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Perspectives emic and etic: what they are, and 6 differences between them

Perspectives emic and etic: what they are, and 6 differences between them

December 4, 2020

The emic and etic perspectives applied in scientific knowledge have allowed us to acquire different panoramas on social phenomena. Its antecedents are in structuralist linguistics, however they have moved significantly to sociology and anthropology, since they allow to elaborate different answers and explanations of social behavior.

In an introductory way we will see below what is and where do the ethic and emic perspectives come from? , as well as some of its main differences.

  • Related article: "The 5 differences between meaning and significance"

From linguistics to social behavior

The concepts of "etic" and "emic" are neologisms first introduced by the American linguist Kenneth Pike, to refer to how social behavior occurs and is understood. Etic corresponds to the suffix of the word "phonetic" (meaning phonetics, in English), and "emic" corresponds to the word "phonemic" (which means phonemic, also in English).


Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies the sounds we produce to communicate. As a concept, it refers to the sounds of language that are based on a taxonomy of active speech, as well as its environmental effects understood as acoustic wave.

Phonemics, on the other hand, is another branch of linguistics and refers to the ability of listeners not only to listen but also to identify and manipulate phonemes (the minimum phonological units, which belong to each language). It refers to the sounds that are in the implicit consciousness, or in the non-consciousness, and that help the speakers to identify different expressions of their own language.


Pike takes these terms to develop two epistemological perspectives that would allow understanding social behavior as an analogy of the main linguistic structures . That is, it tries to apply the principles by means of which linguists discovered phonemes, morphemes and other units of language, to discover emic units of social behavior.

6 differences between emic and ethical perspectives

The ethical and emic perspectives in the social sciences have been useful to offer different explanations to what motivates a social behavior. In other words, they have come up against the intention to respond, for example, why certain human groups behave in a specific way, why they interact as they do or how they have organized themselves in a certain way.

Broadly speaking, the answers to these questions have taken two paths. On the one hand, there are those who say that the reasons for social behavior can only be understood by the explanation that the actors themselves make about these reasons . This would be an emic posture.


And on the other hand, there are those who say that social behaviors, and their motives, can be explained through direct observation of someone external . This would be an ethical stance. According to Pike, the use of an ethical and emic perspective can have consequences and an important ethical background, especially when the descriptions are translated into instrumental measurements.

Below we will briefly look at five differences that have to do with how we investigate and understand our societies and behaviors.

1. Observer-participant relationship

An emic perspective seeks to exist a context of interaction in which the observer and the informant meet and they hold a discussion on a particular topic.

On the other hand, an ethical perspective defines and describes social behavior considering mainly the logic of the observing actor. The structure that exists beyond the minds of the actors is prioritized.

2. The reason for social behavior

When asked about how events, entities or relationships are, an emic perspective would say that the answer is in the head of the people who star in these events , entities or relationships.

On the other hand, faced with the same question, an ethical perspective would say that the answer lies in the observable behavior of the people who star in these events, entities or relationships.

3. Validity of explanatory knowledge

Emic is a perspective that works from the point of view of the actors. The events of daily life, customs, habits, rituals, etc, without defined by those who perform them, and this is considered as the valid definition.

As understood in relation to meanings or non-conscious structures, The emic is considered a difficult perspective to defend in terms of scientific rigor .

Etic is a perspective that is approached from the point of view of the observer.Here cultural events, customs, habits, daily life, etc., are explained based on the description made by the person who looks (not the one who acts those events), and that is the explanation that is considered valid.

4. Similar perspectives

An emic perspective is closer to a subjectivist perspective of knowledge, while an ethical perspective is closer to the objectivist paradigm of knowledge .

5. Related methodologies

The emic perspective is interested in the social construction of meaning, in asking and exploring the emic purposes of behavior. Therefore, an example of methodology is the descriptions made based on interviews with social actors.

For its part, the ethical perspective, which is more interested in the descriptions of the external agent, can perform, for example, comparative research between what is observed in different cultures .

  • Maybe you're interested: "Cultural universals: what all societies have in common"

6. They are not always so different

The emic and etic perspectives are approaches that may not coincide, and what is more: they are frequently understood and used as completely excluding descriptions.

Kenneth Pike and Marvin Harris (American anthropologist who took up and developed Pike's theories), have problematized this and have been able to exemplify at what moments the etic and emic looks coincide, and at what moments they take distance from each other, as well as the consequences of said coincidences and distances.

One of the things that people interested in emic and etic perspectives have had to ask themselves, has been how the mental systems of beliefs, language and behavior itself are connected . In other words, it has also been necessary to question whether what we say about what we do gives a true idea of ​​the motives of the behavior; or if what we see that we do is actually what gives an idea closer to the motives of the same behavior.

Sometimes what we do matches what we say about what we do, sometimes not. And it is largely because of this that emic and etic perspectives can not be separated in a clear way, but must be understood in relation. Is about approaches that can be useful and complementary to understand our social behavior .

Bibliographic references:

  • Harris, M. (1976). History and significance of the emic / etic distinction. Annual Review of Anthropology. 5: 329-350.

Psychological Research - Crash Course Psychology #2 (December 2020).


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