Etic-Emic Distinction

For centuries, the field of psychology has been interested in understanding behavior and cultures. In effect, social and behavioral scientists have identified two critical approaches in understanding human behavior and cultures: an etic perspective and an emic perspective. Based on universal comparisons of behaviors that can be generalized across cultures, the etic approach is consistent with the use of quantitative hypothetical-deductive methods wherein researchers or outsiders are the primary judges of the validity of an experience. Conversely, based in a belief that unique values and norms of a given culture are key to understanding behaviors meaningful to indigenous members of a given society, the emic approach is consistent with qualitative research methodologies wherein members of the society or insiders become the primary sources of validity of a particular experience. With the increasing knowledge that behavior or phenomena can be universal and yet be culturally bound, the etic-emic distinction and how these two perspectives are negotiated in theory, research, assessment, and practice have become germane to the field of counseling psychology.

Originally coined in 1954 by the linguist Kenneth L. Pike, the etic-emic distinction was first referenced in psychology by David French in 1963 when he examined the relationship between anthropology and studies of perception and cognition. In 1969, John W. Berry adapted its use to cross-cultural psychology. Since this period, scholars engaged in multicultural psychological research have employed these two epistemologies to conceptualize and operationalize both comparative and indigenous research.

Interestingly, although well established and widely used in different fields—linguistics, anthropology, education, medicine, philosophy, psychiatry, social work, sociology, public health, psychology, folklore, semiotics, and management—these terms have been viewed in opposition to each other, resulting in a long-standing controversy over the efficacy of the two perspectives. In fact, there have been several shifts in the debate on its dichotomous versus symbiotic nature. In essence, the controversy over the definitions and applications of the approaches has continued to fuel the etic-emic debate.

Etics and Emics: A Dichotomous Perspective

The tension over whether etic-emic approaches are contrasting or complementary seems to come from researchers who have different assumptions about concepts, behaviors to be assessed, and methods of analysis. For instance, etic researchers examine more than one culture or language at a single moment in time. Because of this brief intervention, etic approaches are an effective means of providing a broader perspective on behavior while meeting practical demands (e.g., financial constraints, time pressures). Within this approach, concepts or classifications are known in advance (as based on prior research) rather than determined during analysis. Etic concepts are judged against criteria that are external to the system, absolute, and directly measurable. Furthermore, the etic view does not perceive all aspects of a situation to be part of a larger setting. Instead, etic data can be obtained through analysis of partial information.

Conversely, the emic approach tends to be culture-specific and applied to one culture or language at a time or over a sustained period of time. Within this approach, concepts are discovered rather than predicted and viewed against criteria that are relevant to the internal functioning of the system. The emic view thus perceives each component as interconnected and functioning within a larger structural setting. This allows for the understanding of the culture as a whole rather than a series of disconnected parts.

These dichotomous polarities inherent in the defining characteristics have led scholars to equate etic and emic with descriptors such as scientific versus subjective, cross-comparative versus ethnographic, and formal versus informal methodologies. In effect, it has led etic researchers to question emic perspectives and emic researchers to question etic perspectives for conceptual and methodological weaknesses. Etic perspectives have been dismissed for their assumption of cultural universality wherein all behaviors are perceived as equally present in all cultures with minimal modifications required when examining issues. Within this focus, cultural or contextual factors are minimized. On the other hand, emic perspectives are criticized for being overly culturally specific with limited generalizability to a larger population. These criticisms have tended to keep the two approaches somewhat separate.

Etics and Emics: An Integrated-Symbiotic Perspective

However, not all researchers ascribe to this separation, and many have argued for examining the complementary nature of the two approaches. For instance, Pike perceived the relationship to be symbiotic with the two perspectives being equally valuable because they examine the same data from two different standpoints. Similarly, Patricia Greenfield argued that the two approaches are complementary in that emic approaches serve well within an exploratory context while etic approaches work well when testing hypotheses. Other scholars, such as French, have ascribed to Pike’s view of etics as an entry point to emics. Within this context, one approaches the phenomena across cultures from a common ground perspective, leading up to studying specific aspects of the phenomena within a culture.

In attempting to address the forced dichotomization between etic and emic approaches, Berry expanded on Pike’s ideas about the symbiotic nature of the two perspectives. Berry noted that researchers’ choice of orientation (etic/emic) has consequences in the way (method) research may be conducted. In attempting to compare behaviors across cultures (etic) while at the same time understanding behavior that is meaningful to a particular culture (emic), Berry proposed a framework that highlights the essential and interconnected nature of the two perspectives.

In initiating cross-comparative research, Berry cautioned against what he termed imposed etics or what Harry C. Triandis later called pseudoetics, or false etics. Both authors believed that although the intentionality is that of an etic orientation, researchers typically begin with a concept or instruments based in their own culture, in essence, coming from their own emics. Because the “emics” of researchers might be categorically different from those of participants, false assumptions can be made about the validity of concepts or instruments within or across cultures. Furthermore, entering a system with what “appears” to be an etic concept can provide only a preliminary approximation of the phenomena.

Thus, both advocate for a convergence of the two approaches through engaging in what Berry refers to as parallel emics, wherein modifications are made to the external criteria or categories (imposed etics) to develop instruments within each culture independently. Once indigenous assessments are created for each culture, cross-cultural comparisons can be made. Concepts that appear as universal across cultures are then referred to as derived etics, whereas concepts that vary across cultures are considered to be culture-specific and hence truly “emic.”

Contemporary Perspectives on Etic-Emic Distinction

Understanding etic and emic distinctions is critical to understanding behaviors within and across cultures. Although the concept of etics is commonly associated with an outsider standpoint and emics with an insider viewpoint, scholars in the field of multicultural and cross-cultural psychology argue that concepts can have both a universal and a culture-specific base. In light of this, contemporary views highlight the importance of an integrated etic-emic perspective that can help examine phenomena through a functional, conceptual, and contextual equivalence.


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