Emic and etic

From ArticleWorld

The terms emic and etic are not exclusive to anthropology. Used by other fieldwork-oriented social sciences, as well as psychology and other behavioural sciences, the pair of terms is used to describe the point of view used by the writer or scientist to present the raw research material and the conclusions drawn from it. Emic refers to material presented using the terms and internal logic of the person or people being studied. Etic describes material presented from a 'universal' or 'neutral' or 'logical' point of view. While emic and etic work are both recognized as having valid methodological and ideological claims to truth-telling, the words in quotes are heavily contested claims.


First suggested by linguist Kenneth Pike, and used extensively, though in a conflicting manner by Marvin Harris, the words derive from phonemic and phonetic, and are analogies for kinds of point of view, rather than literal descriptions.

Neutrality vs immersion

A researcher who works with emic knowledge, will look into – and generally accept unproblematically – the rules, terms, reference points and logic of the person she is studying. Part of what she will convey to readers of her research is this internal system of logic of the group or person, and her conclusions will derive from that. The analogy to a phoneme is clear – in linguistics it denotes a meaningful unit of sound specific to a particular language.

An etic researcher will ask her informant questions based on her own perspective and concerns, which are often seen to be 'scientific', or 'universal'. Phonetics, which discusses sounds qua units of sound, rather than sounds in context, is a fitting theoretical analogy. The researcher will present an interpretation of her data that draws conclusions using external categories, valuations, and judgments. In the social sciences today claims of scientific methods, universalism, and neutrality are heavily contested.

A simple way of thinking about the distinction is this: an emic researcher will 'go native' to some extent, behaving, speaking, eating, and thinking like her subjects of study. An etic researcher will stay on the edges, assessing them on her own terms.