Derived from anthropological research, emic and etic describe two broad approaches to analyzing language and culture. The emic–etic duality has influenced the ways in which fields as diverse as personality psychology, consumer behavior, organizational science, and intercultural communication study cultural systems. The terms also refer to distinctive research strategies, particularly in the context of ethnographic fieldwork.
Emic and etic were coined by the linguistic anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike (1954). Pike’s intent was to apply the principles of structural linguistics to the problem of how and why language usage varies within and across cultures. The term emics – adapted from phonemics – conveys the idea that only members of a culture possess valid knowledge of their own language usage. As Pike defined it, an emic unit is any physical or mental item regarded as meaningful, real, accurate, appropriate, coherent, or relevant by the culture members themselves. Thus, the emic approach to research always starts from the “inside” of a culture. By studying the accounts, explanations, and social action that are meaningful to a group of people, researchers can better understand how symbolic communication varies from one situation to the next. A valid emic account is one that matches the consensus view of native informants. Emic accounts often require the stance of verstehen, and are typically idiographic in scope.
In contrast, the term etics – adapted from phonetics – refers to concepts and descriptive systems that belong to a community of analysts. Etic units express the scientific observer’s perspective on a phenomenon, and are often thought to be valid in any culture where they are applied. Following from this logic, etic concepts, such as “uncertainty avoidance” or the value orientation of “individualism–collectivism,” can be used to compare, classify, and explain behavior or attitudes across many different groups. The members of a culture need not agree with, nor even understand, an etic concept. Rather, a valid etic explanation is one that satisfies certain scientific criteria, such as falsifiability, replicability, and logical consistency.
In communication studies, emic and etic are referenced most often in sub-fields that focus on language use and cross-cultural communication (Sigman 1987). Due in part to its affiliation with sociolinguistics, the ethnography of speech has a long tradition of applying the concepts. For example, Philipsen (1975) used an emic approach to study what it means to “speak like a man” in one urban neighborhood. Scholars of ethnic and cross-cultural communication also employ emicand etic-related concepts to theorize about cultural codes (Gudykunst 1997). For example, Edward Hall’s (1976) low-context/high-context message scheme is often used in etic fashion to compare communication styles across cultures.
The concepts also appear frequently in discussions of the appropriate methods to use for studying culture. According to Pike (quoted in Kaye 1994, 296), the emic/etic distinction “insists on the relationship of the observer to the data, as against an abstract science in which the observer is somehow eliminated in principle even when this would be impossible in fact”. Emic research tends to focus on a single case (or single culture), in which investigator and subjects engage interactively. Participant observation and semi-structured interviews are two of the most popular fieldwork techniques used to study emic constructs. Some ethnographic practices, such as member validation (or member check), rely heavily on the elicitation of emic accounts. Etic research, on the other hand, stresses data gathering across multiple cases or social systems. Etic data are often collected by means of tests, measures, scales, and other instruments that can be standardized and easily replicated. However, even in qualitative field research, etic concepts can be used strategically for formulating hypotheses or propositions.
Among the problems cited for the exclusive use of emic data is that they can leave the researcher immersed in the native language, unable to move up to the analytical plane. In addition, people are not always fully aware of the emic codes of their own culture. Therefore, any explanations they give of these items might be erroneous. Etic data have been criticized for being little more than the emics of observers. That is, an etic construct could simply describe the “insider” perspective of a scientific culture. In a related critique, the points of comparison gained from etic analysis may come at the cost of severe understatements of cultural difference.
Most contemporary researchers no longer view the terms as opposed or incompatible. In fact, it is now typical for the concepts to be discussed as symbiotic (Berry 1999; Headland et al. 1990; Helfrich 1999). The emic perspective alerts researchers to the “first-order” (indigenous) constructs of a culture or group, which can then be used in deriving the “second-order” constructs of a scientific community. Deployed together in research, each concept has the potential to compensate for the shortcomings of the other.
- Berry, J. W. (1999). Emics and etics: A symbiotic conception. Culture and Psychology, 5, 165 – 171.
- Gudykunst, W. B. (1997). Cultural variability in communication: An introduction. Communication Research, 24, 327–348.
- Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, NJ: Anchor.
- Headland, T. N., Pike, K. L., & Harris, M. (eds.) (1990). Emics and etics: The insider–outsider debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Helfrich, H. (1999). Beyond the dilemma of cross-cultural psychology: Resolving the tension between etic and emic approaches. Culture and Psychology, 5, 131–153.
- Kaye, A. S. (1994). An interview with Kenneth Pike. Current Anthropology, 35, 291–298.
- Pelto, P. J., & Pelto, G. H. (1978). Anthropological research: The structure of inquiry, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Philipsen, G. (1975). Speaking “like a man” in Teamsterville: Culture patterns of role enactment in an urban neighborhood. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 61, 13 –22.
- Pike, K. L. (1954). Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior, vol. 1. Glendale, CA: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
- Sigman, S. J. (1987). A perspective on social communication. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.
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