfirming evidence. When the flood failed to materialize, the psychologists did indeed get their hands on a body of evidence that bore on the matter. 

Conceived as a field test, the set-up I have just described was clearly etic. The purpose was to apply an outsider’s neutral perspective. It was to conduct a naturalistic study of an empirical phenomenon about which psychologists had so far only been able to obtain archival evidence. Although they went to live with the millenarians, psychologists were not at all into understanding the meanings or social contexts. At the same time, however, the actual form of engagement can be characterized as a kind of covert ‘participant observation’. Thus, although the psychologists’ ambition was etic, their mode of operation defied the traditional requirements of detached objectivity. Indeed, they attempted to establish detachment by pretending to go native. 

From the present vantage point, we are of course likely to view the procedure as ethically problematic. More importantly for our purposes, however, methodological difficulties also ensued, since the psychologists’ method was precisely neither outsider nor insider. Instead it thoroughly mixed up etic and emic “genres” of inquiry. And indeed this mixture created the specific opportunities and problems for their research into the psychological make-up—the humanity—of their subjects. 

This methodological mixture was not due to any deep reflexive consideration. Indeed, it happened quite in spite of the etic–objectivist ambition of the psychologists. The contrast to contemporary STS and social anthropology is thus striking, since these fields have paid sustained and explicit attention to their respective processes of making knowledge. In STS, a particularly important methodological reorientation goes under the name of symmetry (Bloor 1976; Latour 1993). In its basic form symmetry means that the same form of explanatory causes should be adopted to account for both what is viewed as rational and irrational behavior, the same type of general explanation, that is, for both millenarian “irrationality” and scientific “rationality.” (CB Jensen, Anthropology as a following science, 66-67)


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Contributed date

September 4, 2019 - 10:07am

Critical Commentary

In the following section, we can see how an experimental setting that extends beyond the laboratory becomes a site where emic and etic feed into one another.


Casper Bruun Jensen. 2012. “Anthropology as a Following Science: Humanity and Sociality in Continuous Variation.” NatureCulture 1: 1-24.



Cite as

Casper Bruun Jensen, "Folding together emic and ethic in a psychological field test", contributed by Gergely Mohacsi, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 5 September 2019, accessed 24 September 2023.