Etic vs emic as adaptive measures to climate change: The rat as a misguided friend

Sarah Casson, MEM 20151


The rat ceremony performed by farmers in villages throughout East Flores, Indonesia, provides an example of an emic approach to climate change adaptation—one drawing insight from the perspective of the farmers themselves. The alternative, etic, approach, although heavily critiqued by practitioners and theorists, is often prioritized over emic ones, and typically employs quantitative measurements of livelihoods to understand how best to create resiliency in communities vulnerable to the challenges presented by climate change. The rat ceremony demonstrates a way in which community resiliency is strengthened by supporting an already existing community ceremony that emphasizes two essential tenets: community solidarity and coexistence with nature. Both tenets directly promote community resiliency. An explicit emphasis on emic approaches to climate change challenges could help re-define how adaptation is understood and supported within vulnerable communities such as rural villages.

Upacara Tikus yang diselenggarakan oleh para petani di sejumlah desa di Flores Timur, Indonesia, merupakan sebuah contoh pendekatan emic untuk adaptasi perubahan iklim — sebuah gambaran dari perspektif petani sendiri. Pendekatan alternatif, yaitu etic, meskipun sangat dikritisi oleh para praktisi dan ahli teori, sering menjadi prioritas ketimbang Pendekatan Emic, dan biasanya menggunakan pengukuran kuantitatif penghidupan dalam memahami cara terbaik untuk menciptakan ketahanan masyarakat yang rentan terhadap tantangan perubahan iklim. Upacara Tikus menunjukkan sebuah cara di mana ketahanan masyarakat diperkuat oleh upacara adat yang sudah ada yang menekankan dua prinsip penting: solidaritas masyarakat dan hidup berdampingan dengan alam. Kedua prinsip tersebut secara langsung mempromosikan ketahanan masyarakat. Penekanan yang tegas terhadap penggunaan pendekatan emic dalam menghadapi tantangan perubahan iklim dapat membantu perumusan kembali bagaimana adaptasi dipahami dan didukung oleh masyarakat yang rentan seperti masyarakat pedesaan.


Much social science development theory addresses important tenets of climate change impacts on agricultural communities and how the international community might respond (Blaikie 1985, Escobar 1995). These theorists call for a questioning of the development discourse, for including the larger social economy within projects’ analyses, and for current power relations to be questioned. Many studies have examined the cultural, political, and economic connections between Indian society and monsoons (Fein & Stephens 1987). Yet, there is little research on similar relationships in Indonesia. Instead, within Indonesia, there is much on the history and social life of many cultures (Allerton 2003; Barnes 1974, Barnes & Barnes 1989, Bubandt 2004, Erb 1997, Forth 1993, Fox 1980, Fox 2011, Hägerdal 2010).

Climate change adaptation approaches often prioritize etic perspectives over emic ones. Quantitative measurements of externally validated variables (i.e., an etic approach) are commonplace within adaptation projects. Yet, such approaches within development have been heavily criticized because of their lack of nuance. Much social science research that examines Indonesian communities’ strategies to deal with climate change do so in an etic manner by measuring the successfulness of farmers’ agricultural methods (Fujisaka et al. 1993; Keil et al. 2008, Stinter 2008). Other studies (Zimmerman 1987, Garay-Barayazarra & Puri 2011) approach the monsoon-community relationship in an emic manner, emphasizing local cultural knowledge, situating their research in cultural intangibles. Such research emphasizes the importance of understanding emic perceptions of the Australian-Indonesian monsoon in the creation of adaptation strategies to climate change.

The rat ceremony performed in villages throughout East Flores, Indonesia provides an example of re-analyzing nature-culture relationships within climate change adaptation. While the national-level Indonesian government has a vested interest in maintaining control of the rat population through pesticides and defining rats as pests, the rat ceremony proposes a worldview that sees rats as misguided friends, not enemies. This emic re-adjustment could drastically alter climate change adaptation policies for the better. An etic approach would be to continue heavy pesticide use; an emic approach would incorporate the rat ceremony and understand the multiple benefits it brings to the communities employing it.

