Emic and etic

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This article is about the anthropological terms. For emic and etic concepts in linguistics, see emic unit.

Emic and etic, in anthropology, folkloristics, and the social and behavioral sciences, refer to two kinds of field research done and viewpoints obtained;[1] from within the social group (from the perspective of the subject) and from outside (from the perspective of the observer).


"The emic approach investigates how local people think" (Kottak, 2006): How they perceive and categorize the world, their rules for behavior, what has meaning for them, and how they imagine and explain things. "The etic (scientist-oriented) approach shifts the focus from local observations, categories, explanations, and interpretations to those of the anthropologist. The etic approach realizes that members of a culture often are too involved in what they are doing to interpret their cultures impartially. When using the etic approach, the ethnographer emphasizes what he or she considers important."[2]

Although emics and etics are sometimes regarded as inherently in conflict and one can be preferred to the exclusion of the other, the complementarity of emic and etic approaches to anthropological research has been widely recognized, especially in the areas of interest concerning the characteristics of human nature as well as the form and function of human social systems.[3]

…Emic knowledge and interpretations are those existing within a culture, that are ‘determined by local custom, meaning, and belief’ (Ager and Loughry, 2004: n.p.) and best described by a 'native' of the culture. Etic knowledge refers to generalizations about human behavior that are considered universally true, and commonly links cultural practices to factors of interest to the researcher, such as economic or ecological conditions, that cultural insiders may not consider very relevant (Morris et al., 1999).

Emic and Etic approaches of understanding behavior and personality fall under the study of cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology states that people are shaped by their cultures and their subcultures, and we must account for this in the study of personality. One way is looking at things through an emic approach. This approach “is culture specific because it focuses on a single culture and it is understood on its own terms.” As explained below, the term “emic” originated from the specific linguistic term “phonemic”, from phoneme, which is a language-specific way of abstracting speech sounds. (Friedman) (Akane) [4][5]

When these two approaches are combined, the “richest” view of a culture or society can be understood. On its own, an emic approach would struggle with applying overarching values to a single culture. The etic approach is helpful in preventing researchers from seeing only one aspect of one culture and then applying it to cultures around the world.


The terms were coined in 1954 by linguist Kenneth Pike, who argued that the tools developed for describing linguistic behaviors could be adapted to the description of any human social behavior. As Pike noted, social scientists have long debated whether their knowledge is objective or subjective. Pike's innovation was to turn away from an epistemological debate, and turn instead to a methodological solution. Emic and etic are derived from the linguistic terms phonemic and phonetic respectively, which are in turn derived from Greek roots. The possibility of a truly objective description was discounted by Pike himself in his original work; he proposed the emic/etic dichotomy in anthropology as a way around philosophic issues about the very nature of objectivity.

The terms were also championed by anthropologists Ward Goodenough and Marvin Harris with slightly different connotations from those used by Pike. Goodenough was primarily interested in understanding the culturally specific meaning of specific beliefs and practices; Harris was primarily interested in explaining human behavior.

Pike, Harris, and others have argued that cultural "insiders" and "outsiders" are equally capable of producing emic and etic accounts of their culture. Some researchers use "etic" to refer to objective or outsider accounts, and "emic" to refer to subjective or insider accounts.[6]

Margaret Mead was a scientist who studied the patterns of adolescence in Samoa. She discovered that the difficulties and the transitions that adolescents faced are culturally influenced. The hormones that are released during puberty can be defined using an etic framework, because adolescents globally have the same hormones being secreted. However, Mead concluded that how adolescents respond to these hormones is greatly influenced by their cultural norms. Through her studies, Mead found that simple classifications about behaviors and personality could not be used because peoples’ cultures influenced their behaviors in such a radical way. Her studies helped create an emic approach of understanding behaviors and personality. Her research deduced that culture has a significant impact in shaping an individual’s personality. (Friedman) [7] [8]

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst, is a researcher who took an etic approach in his studies. Jung studied mythology, religion, ancient rituals, and dreams leading him to believe that there are archetypes used to categorize people’s behaviors. Archetypes are universal structures of the collective unconscious that refer to the inherent way people are predisposed to perceive and process information. The main archetypes [9] that Jung studied were the persona (how people choose to present themselves to the world), the animus/ anima (part of people experiencing the world in viewing the opposite sex, that guides how they select their romantic partner), and the shadow (dark side of personalities because people have a concept of evil. Well-adjusted people must integrate both good and bad parts of themselves). Jung looked at the role of the mother and deduced that all people have mothers and see their mothers in a similar way; they offer nurture and comfort. His studies also suggest that “infants have evolved to suck milk from the breast, it is also the case that all children have inborn tendencies to react in certain ways.” This way of looking at the mother is an etic way of applying a concept cross- culturally and universally.[10]

Examples of etic case studies[edit]

Etic studies, as mentioned, are ones that study one characteristic across various cultures. These studies can give researchers an idea of how an idea, like the importance of family, is valued in different cultures around the world. This is not to say, however, that emic research cannot be conducted in a cross-cultural context The test of whether these are etic or emic concepts resides in their logic-empirical relationship to the cognitive processes. If the verifiability of an ethnographic statement involves a confrontation with cognitive adequacy or appropriateness, then we are dealing with emic categories, no matter how many cultures contribute to that confrontation. (See Harris 1968 at 577). Below are three different studies using an etic approach.

