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Peak Experiences and Emic Coherence

The concepts emic and etic are inspired by the linguistic concepts of phonemic and phonetic, and introduced and coined by the linguistic anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike (1967, 37-38):

[They] describe behavior from two different standpoints ... The etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system ... The emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system . Emic descriptions provide an internal view, with criteria chosen from within the system. They represent to us the view of one familiar with the system and who knows how to function within it himself.

Hence, emic coherence is coherence and cohesion in the emic description— that is, self-description—of the subject by the subject. A self-description of a subject is a self-description of her or his narrative of identity and its presentation to the outside world. It encompasses the self-representation of identity in the present and in the past. Indeed, history is an integral part of a people’s identity.

The way a people narrates major historical events is intimately related to the way it perceives its own identity. Every national or ethnic history has major historical events which are imbued by meaning and hence are important for the self-representation of the subject’s identity. These major events or peak-experiences are the historical events that are selected, memorised and reproduced often by a people. Dijkink (1996) among others has discussed the importance of peak-experiences at a national level, but it can also be discussed at an ethnic level (Rezvani 2009a, 56-57). The orientation and direction of action of the subject (e.g. an ethnic group or a nation) are influenced by these historical peak experiences, but at the same time the identification of those events as such and their representation and narration are co-determined by the self-identification and political historical orientation of the subject. The commemoration of historical peak experiences implies a process of selective memorisation and interpretation of the past that is suitable for the purposes of the present. As Friedman (1992a, 837) states:

Making history is a way of producing identity insofar as it produces a relation between that which supposedly occurred in the past and the present state of affairs. The construction of a history is the construction of a meaningful universe of events and narratives for an individual or collectively defined subject. And since the motivation of this process of construction emanates from a subject inhabiting a specific social world, we may say that history is an imprinting of the present onto the past.

Politics of identity include also harmonisation of the past with the present. As every historiography is in fact the narration of the past in the present, it is conditioned by a present situation often coloured by a (national or ethnic) ideology, discourse or dogma of self-presentation. “Politics of identity consists in anchoring the present in a viable past. The past is, thus, constructed according to the conditions and desires of those who produce historical textbooks in the present” (Friedman 1992b, 207). This strategic use of past and in general harmonisation of the past and present in the politics of identity are manifest not only in the historical textbooks, but also in the paintings, poems and oral history. Representations of historical peak experiences contribute to emic coherence.

There are certain limits to this process; harmonisation of the past with the present builds upon raw data, for example, the historical events in the past. It does not seem possible to fabricate a history out of thin air. However, by selective stressing, and interpreting certain past events, and hence by narrating an orderly, meaningful whole, ethnic and national groups try to build a coherent historical identity. They select, imbue with meaning and represent those elements which are coherent with their ethnic identity as perceived by themselves. This is the crux of emic coherence.

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