Emic and Etic Explained


Are you confused by the terms ’emic’ and ‘etic’ when applied to research methods?  It is hardly surprising, for a quick Google of these terms will produce diverse definitions, applied to both language and culture.  Once you get further into reading about how culture influences behaviour you will find that some writers even use them as nouns (’emics’ and ‘etics’) rather than as adjectives applied to particular approaches and research methods.

The origin of the words lies within the field of linguistics, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and has been used in the terms ‘phonetic’ (representing speech sounds by symbols) and ‘phonemic’ (related to specific underlying sounds that distinguish two similar words).  Their first use in anthropology seems to date back to the 1950s, according to several dictionaries, and the way they are used in psychology is the same.

Etic research is research that compares data from different cultures in an effort to uncover general rules regarding human behaviour. Think eTic = ‘T for telescope.’  A telescope allows us to take a large comparative view of landscapes and see a lot from a distance.   This is often quantitative research that generates data tables.  (Höfstede’s research into cultural dimensions is a good example of  etic research).

Emic research is conducted within one culture or sometimes within one social group within the culture, and focuses on uncovering the individual and group meaning of people’s actions, communications and attitudes.  Think eMic = ‘M for microscope.’ A microscope allows us to take a very close look at very small details, and see the meaning of changes in cells, for example.  This is almost exclusively qualitative research that generates written data, often from video- or audio-recorded observations or interviews.  (Howarth’s focus group interview method researching the construction of social identity of Brixton youth, with detailed transcription of the interviews, is a good example of emic research).


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