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African-American Rituals from Emic and Etic Aspects


Assessment of a given culture can be carried out from various perspectives. Some of the recognized perspectives, which are used by anthropologists and other professionals, include the emic and the etic approaches. To gain an emic perspective of a culture, the individual is required to view the world through the eyes of members of that particular group. The people who are brought up within a particular culture are socialized to the emic approach and perspective of the given society. Such an individual is likely to have acquired a world view that explains most of their experiences in society. The explanations provided revolve around, among others, the motives behind the actions of the individual. They also address the motives behind the actions of other members of society (Miner, 1956).

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In this paper, the author will analyze the actions of members from different communities. To this end, the paper will provide an emic perspective of African-American ritual practices. Such practices include family reunions. In addition, the author will analyze the culture of Kenyan cancer patients from an epic perspective. With regard to the Kenyan culture, the paper will analyze perceptions towards treatments. The major focus of the paper will be an anthropological analysis of the two cultures.

Defining Emic and Etic Cultural Perspectives in Anthropology

Gaining an etic understanding of a different culture requires some skills on the part of the individual doing the cultural analysis (Miner, 1956). It requires an understanding of the emic perspective of the culture in question. However, the most important thing to take into consideration is the fact that the individual must be able to detach themselves emotionally from the culture. Such a detachment is required to achieve an objective and testable hypothesis regarding the society in question. The hypothesis can be used to explain observable beliefs and behaviors (Mulemi, 2008). An epic perspective is often considered as an outsider’s view of the culture in question.

It is observed that an outsider may not be able to have an etic perspective of a particular culture (Miller-Cribbs, n.d). In most cases, such people are likely to adopt an ethnocentric perspective. To this end, they interpret beliefs and behaviors in light of their culture. The people within that particular culture may not be able to have an epic perspective on their way of life. On the contrary, they are likely to be engrossed in an ethnocentric perspective of their culture. In this case, they interpret beliefs and behaviors from the point of view of the culture that they have been exposed to (Miller-Cribbs, n.d).

According to McCoy (2011), an etic description of culture is used to generate scientific theories regarding the causes of the observed socio-cultural similarities and differences between ways of life. An emic perspective, on the other hand, describes the use of concepts and language that are appropriate from a native point of view. According to McCoy (2011), an etic description relies on the use of concepts drawn from social science studies. Consequently, an etic viewpoint is unfamiliar to a native person. The unfamiliarity remains regardless of where the native is from.

Part I: An Etic Analysis of an American Subculture: A Case Study of African-American Family Reunion Rituals

An Overview

African-American reunions can be traced to the era of emancipation from slavery (Jackson, 2010). During this historical era, reunions were arranged by former slaves from a particular plantation or area. In most cases, the slaves would place advertisements in newspapers. The advertisements were meant to help them find family members who had been separated from their families (Jackson, 2010). It can be argued that the abolition of slavery gave rise to the practices of reunion. As such, after emancipation, there were many people who sought to find their blood kin. There was also the need to reunite with people who had been surrogate parents in plantations. The surrogate notion extends the family ties beyond blood kinship. The idea of including the surrogates is still practiced in contemporary African-American reunions in today’s society (Jackson, 2010). The fictive kin is individuals who are treated like family members. However, they are not related either by blood or marriage.

The ritual of family reunion may have given rise to the great migration among African-Americans. The migration was from the south to the north of the country. The practice within the immigration pathos was that an individual would settle in the north. They would then proceed to sponsor other individuals from the south (Miller-Cribbs, n. d.). The pattern would then be repeated with the aim of creating a supportive network. The network was meant to provide moral support to each other. Studies conducted on African-American immigration to the north indicate that the individuals had to deal with several problems. One of them was a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia would set in when the individual thought of the relatives that were left back home.

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The Structure of the Reunions

The reunions between the African-American families may involve a few members sharing the same ancestry. It may also bring on board a number of blood-related and fictive kin. In addition, the reunions may involve hundreds of participants. In some cases, the rituals last for several days (Miller-Cribbs, n.d). The reunions are highly organized affairs. They come with complete itineraries and cultural activities. The activities may include workshops dealing with various social issues, such as parenting (Miller-Cribbs, n. d.). In some instances, families from the south hold the reunion rituals on an annual basis.

