|The neologisms “emic” and “etic,”
which were derived from an analogy with the terms “phonemic” and
“phonetic,” were coined by the linguistic anthropologist Kenneth Pike
(1954). He suggests that
there are two perspectives that can be employed in the study of a
society’s cultural system, just as there are two perspectives that can
be used in the study of a language’s sound system.
In both cases, it is possible to take the point of view of either
the insider or the outsider.
As Pike defines it, the emic perspective focuses on the intrinsic
cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given
society (e.g., whether the natural world is distinguished from the
supernatural realm in the worldview of the culture) in the same way that
phonemic analysis focuses on the intrinsic phonological distinctions that
are meaningful to speakers of a given language (e.g., whether the phones
/b/ and /v/ make a contrast in meaning in a minimal pair in the language).
The native members of a culture are the sole judges of the validity
of an emic description, just as the native speakers of a language are the
sole judges of the accuracy of a phonemic identification.
The etic perspective, again according to Pike, relies upon the
extrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for scientific
observers (e.g., per capita energy consumption) in the same way that
phonetic analysis relies upon the extrinsic concepts and categories that
are meaningful to linguistic analysts (e.g., dental fricatives).
Scientists are the sole judges of the validity of an etic account,
just as linguists are the sole judges of the accuracy of a phonetic
Besides Pike, the scholar most closely associated with the concepts
of “emics” and “etics” is the cultural anthropologist Marvin
Harris, who has made the distinction between the emic and etic
perspectives an integral part of his paradigm of cultural materialism.
Pike and Harris continue to disagree about the precise definition
and application of emics and etics (Headland et al. 1990).
The most significant area of their disagreement concerns the goal
of the etic approach. For
Pike, etics are a way of getting at emics; for Harris, etics are an end in
themselves. From Pike’s
point of view, the etic approach is useful for penetrating, discovering,
and elucidating emic systems, but etic claims to knowledge have no
necessary priority over competing emic claims.
From Harris’s perspective, the etic approach is useful in making
objective determinations of fact, and etic claims to knowledge are
necessarily superior to competing emic claims.
Pike believes that objective knowledge is an illusion, and that all
claims to knowledge are ultimately subjective; Harris believes that
objective knowledge is at least potentially obtainable, and that the
pursuit of such knowledge is essential for a discipline that aspires
to be a science.
As is apparent, the debate over emics and etics raises a number of
fundamental ontological and epistemological issues.
It is not surprising, therefore, that controversy continues to
surround even the definitions of emics and etics.
Although the terms are part of the working vocabulary of most
cultural anthropologists, there are no standard definitions that have won
universal acceptance. A
survey of introductory textbooks in anthropology reveals that the terms
“emic” and “etic” are glossed in highly disparate fashion.
The situation is even more obscure outside anthropology, where the
concepts have been widely diffused and widely reinterpreted.
The terms “emic” and “etic” are current in a growing number of
fields--including education, folklore, management, medicine,
philology, psychiatry, psychology, public health, semiotics, and
urban studies--but they are generally used in ways that have little
or nothing to do with their original anthropological context.
Despite that diversity and disagreement, it is possible to suggest
a precise and practical set of definitions by focusing on emics and etics
as epistemological concepts. From
that perspective, the terms “emic” and “etic” should be seen as
adjectives modifying the implicit noun “knowledge.”
Accordingly, the distinction between emics and etics has everything
to do with the nature of the knowledge that is claimed and nothing
to do with the source of that knowledge (i.e., the manner by which
it was obtained).
Emic constructs are accounts, descriptions, and analyses expressed
in terms of the conceptual schemes and categories that are regarded as
meaningful and appropriate by the members of the culture under study.
Am emic construct is correctly termed “emic” if and only if it
is in accord with the perceptions and understandings deemed appropriate by
the insider’s culture. The
validation of emic knowledge thus be- comes a matter of consensus--namely,
the consensus of native informants, who must agree that the construct
matches the shared perceptions that are characteristic of their culture.
Note that the particular research technique used in acquiring
anthropological knowledge has nothing to do with the nature of that
knowledge. Emic knowledge can
be obtained either through elicitation or through observation,
because it is sometimes possible that objective ob- servers can
infer native perceptions.
Etic constructs are accounts, descriptions, and analyses expressed
in terms of the conceptual schemes and categories that are regarded as
meaningful and appropriate by the community of scientific observers. An etic construct is correctly termed “etic” if and only
if it is in accord with the epistemological principles deemed appropriate
by science (i.e., etic constructs must be precise, logical, comprehensive,
replicable, falsifiable, and observer independent).
The validation of etic knowledge thus becomes a matter of logical
and empirical analysis--in particular, the logical analysis of whether the
construct meets the standards of falsifiability, comprehensiveness, and
logical consistency, and then the empirical analysis of whether or not the
concept has been falsified and/or replicated.
Again, the particular research technique that is used in the
acquisition of anthropological knowledge has no bearing on the nature of
that knowledge. Etic
knowledge may be obtained at times through elicitation as well as
observation, because it is entirely possible that native informants
could possess scientifically valid knowledge.
Defined in that manner, the usefulness of the emic/etic distinction
is evident. Answers to the
most fundamental anthropological questions—including the origins of
humanity, the characteristics of human nature, and the form and function
of human social systems—are part of the worldview of every culture on
the planet. Like all human
beings, individual anthropologists have been enculturated to some
particular cultural worldview, and they therefore need a means of
distinguishing between the answers they derive as enculturated individuals
and the answers they derive as anthropological observers.
Defining “emics” and “etics” in epistemological terms provides a
reliable means of making that distinction.
Finally, most cultural anthropologists agree that the goal of
anthropological research must be the acquisition of both emic and etic
knowledge. Emic knowledge is
essential for an intuitive and empathic understanding of a culture, and it
is essential for conducting effective ethnographic fieldwork.
Furthermore, emic knowledge is often a valuable source of
inspiration for etic hypotheses. Etic
knowledge, on the other hand, is essential for cross-cultural comparison,
the sine qua non of ethnology, because such comparison necessarily demands
standard units and categories.