The Difference Between the Emic and Etic Study Approach

The terms emic and etic refer to two different anthropological study approaches. The emic perspective strives to understand humans from an insider point-of-view, while the etic takes an objective outsider’s point-of-view.

Background The terms emic and etic were first used by the linguist Kenneth L. Pike in a study entitled Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, published in 1967. Emic was derived from the word “phonemic,” a term referring to the study of sound systems within language, particularly those sets of sounds that a native speaker of a particular language can distinguish. Etic comes from the word “phonetic,” a study of the overall organization of sound within all languages without particular regard to their patterns. Emic and etic anthropological study methods differ just as in phonemic and phonetic approaches to linguistic studies.

Emic Perspective Emic research is accomplished by procuring insider, or native, perspectives. It is a more objective approach in which the researcher will try to make sense of endemic customs and practices by observing or interviewing members of that culture. This bottom-up approach requires analysts to adopt a completely neutral outlook, with no expectations about what they will observe or what it will mean. It attempts to observe the cultural system as a working whole.

The emic approach is a popular method for newer topics, as researchers focus on actual data from local participants and the themes or patterns that develop therein, rather than depending upon long-standing theories. Researchers employing this method will conduct an in-depth long-term study of one or just a few settings.

In this method, scientists might study how gender roles develop within a particular culture, but without applying what they know about gender roles in other societies. The result may be a rich and diverse accumulation of individual case study data with a focus on how the insiders (or natives) viewed the differences in gender roles. Scientists might also study tattoo significance by collecting data on what the tattoos mean to individuals within the context of the cultural environment.

It is worth noting that a researcher’s preconceived beliefs and ideas make it impossible to use a purely emic approach for study, particularly if he or she is a member of the culture being studied.

Etic Perspective Etic research takes an arm’s-length approach in which context and populations can be examined across the board, allowing for the development of cross-cultural concepts. Researchers typically use existing theories that can be applied equally to other cultures, reapplying them to a new setting or population with the assumption that the theories are universal. Unlike the emic approach, etic research takes cultural data and attempts to fit it to accepted general causal models.

The analytical nature of the etic approach works well for brief observations of particular behaviors within a wide range of settings. Its goal is to focus on measurable data that can be compared to that from other cultural settings.

With this approach, a gender role study would more likely apply observed cultural data to previously recognized concepts of masculine and feminine. A study of cultural tattoos would similarly collect information about tattoos from a specific cultural environment and then try to determine meaning based on tattoo theories established from studies of other cultures.

Since it is based on former research, this method can discourage new concepts.