Miller-Cribbs (n. d.) observes that a significant part of the reunion ritual was made up of a family dinner. A family reunion that the author of this paper took part in involved the roasting and eating of a pig. The dinner was held in mid-afternoon. The participants included men, women, and children. The guests sat around bouquet tables. In addition, they held hands as the food was blessed by the oldest male member of the family. The male elders were served first. Second in line were the older women. For the others, serving and eating took part in an open season manner (Miller-Cribbs, n. d.). Childhood memories and experiences were mouth-watering. The guests exchanged these memories and stories as they waited for the pork to be served. The pig had been staffed with other ingredients. The ingredients would spill onto the table as the roasted animal was sliced.

Most of the young members of the families expressed misgivings regarding the eating of the pig. Their reservations were a learning experience for this author. The elders in the family immediately took up the opportunity to confront the ignorance of the younger generation. They took the opportunity to explain the role of the pig and the problems associated with growing up in extremely hard times (Miller-Cribbs, n. d.). The stories that were narrated told of working hard to take care of the pigs. However, the slaves were only given the parts that were discarded. It was a learning moment for the younger generation as the elders narrated about the family journey. According to them, the families had encountered tremendous barriers to their success. The older persons also took the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues. The topics included societal and individual expectations, pride, responsibilities, and disappointments (Jackson, 2010). The narratives also included issues to do with betrayal, losses, and victories. Consequently, the pig was viewed as a representation of an indispensable part of the African-American struggles and quest for a better life.

It is the understanding of this author that strong and cohesive families helped African-Americans to endure the exploitation, racism, and violence associated with slavery. The families accorded their members opportunities for education, guidance, and support. The support extended to financial and emotional sustenance. There was also social and economic safety to be dealt with. The rituals and practices associated with family reunions have helped in the stabilization of the families. The stability was needed as the families struggled to survive in a changing and complex social environment (McCoy, 2011). Consequently, there is a need for the rituals that activate and apply the wisdom of the elders. The wisdom is required to provide knowledge on issues that faced the African-American community in the historical American world.

Part II: An Emic Overview of another Culture: A Case Study of Cancer Patient’s in Kenya

Lehman, Fenza, and Hollinger-Smith (2012) discuss the significance of respecting the culture and religious identity of patients. Lehman et al. (2012) observe that without such considerations, it is difficult to deliver healthcare that is beneficial to members of the community. Nordstrom, Coff, Jonsson, Nordenfelt, and Gorman (2013) add that the diet provided to the patients is also heavily influenced by their cultural orientation. Consequently, it is important for healthcare providers to understand the culture of the patients they are dealing with. The understanding is especially important when one is taking care of patients from a cultural background that is different from that of the caregivers. The notion is emphasized by Mulemi (2008) in their discussion of the need to appreciate the limitations and needs of cancer patients coming from poor backgrounds. The articles by Lehman et al. (2012), Nordstrom et al. (2013), and Mulemi (2008) highlight the importance of understanding the patient’s cultural orientation. Such understanding helps in the delivery of beneficial healthcare services.

It is necessary to re-examine the biases associated with the analysis of cultural practices that are exogenous to the anthropologist. It is important to acquire information on the cultures of such groups as minorities. To this end, the anthropologist should be able to understand and appreciate the beliefs of these groups with regard to how they approach treatment (Lehman et al., 2012). Some of the cultural issues that should be taken into consideration include the patients’ cultural rituals. The rituals may include the peculiarities associated with their choice of diet. For example, in some societies, washing hands is regarded as a cultural ritual contributing to the success of the “intervention” (Nordstrom et al., 2013). Such practices may not be present in the culture of this author. As a consequence, it is necessary to deal with prejudices and biases in order to learn. In addition, it is important to avoid making judgments.