Garay-Barayazarra and Puri (2011) researched how local cultural knowledge can be utilized in adaptation strategies for climate vulnerability. Garay-Barayazarra and Puri (2011) situated their research at the local level to understand indigenous Badeng communities’ perceptions of the monsoon and cultural intangibles. In doing so, they focused on specific aspects of perceptions of monsoons (relationship to ayurvedic medicine and sensory knowledge, respectively) within individual communities. Garay-Barayazarra and Puri (2011) encouraged the use of ethnographic and participant observation research methods to better understand how communities understand weather patterns in non-explicit ways. An adaptation strategy to climate vulnerabilities that only concerned itself with natural science weather forecasting but ignored the Badeng’s conceptualization of their environment would fail. The authors state, for the Badeng, “direct bodily senses, rather than the inanimate instruments and computer models of modern scientific forecasting, are the avenues through which people come to experience and therefore know and predict manifestations of their local weather” (Garay-Barayazarra & Puri 2011:21). The Badeng view the world as deeply dynamic and connected to an individual agent’s actions. They use that view to schedule daily agricultural activities as well as manage during times of extreme climate vulnerabilities, such as past mega-droughts. Such knowledge could provide a way forward to continued community resilience in light of climate change, especially when used to examine the concept of pests.

Criticism of etic approaches to climate change adaptation

Many research studies have proved the usefulness of such an approach. For example, Stigter et al. (2005) demonstrated the importance of including traditional methods and indigenous technology within resiliency projects focused on meteorological variability. Kehi and Palmer (2012) showed the importance of understanding cultural traditions concerning water. Ellen (2006) examined the relationship between the cultural significance of the sago palm and crop management systems. Similar studies have explained why states do not take such an emic-centric approach in their development practices. Just as anthropologists have studied village-level peasant conceptualizations of nature and culture, Dove (1986) showed that anthropologists can do the same to understand how the state views itself in relation to the environment. In particular, the preservation of state-sanctioned environmental programs is often influenced by and has influence on state knowledge of non-crop unwanted plants—weeds. He argued that the preservation of state-sanctioned environmental programs is influenced and influences state knowledge of weeds.

The same argument Dove (1986) makes about weeds can be made about rats in eastern Indonesia. The Indonesian government’s perception of rats misaligns with the local community’s understanding of rats. Such a misalignment may reflect a larger rift. As Dove (1992) argues, in Pakistan the etymological transformation of the term “jangal” from “savannah” to “forest waste” reflects a larger shift in physical and cultural values that have resulted from a “dialectical relationship between nature and culture” (1992:231). The Indonesian government’s defining of rats as pests is an intentional move towards separating nature and culture. As the Indonesian government strives for modernity, it desires Indonesian culture to represent the modernity of the inner islands, not the traditional heritage of the outer islands such as East Flores.

An example of an emic approach to climate change adaptation

It is the national Indonesian government, not the local agricultural department in the outer islands like Flores that promote the use of pesticides. While the local East Flores agricultural department offers farmers the option of pesticides (for free), officials prefer if farmers choose the so-called “cultural” option. This option entails a rat ceremony performed by the elders of an individual village.

As an agricultural department official stated, “This special ceremony sends the rats back to where they belong—the sea—and is the most successful approach to clearing rats from agricultural fields. In my experience, the ceremony guarantees that rats will not return to a field for at least five years. If pesticides are used [instead of the ceremony], the rats will return next year with anger.” Another official clarified this quote by stating, “The rat can be both enemy and friend. One must ask the rats nicely to return to their home in the sea by conducting the ceremony. One must be polite to the rats. Using pesticides is not polite to the rats.” According to most farmers in East Flores, a long-standing relationship between farmers and rats exists and must be respected.

Why is this relationship so? Rats hold an important place within the culture of East Flores, Indonesia. Most believe that today’s rats are descendants of ancient rats that aided the farmers’ ancestors in a time of crisis. As one farmer explained, “We cannot hurt the rats, even when they disturb our fields because they showed my ancestors the way to this land when they had to move from their original homeland many years ago. A big storm destroyed the original homeland, and so my ancestors’ needed a new one. The rats were the navigators in the boats my ancestors took to come here because they are of the sea and know the sea.” From an emic perspective, today’s rats, therefore, do not represent random pests attacking agriculture but rather misguided old friends. Performing the rat ceremony allows farmers a favorable, restorative role—to navigate the rats back to their homelands just as rats once directed the farmers’ ancestors to their homeland in East Flores. Berkes, Colding and Folke (2000) demonstrate similar uses of traditional ecological knowledge in climate change adaptation strategies.

To direct the rats a three-step ceremony is performed: sacrifice, procession, and forest mixture. A farmer explained the first step: “The rat ceremony starts with the sacrifice of a pig. Other ceremonies can sacrifice different animals but for the rat ceremony, it must be a pig.” The sacrifice must follow strict guidelines. Village elders from the four major clans must perform certain rites and position themselves around the pig as it is being sacrificed. These rites and positioning reflect the clans’ role within the village. The second step of the ceremony involves a village member carving a rat statue about 6 inches in height and a canoe about a foot in length. The rat statue is put inside the canoe. The elders, along with the entire village, accompany the canoe from the agricultural fields down to the sea in a long procession. At the sea, the elders recite prayers asking the rats not to return to the fields and the canoe with rat statue inside is left to drift out to sea. When the elders return to the village, they go into the forest to collect special leaves and roots only known to the elders. These forest goods are mixed with water and brought to the agricultural fields. There the elders recite prayers and spread the mixture onto all the fields using palm leaves to sprinkle the liquid. Such forest mixture provides food for the spirits of the fields, ensuring a healthy (and rat-free) agricultural plot.

