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

Emic and etic are terms used by anthropologists and by others in the social and behavioral sciences to refer to two kinds of data concerning human behavior. In particular, they are used in cultural anthropology to refer to kinds of fieldwork done and viewpoints obtained.[1]

"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]

  • An 'emic' account is a description of behavior or a belief in terms meaningful (consciously or unconsciously) to the actor; that is, an emic account comes from a person within the culture. Almost anything from within a culture can provide an emic account.
  • An 'etic' account is a description of a behavior or belief by a social analyst or scientific observer (a student or scholar of anthropology or sociology, for example), in terms that can be applied across cultures; that is, an etic account attempts to be 'culturally neutral', limiting any ethnocentric, political, and/or Western bias or alienation by the observer. 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 one aspect of one culture and 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]

Additionally, 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 another 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

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. Below are three different studies using an etic approach.

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

  • This book found that one of the reasons it is hard to determine whom to trust from another culture is that to determine trustworthiness, human beings rely on signals and cues from the other person. These signals and cues are often shaped by one’s culture; however, two different cultures probably emphasize and respond to different signals and cues, making it difficult to discern if this person from another culture is trustworthy by your culture’s standards. The authors of this book describe trust as: “a psychological state of accepting vulnerability toward the other party based on positive expectations regarding its behavior” (Saunders, Skinner, Dietz, Gillespie & Lewicki, 2012). The authors then define culture as: “a set of basic assumptions manifested in values, beliefs, and norms of social behaviors” (Saunders, Skinner, Dietz, Gillespie & Lewicki, 2012).
  • While studying what characteristics make up “trust,” Ferrin and Gillespie found that “ability, benevolence, and integrity” were rated as universal qualities of a trustworthy person (Saunders, Skinner, Dietz, Gillespie & Lewicki, 2012).
  • One strong example of the difference in trust building between two cultures is the contrast between traders in Nigeria and Ghana. In Nigeria, traders will come to trust one another by inviting fellow traders to stay in one’s home and get to know his family members. In Ghana, traders develop trust by going to church and funerals together. This example proves that benevolence and integrity are universal; both are proven through the different rituals, but it is in how these qualities are established that varies across the cultures.

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

  • This study studied 21 different cultural groups in order to gain a sense of how culture affects how people pursue and reach feelings of “distinctiveness.” The research found that in individualistic cultures, like the United States, “distinctiveness” is associated with “difference and separateness,” while in collectivist cultures it is associated with “social position” (Becker, Vignoles, Owe, Brown, Smith & Easterbrook, 2012). Carefully assessing all results, researches found that it is in fact due to a person’s surrounding environment (“context”) and the inherent beliefs and values of that environment that influence the differences between definitions of “distinctiveness” in individualistic and collectivist societies.
  • The study identified “distinctiveness” as an “identity motive” (Becker, Vignoles, Owe, Brown, Smith & Easterbrook, 2012). Motivated identity construction theory states that, “identity is constructed through a complex interplay of cognitive, affective, and social interactions processes, all of which occur within particular cultural and local meaning systems” (Becker, Vignoles, Owe, Brown, Smith & Easterbrook, 2012). According to this definition, identity is completely defined by where an individual is developing that identity.
  • Overall, a universal constant was that people tended to positively identify characteristics that identified them from other individuals. The study proved that, from the cultures studied, all people do strive to attain a level of “distinctiveness” from their peers; the difference among the cultures is in how this separateness is reached. To compare and contrast, the etic study described here found that across cultures, how we distinguish ourselves from others differs. An emic study to follow could see how people within one culture define themselves differently or the in the same ways.