An examination of this author’s culture from the etic perspective would be subjective and difficult. The problem is that the author has been socialized from an emic perspective of my culture. For instance, Miner (1956) examines the Nacirema rituals to understand the outsider’s views on one’s culture. The findings made by Miner (1956) highlight the differences in cultural practices. To this end, some rituals may appear eccentric and queer. It is important for health professionals to understand such cultural practices. Such an understanding will help the professionals to create a link between their culture and that of other groups.

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The article on culture and healthcare uses the examples given by Mulemi (2008) in their study of patients’ perspectives on hospitalization. The article details the experiences of patients in a cancer ward in Kenya. The quoted resource is an example of the Kenyan scenario on how culture affects people’s views on the provision of healthcare. Mulemi (2008) investigates the opinions of adult patients with regards to their treatment, diagnosis, and overall outcomes. The report indicates that the country’s culture had an impact on the perceptions held by patients and caregivers. It is noted that most of the cancer patients were expecting a quick recovery. However, there were those who kept postponing the medical diagnosis and treatment due to delays in referrals to professional care (Mulemi, 2008). The patients shared their opinions and views on hospitalization. Their opinions were based on long periods of suffering, postponement of diagnosis and treatment, and poor socio-economic conditions. Most of the subjects were from economically challenged backgrounds. As such, they lacked access to economic resources. Consequently, they were not in a position to negotiate with the health professionals for their treatment and care.

According to Mulemi (2008), patients struggle with the management of cancer. In most cases, they resort to the use of what is referred to as traditional or indigenous remedies. Such remedies are combined with hospital treatment. Mulemi (2008) further observes that the understanding of the disease from the traditional perspective plays a significant part in treatment initiatives. Among some Kenyan communities, it is common for patients to view hospitalization as the pinnacle of their suffering. In some instances, the cause is attributed to sorcery and witchcraft. The patients lack an understanding of the cause of the disease. Their ignorance influences their perception of the efficacy of different medical procedures (Mulemi, 2008). As such, the perceived differences between hospitalization and alternative healthcare resources present a dilemma for the patients who view the available resources as complementary. There are cases where patients may discontinue hospital treatment in favor of alternative methods administered by traditional healers and witchdoctors.

From an etic perspective, the Kenyan situation presents a dilemma for those unfamiliar with beliefs on traditional medicine and the causes of illnesses, such as witchcraft and sorcery. The beliefs are not representative of the Kenyan population. However, they are practiced by some communities (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2016). Consequently, it is important to understand the patient’s point of view when suggesting alternative modes of treatment (Samovar et al., 2016).


The understanding of a community’s culture, including its associated rituals, is important when dealing with individuals from different social backgrounds. The comprehension is required in situations where medical intervention is required. In the course of writing this paper, the author was surprised to learn that the cause of disease in some communities may be attributed to witchcraft. Consequently, patients seek traditional medication. The reason is that some of them lack faith in modern medicine. Such a scenario was illustrated in the Kenyan case study.


Jackson, W. (2010). Memories of Mississippi: Growing up in the South. New York, NY: AuthorHouse.

Lehman, D., Fenza, P., & Hollinger-Smith, L. (2012). Diversity & cultural competency in health care settings. Web.

McCoy, R. (2011). African American elders, cultural traditions, and the family reunion. Generations, 3, 16-21.

Miller-Cribbs, J. (n.d). African-American family reunions: Directions for future research and practice. Web.

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Miner, H. (1956). Body ritual among Nacirema. American Anthropologist, 58(3), 503-507.

Mulemi, B. (2008). Patients’ perspectives on hospitalisation: Experiences from a cancer ward in Kenya. Anthropology & Medicine, 15(2), 117-131.

Nordstrom, K., Coff, C., Jonsson, H., Nordenfelt, L., & Gorman, U. (2013). Food and health: Individual, cultural, or scientific matters?. Genes & Nutrition, 8(4), 357-363.

Samovar, L., Porter, R., McDaniel, E., & Roy, C. (2016). Communication between cultures (9th ed.). New York, NY: Wadsworth Publishing.

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