Farmers must wait three to six days, depending on the elders’ decree, before returning to their fields. As one farmer said, “We must not return at all to our fields during that time. I have used that time in the past do to work around my house or to go fishing. When the elders say we farmers may return to the fields, there are no more rats. The rats are happily back in the sea and I am happily back in my field with crops still alive to feed my family with.” All farmers reported the same thing, as did the local East Flores agriculture department officials: when done properly, the rat ceremony always works to rid fields of rats in way acceptable to both rats and farmers.

This ceremony is usually performed in February or March because as one farmer explained “Rats appear when the big rains have ended and there is no rain to deter the rats but lots of good corn and rice for them to eat.” An agricultural department officer agrees: “The appearance of rats in fields directly relates to rainfall and the intensity of rainfall. Rats become especially present if there are periods of a lot of rain and severe periods of no rain.” From these accounts, there appears to be a close relationship between the behavior of the monsoon and the performance of the rat ceremony.

Similar to the differing perceptions surrounding the rat ceremony in East Flores, the lack of clarity within the practice of augury (interpreting omens from observing the flight of birds) in Borneo shows the ways in which nature and culture are understood and the relationship between the two are conceptualized. Dove (1996) argues that “augury is less a projection on to the environment of what society thinks about itself than a reflection (and operationalization) of what society has learned about its environment and about the relationship between itself and its environment” (559). Inner islanders view rats as pests; outer islanders see rats as something not to be eradicated but rather re-directed. They represent misguided friends, not pests. Rats are matter out of place. To the local community, rats belong in the sea, not the fields. The mistake rats make by living in fields (and thus eating all the crops) is something to be gently corrected through ritual, not a harsh chemical warfare through pesticide. In the end, what matters is a stronger inter-community relationship that views humanity and nature in coexistence.


Seeing the rat ceremony as a potential adaptation strategy to climate change proves a useful example of an emic understanding. When performed, the rat ceremony emphasizes two main principles: community solidarity and coexistence with nature. The rat ceremony is said to only work when the community is of “one mind and one heart.” Community solidarity, instead of pest control, becomes the focus of the climate change adaptation. Rather than attacking nature through heavy pesticide use, the rat ceremony provides a different narrative to the human-nature relationship. Rats are friends of the farmers that must be guided back to their homeland in the sea through polite requests and prayers. Community solidarity helps to ensure a community’s resiliency to the problems created by climate change.

An etic approach would likely ignore intricate social dynamics that are of rapidly shifting form and thus miss major tenets to a community’s own adaptations to climate change and social change. Incorporating local cultural conceptions of what constitutes solutions to problems created by climate change can be effective. An emic understanding of place provides in-depth context to a pest problem. An etic approach often just calls for increase in stronger pesticides, which presents possible health risks to a community and potentially removes an important reason to bring the community together on a regular basis.

Ensuring community resilience is an essential tenet of climate change adaptation (Adger et al. 2012, Berkes 2007, Folke et al. 2010, Folke et al. 2002). The coming shifts presented by climate change are unknown and unpredictable. What is known is that rural communities dependent upon small-scale agriculture are particularly vulnerable to disintegration of community cohesion. Community resiliency provides at least some stability in a time of great changes (Adger et al. 2012, Nelson, Adger & Brown 2007). Practices like the rat ceremony do just that. The ceremony provides an emphasis on working with other community members in harmony with nature that is essential to withstanding the challenges presented by climate change. The rat ceremony should stand as an example of other possible definitions of climate change adaptations. Instead of solely etic, top-down approaches, climate change adaptations could build upon existing social practices by explicitly taking an emic understanding of problems created by climate change and help communities to adapt from within.


The author would like to thank Michael Dove, Karen Hebert, Ruth Barnes and Robert Barnes for their advice on this research. The author is grateful for funding from the Tropical Resources Institute, Council on Southeast Asia Studies, Carpenter-Sperry Research Fund and Charles Kao Research Fund.


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  1. Sarah Casson is obtaining a Masters in Environmental Science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Her research examines how communities in East Flores, Indonesia adapt to social, economic and ecological volatility produced by shifting monsoons in a changing climate. She also holds a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College