Etic and Emic World Views in Anthropology

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  • 0:01 Studying Culture
  • 1:07 Emic Approach
  • 2:30 Etic Approach
  • 3:50 Examples
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain both the emic and etic approaches to studying culture. In doing so, it will contrast the use of member narratives and theories among the two very differing approaches.

Studying Culture

Today's lesson on emic and etic approaches to studying human culture will be both complicated and simple. It'll be complicated because the terms 'emic' and 'etic' are unfamiliar to most of us. However, it'll be simple because, despite the way they sound, the emic and etic approaches to studying culture are rather easy to understand.

With that confidence builder of sorts, let's get started.

As already stated, the words 'emic' and 'etic' signify two different approaches used to study human cultures. However, like many of the terms used in anthropology, the study of humankind, the definition of these terms can tend to vary. For this reason, we'll keep our definitions a bit more general. Once we have our terms down, we'll then take some time and nail down some examples. However, as we do this, it'll be important for us to remember that although the terms are pretty much opposites, most modern research tends to be a blending of the two.

With this in mind, we'll get going with the emic approach.

Emic Approach

The emic approach to studying human culture is one in which the members of the culture being studied are the main source of information used to understand the culture. More simply stated, it's when the words and beliefs of the culture's members take center stage. Rather than reading other scientists' accounts of the culture, the researcher will observe or even interview the members of the culture in order to understand why they live and believe as they do.

Adding to this, researchers using the emic approach seek to start with almost a blank slate. In other words, they try to put away their preconceived notions about what culture should look like and simply learn from the cultures they are observing.

For example, when a Western researcher observes a young tribesman being branded with the tribes' markings, they do not simply write it off as barbaric or torture. Instead, they try to look at it through the lens of the culture. Stated plainly, they try to get inside the head of the young man, realizing that to him it symbolized acceptance and manhood. For this reason, the emic approach is often called the 'insider approach.' Many researchers believe this is the best approach when studying previously unstudied, or newly discovered, people groups.

For ease in remembering, I like to link the 'm' in 'emic' to the idea that the actual members of a culture are the most important source of information when studying that culture.

Etic Approach

Opposite of the emic approach, the etic approach to studying human culture employs existing theories and perspectives that originated from outside the culture being studied. In other words, it uses preconceived notions and theories about culture in general in order to study specific cultures.

For this reason, it's often referred to as the 'outsider approach.' Like I link the 'm' in 'emic' to the word 'members,' I like to link the 't' in 'etic' to the word 'theories,' as this approach has at its foundation the use of pre-existing theories.

Using the above example of a young tribesman being branded, a researcher using the etic approach might look at the scene through the lens of what earlier anthropologists have reported about masculinity among different culture groups.

Without ever interviewing the young man or any of his tribesmen, they would theorize on the meaning of the ritual by comparing it to similar rituals in other cultures. In fact, researchers who employ this method argue that it makes them more able to identify cultural traits that exist cross-culturally. However, opponents of this approach argue that this outside observation can tend to lead to mistaken conclusions and generalizations about specific cultures.

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