Emic and etic

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Emic and etic are terms used by anthropologists and by others in the social and behavioral sciences to refer to two different 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]

  • 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 an observer, in terms that can be applied to other cultures; that is, an etic account attempts to be 'culturally neutral'.

The terms were first introduced 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 than 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. Nevertheless, some researchers use "etic" to refer to objective or outsider accounts, and "emic" to refer to subjective or insider accounts.[2]

Some political scientists use the term etically to describe "operations," and emic to describe "practices."[citation needed]


Further reading

  • Creswell, J. W. (1998), Qualitative Enquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Traditions, London, UK: Sage. 
  • Goodenough, Ward (1970), "Describing a Culture", Description and Comparison in Cultural Anthropology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press): pp. 104–119, ISBN 978-0-202-30861-6. 
  • Harris, Marvin (1976), "History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction", Annual Review of Anthropology 5: 329–350. 
  • Harris, Marvin (1980), "Chapter Two: The Epistemology of Cultural Materialism", Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (New York, NY, USA: Random House): pp. 29–45, ISBN 978-0-7591-0134-0. 
  • Headland, Thomas; Pike, Kenneth; Harris, Marvin (eds) (1990), Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, Sage. 
  • Jahoda, G. (1977), "In Pursuit of the Emic-Etic Distinction: Can We Ever Capture It?", Basic Problems in Cross-Cultural Psychology (Y.J. Poortinga, ed.): pp. 55–63. 
  • Kitayama, Shinobu; Cohen, Dov (2007), Handbook of Cultural Psychology, New York, NY, USA: Guilford Press. 
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987), Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate, ISBN 978-0-691-02714-2. 
  • Pike, Kenneth Lee (ed.) (1967), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Structure of Human Behavior (2nd ed.), The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton. 

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