Etic and Emic: an epic team

Lagedrukgebied | Céline Van De Walle | 15 januari 2020

In a bid to clarify two very important concepts within ethnographic research, namely ‘etic’ and ‘emic’, we asked Jan Blommaert to share his expertise and thoughts on this subject. After the video conference with Jan, we had a group discussion about how this conceptual pair applies to our own research. In what follows, we will share our insights into this interesting field of study.

Both ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ were coined by Kenneth Pike, a famous linguist, who found his inspiration in the difference between ‘phonetics’ and ‘phonemics’. Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies the sounds of human speech, whereas phonemics studies phonemes or units of sound that distinguish one word from another in a particular language. The difference between voiceless and voiced consonants for example is phonetically universal, but not phonemically. This distinction can easily be transferred to the difference between ‘etic’ and ‘emic’.

Every research approach that uses an external viewpoint (researcher, discipline, theory) can be characterised as ‘etic’. The term ‘emic’, on the other hand, applies to every research approach that uses an internal viewpoint (interviewees, member of a certain (language) community, cultural or social group that are part of the research). Therefore, the emic perspective can be described as the insider’s view or perspective on the world around them. Through the emic perspective, one cannot make general statements about the objectiveness or truthfulness of certain things, as it might be that the individual’s assumptions/perspectives/opinions/thoughts discord with the prescribed reality.

Both concepts can never be seen as isolated instances or opposites and therefore researchers should consider the interplay between both. The emic perspective complements the etic perspective – and the other way around. “It proves convenient –though partially arbitrary- to describe behavior from two different standpoints, which lead to results which shade into one another. The etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system, and as an essential initial approach to an alien system. The emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system.” (Pike 1967, 37) Within this framework, one might benefit from considering the concept of ‘ecological validity’, which means that any insight into a social reality needs to be present in the minds of the subjects of that same social reality as well.