Study #1: How the Idea of Trust Varies Across Cultures (a book review) [11]

Study #2: How the Development of a Distinctive Identity Varies Across Cultures [12][13]

Study #3: How Celebratory Food Preparation Varies Across Cultures [14]

Examples of emic case studies[edit]

Emic studies, as mentioned, are ones that study the effects an individual's culture has on their personality and their behaviors. These studies can give researchers an idea of how culture is central in determining how one acts. Below are two different studies using an emic approach.

Study #1: Constructing Maternal Knowledge Frameworks; How Mothers Conceptualize Complementary Feeding

Study #2: Testing the Effect of Risk on Intertemporal Choice in the Chinese Cultural Context

Importance as regards personality[edit]

Emic and etic approaches are important to understanding personality because problems can arise “when concepts, measures, and methods are carelessly transferred to other cultures in attempts to make cross- cultural generalizations about personality.” It is hard to apply certain generalizations of behavior to people who are so diverse and culturally different. One example of this is the F-scale (Macleod).[17] The F-scale, which was created by Theodor Adorno, is used to measure Authoritarian Personality, which can, in turn, be used to predict prejudiced behaviors. This test, when applied to Americans accurately depicts prejudices towards black individuals. However, when a study was conducted in South Africa using the F-Scale, (Pettigrew and Friedman) [18] results did not predict any anti-Black prejudices. This study used emic approaches of study by conducting interview with the locals and etic approaches by giving participants generalized personality tests.

Secondary sources[edit]

Work and Family: An International Research Perspective

Cross-Cultural Psychiatry:

Socioemotional Development in Cultural Context:

See also[edit]

Other explorations of the differences between reality and humans' models of it:


  1. ^ EE intro, SIL 
  2. ^ Kottak, Conrad (2006). Mirror for Humanity, p. 47. McGraw-Hill, New York. ISBN 978-0-07-803490-9.
  3. ^ Jingfeng, Xia (2013). An Anthropological Emic-Etic Perspective On Open Access Practices Academic Search Premier.
  4. ^ Friedman, Howard S; Schustack, Miriam W (2012), Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research (print), Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon .
  5. ^ Akane (Oct 2011), Using one or more examples explain emic & etic concepts, CN: SIS .
  6. ^ http://www.sil.org/~headlandt/ee-intro.htm
  7. ^ http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-sepik.html
  8. ^ Friedman, Howard S., and Miriam W. Schustack. Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2012. Print.
  9. ^ http://psychology.about.com/od/personalitydevelopment/tp/archetypes.htm
  10. ^ Friedman, Howard S., and Miriam W. Schustack. Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2012. Print.
  11. ^ http://oss.sagepub.com.proxy.bc.edu/content/33/7/973.full.pdf+html
  12. ^ http://psycnet.apa.org.proxy.bc.edu/journals/psp/102/4/833.pdf
  13. ^ Becker, M., & et, A. (2012). Culture and the distinctiveness motive: Constructing identity in individualistic and collectivist contexts. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(4), 833-855.
  14. ^ http://qrj.sagepub.com.proxy.bc.edu/content/10/3/333.full.pdf+html
  15. ^ Eva C. Monterrosaa, b, , , Gretel H. Peltoa, Edward A. Frongillob, Kathleen M. Rasmussena (2012): How mothers conceptualize complementary feeding, Department of Health Promotion, Volume 59, Issue 2, October 2012, Pages 377–384
  16. ^ Yan Sun & Shu Li (2011): Testing the Effect of Risk on Intertemporal Choice in the Chinese Cultural Context, The Journal of Social Psychology, 151:4, 517-522
  17. ^ http://www.simplypsychology.org/authoritarian-personality.html
  18. ^ Friedman, Howard S., and Miriam W. Schustack. Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2012. Print.
  19. ^ Poelmans, S. (2005). Work and family: An international research perspective. Taylor & Francis Group.
  20. ^ Herrera , J., Lawson, W., & Sramek, J. (1999). Cross cultural psychiatry. Wiley-Blackwell.
  21. ^ Chen , X., & Rubin, K. (2011). Socioemotional development in cultural context. The Guilford Press.

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