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

  • This study studied three different cultures to find the similarities in celebratory food preparation. The researchers believed that while the practices may be different, the underlying purposes and ideals would be comparative. The study focused on how older women with three different cultures: Thailand, New Zealand, and the United States, prepared celebratory food and meals.
  • In order to keep their study valid and nonbiased, the researchers developed teams to investigate each culture that were varied in ethnicity themselves so that there would not be a “Western bias” in the findings and results (Shordike, Hocking, Pierce, Wright-St. Clair, Vittayakorn, Rattakorn & Bunrayong, 2010). The study concluded that there were definitely some general themes spanning the three cultures; for example, all three cultures supported a woman’s leadership role in the food preparation, all cultures had a complex and diverse way of creating and cooking the food, and each culture’s food had a special significance for the holiday it was being served for (Shordike, Hocking, Pierce, Wright-St. Clair, Vittayakorn, Rattakorn & Bunrayong, 2010).
  • Etic studies can study any aspect of life that occurs in different cultures and note the similarities and differences for research.

Examples of emic case studies

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

  • The study, conducted by Eva Monterrossa and her team, focused on using an emic framework to explain maternal knowledge and conceptualizing what behaviors mothers in Morelos, Mexico used to most efficiently nourish their children. The study defined eight different concepts which were “1) probaditas (the idea of introducing small tastes of foods), (2) preparing separate foods for infants, (3) readiness to eat solid foods, (4) appropriate consistency, (5) the value of variety, (6) child likes and dislikes, (7) money and food costs, and (8) healthiness of foods (positive and negative foods) (Monterrossa).” The study “constructed an emic framework to show how maternal knowledge guides meaningful behavior and the relationships among the concepts, and how lived social realities influence complementary feeding. This study found that maternal knowledge was different culturally and it was hard to define a universal way that mothers interact with their children’s eating habits and preferences. For example, most of the women in Morelos cooked all the food for the children from scratch, while in the United States, many mothers purchase pre-cooked meals or use pre-packaged food for their children.[15]

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

  • Another study by Yan Sun and Su Li looked at the intertemporal choices that Chinese participants made. According to the study, intertemporal choices were defined as “a CHOICE between alternatives that differ in size and time to delivery. Many decisions that individuals and organizations make in the real world depend on a trade-off between immediate pleasure and later benefits.” (Sun) For example, the study states that people in American and Western cultures “do not attach much importance to saving money and that some individuals even use credit card debt to maintain consumption.” The results of the study stated that, “In contrast, many Chinese are accustomed to saving at least some portion of money.” This emic focused study shows what an impact culture has on influencing certain behaviors in people. People in different cultures are brought up in different ways that control their behaviors and decisions. “In the famous classic Aesop fable, the grasshopper, who luxuriated during the warm summer, is often regarded as a “bad guy” by many Chinese children, whereas the ant, who stored food for the upcoming winter, is categorized as a “good guy.” This study shows through an emic perspective that the Chinese culture emphasizes saving behaviors while American and Western cultures do not emphasize the same behaviors. (Sun) [16]

Importance as regards personality

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

Work and Family: An International Research Perspective

  • This collection of studies and information tackles the disparity between men and women in the workplace in various cultures. The research finds that universally, creating equality between men and women in the work place will lead to better results and better working environments for all.[19]

Cross-Cultural Psychiatry:

  • This piece of work studies mental health care and how it must vary, in order to be effective, among cultures. For example, Chinese families try to handle illness on their own before seeking outside help. Chinese families will keep the sick individual in the home as long as possible and see it as a failure if they have to resort to sending the family member to a hospital. On the other hand, Japanese families value health; therefore, a sick individual would be quarantined and sent away so as not to infect the rest of the family or put a blemish on the name (Gaw, 1982).[20]

Socioemotional Development in Cultural Context:

  • This piece of work studies children’s emotional attachments and developments across cultures. One finding showed that Italian mothers will focus on bringing the child into the family life – keeping the child up with the family until he or she falls asleep and waking him or her up from a nap to join in with family meals. On the other hand, Parisian mothers’ main goal is to achieve a “proper presentation” of the child; i.e., “cleanliness, good manners, and emotional self-regulation” (Chen & Rubin, 2011). Mothers around the world have different primary goals for their children, but universally, most mothers reach their expectations by loving and protecting the child.[21]

See also

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


Further reading

External links

  • , vol 2, by Kenneth Pike (published in 1954 by Summer Institute of Linguistics)
  • Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, edited by Thomas Headland, Kenneth Pike, and Marvin Harris (published in 1990 by Sage Publications)
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