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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen

Etic and Emic perspectives in research

When I was studying Psychology I became really interested in Anthropology. This was in part because most of my friends were studying anthropology, but also because I learned from my professors how important the anthropological view was when reading cultural and social phenomena. In fact, I believed (and still do) that the psychological discipline is more of a branch of Anthropology where the object of study is focused on the human psyche (that is, of course, letting out all the animal psychology Ethologybranch).

So back then, I had the opportunity to take extra credits and I took them in Anthropology. I had the luck that my main teacher was Prof. Silvia Monroy, a brilliant Anthropologist from the University of Brasília. She taught me the principles of ethnographic research and structuralism, but also the importance of the Etic and Emic Perspectives in research.

Let's start saying that the Etic perspective does not involve ethics, but has somehow something to do with it. In sum, the Etic perspective consists of an aseptic view of a phenomena. In the Etic perspective the observer tries to stay away from an experience, culture, or occurrence under the assumption that and looking at it from afar helps them to be objective and neutral.

The Etic perspective corresponds a lot with the way we see science: Neutral, objective, unbiased, following explicit and replicable rules, able to be mathematically modelled, and even forecasted. This is totally fine; many theoretical frameworks, paradigms, and research methods have nourished from these views. They allow us to look at social and human phenomena from a structural point of view, to create meaning out of the chaos, and to understand different aspects of a phenomenon from different angles.

Although this perspective seems very objective, being the fly on the wall while doing research there are two basic problems. First, that looking at a phenomenon only from the outside does not account for the full extent of the phenomenon.

Imagine having a bottle of wine in your hands: You can look at it, read about the winery, research about climatic conditions the year the wine was produced, check the aging label, and expect a certain taste based on the type of wine described in the bottle. However, you cannot really know how the wine tastes until you have opened the bottle and decanted the wine.

The second problem is that when we look at a phenomenon from the perspective of a fly on the wall, no matter how objective and aseptic we think we are, the fly (that is, the observation, or you as an observer) might be affecting the way the phenomenon is happening. To make things worse, the fly might think that things are happening naturally, but things might change when the fly is not there (and which cannot be accounted for by the fly). In this case, the observer is making a fake model from the observation as they think it is the natural occurrence of the phenomenon; but instead, they are actually accounting for the phenomenon when a fly is on the wall.

The Emic perspective is the vision inside the culture. Here the researcher throws themselves into the culture, society, or phenomena to be investigated. Their aim is to look at the culture from the inside, to create their own model of what it is to be embraced by the circumstances surrounding the phenomenon and analysing it as an insider. This serves both for building experiential knowledge, as well as subjective knowledge linked to different aspects of the experiences.

The main problem with the Emic perspective is that, although we learn how a phenomenon unfolds when there is and there is not a fly on the wall, we cannot look at different aspects or perspectives of a phenomenon, but only those we as researchers are subject to. In the same way that when we are looking at a theatre play, an Etic observer can see what all actors are doing, but when we are one of the actors (Emic) of the play we cannot have the overview of all, only our own perspective and role within the play. An Emic actor cannot be all the actors to understand what it is to be a different role within the same play.

Another problem with Emic view is that depending on the phenomenon analysed, we can be standing at any point of the spectrum between being so inside the phenomenon that we are totally biased, and not being allowed to experience the phenomenon from within because the surrounding of the phenomenon does not accept us.

Now, which perspective is better? Many scientists, including social scientists push towards the use of the Etic view as it is closer to the standards followed by the Natural Sciences, which somehow confers a feeling of validity and reliability to certain studies (many times it actually confers validity and reliability, but I will not deepen into that in this short essay).

However, my answer to this question is: It depends on the object and intention of the study. If you want to understand how people feel when playing a specific video game, maybe a good starting point is to play the video game yourself and document how it made you feel. But if you want to see how many people would buy your pineapple pizza so you have an idea of how many you have to bake, it is better so observe the sales for a week instead of not baking enough because you don't like pineapple pizza yourself.

Although I particularly find it difficult to combine both approaches, it is possible under certain circumstances and for certain situations to combine them. We can, for instance, come as insiders wanting to understand how the phenomenon is seen from other perspectives. For example, you want to know how different cultures react to men and women wearing a skirt. You might want to go out yourself in kilt or a skirt and document your feelings and people's reactions when you were wearing it and then read about the culture (e.g. fashion trends, traditions, conservatism, etc.). However, you can also do the opposite, and end your research by going out experimenting what it is to wear a skirt or a kilt in Society X compared to society Y.

The richest approach is the combined approach (when it is possible to do it), no doubt about that. Nonetheless, we should always account for the Emic part that, even if we are experiencing the phenomenon at last, our previous knowledge and assumptions are already changing the way we feel and understand the phenomenon. The other way around, having experienced the phenomenon beforehand might change the way we read and understand external information.

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Mary Jeannot
Mary Jeannot
Feb 04, 2023

An anthropologist/ethnographer needs both perspectives and one is not better than the other. Emic is how locals see and identify their worlds. Etic perspectives might name, disciplinize and professionalize these cultural phenomena, but they need to have the local POV and ways of naming the various POVs. Without it, there is no research. Members of each group learn how to be better reciprocal cultural informants—better researchers. Not a dichotomy, not a binary: It’s not a question of either/or…not objective/subjective. Comes from linguistics: phonemic/phonetic. See Kenneth Pike.

Carlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen
Carlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen
Feb 04, 2023
Replying to

That's exactly my point :) Thank you for the highlight :D

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