The emic and etic perspectives applied to scientific knowledge have allowed us to acquire different views on social phenomena. Their antecedents are found in structuralist linguistics, however they have been transferred in an important way to sociology and anthropology, since they allow us to elaborate different answers and explanations of social behavior.

In an introductory way we’ll see below what it is and where the etic and emic perspectives come from , as well as some of its main differences.

From linguistics to social behaviour

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” (which means phonetic 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 speech activation, as well as their environmental effects understood as sound waves.

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

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

6 differences between emic and etic perspectives

The etic 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 emerged in response to, 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 particular way.

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

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

Below we will briefly look at five differences that relate to how we research and understand our societies and behaviors.

1. Observer-participant relationship

An emic perspective seeks to ensure that there is a context of interaction in which the observer and the informant meet and conduct a discussion on a particular topic.

On the other hand, an etic perspective defines and describes the social behavior considering mainly the logic of the observing actor. It prioritizes the structure that exists beyond the mind of the actors.

2. The reason for social behavior

To the question about how events, entities or relations are, an emic perspective would say that the answer is in the head of the people who are the protagonists of those events , entities or relations.

On the other hand, before the same question, an ethic perspective would say that the answer lies in the observable behavior of the people who take part in such events, entities or relationships.

3. Validity of explanatory knowledge

Emic is a perspective that works from the actors’ point of view. The events of daily life, customs, habits, rituals, etc., are not defined by those who perform them, and this is considered the valid definition.

As it is understood in relation to unconscious meanings or 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 person who acts on 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 etic 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 ethical purposes of behavior. Therefore, an example of methodology is the descriptions made based on interviews with social actors.

On the other hand, the etic perspective, which is more interested in the descriptions of the external agent, can carry out, for example, comparative investigations between what is observed in different cultures .

6. They are not always so different

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

Kenneth Pike and Marvin Harris (American anthropologist who took up and developed Pike’s theories), have problematized this and have managed to exemplify when the etic and emic views coincide, and when they take distance from each other, as well as the consequences of such coincidences and distances.

One of the things that people interested in the emic and etic perspectives have had to ask themselves, has been how are the mental systems of beliefs, language and behavior itself 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 reasons for the behaviour; or whether what we see that we do is in fact what gives a closer idea of the reasons for the same behaviour.

Sometimes what we do matches what we say about what we do, sometimes it doesn’t. And it is largely for this reason that emic and etic perspectives cannot be separated sharply, but must be understood in relation. These are approaches that can be useful and complementary to understand our social behaviour .

Bibliographic references:

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