Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Emic + Etic

Emic. Etic. Inside. Outside. Or wait, is it the other way around? Etic. Emic. Outside. Inside? Wait, but inside and outside of what? Of everything? What exactly does this mean? I feel so confused. What exactly was Monica talking about? Wow, she really lost me when she started with this whole emic, etic business. Eh, maybe it’s not so important…

I first came across the terms ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ in Monica’s third year subject, The Anthropology of Nature. My head was already being turned inside out by each new nature/culture concept, let alone trying to fully understand and remember forms of anthropological analysis. I am not ashamed to admit that it took me a while to catch on to this whole ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ thing. As it turns out, they are pretty important approaches to constructing anthropological knowledge. So, here I am to help you out so you’re not sitting in class lost in space (like I was).

The terms ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ were first coined by linguist Kenneth Pike (1967) to refer to the particular sounds of a specific language (emic) and how they are represented and transcribed from an outsider’s perspective (etic).  It has since become a common way of describing the research perspectives of anthropologists in the field.

So let’s break this down:

Emic – The ethnographer engages in participatory observation within the field, living or working within a specific cultural place (‘field’) to learn about people and their ways of life. Essentially, emic research is focused on the perspectives of those being studied (participants/peoples/informants).

Etic – The ethnographer tends not to integrate themselves into the culture they are observing and become an ‘outsider looking in’. In this case, the researcher acts as an ‘outsider’ and is expected to have more detached and objective observations of that culture. Etic research is an objective analysis of a culture by the researcher.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. These terms may be useful in understanding the groundwork of ethnographic research; but ultimately, they cannot really be divided into two separate categories. An ’emic’ perspective assumes that the ethnographer can detangle themselves from their Ethnocentric beliefs and enter the field from a neutral position that enables them to adopt and fully comprehend the cultural belief systems of the ‘other’. However, the idea of neutrality in the field is an illusion. The researcher is always attached to specific relations and identifications from their own culture, histories and personal narratives.

Marvin Harris (1976), an American anthropologist, argues that creating an ‘etic’ and ’emic’ division can produce problems in the construction of anthropological knowledge. He stated that ’emic’ models and observations of culture are ‘invented’ rather than ‘discovered’ by the researcher. He questioned whether there could actually be a cultural authority and if we could guarantee that the observer’s supposedly ‘etic’ research perspective isn’t actually their own ’emic’ one. In this respect, the mere presence of the researcher brings their ‘subjectivity’ into the field site and results in unique interactions specific to their personal characteristics. As a result, these interactions are un-replicable and become “artefacts” of the field instead of true reflections of what is actually there (Pachirat 2017, p.19).

The division of ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ alludes to broader philosophical debates on ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’, which highlights controversial issues revolving around the construction of anthropological knowledge.

So, where to from here?

Well, I am no expert in this debate. However, one of our core philosophies as anthropologists is to understand. Perhaps the magic in our work actually emerges from our continual efforts to merge the ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ observations we have. While there may be subjectivities inherent to all work that academics conduct, we can seek to maintain a higher level of awareness of our positionality and the repercussions this has in the ‘field’.  


Harris, M 1976, ‘History and significance of the emic/etic distinction’, Annual review of anthropology, vol. 5, no.1, pp.329-350.

Pachirat, T 2017, Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power, Routledge.

Pike, K.L 1967, Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior.

5 thoughts on “Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Emic + Etic”

  1. […] This process of inspiring change within the traveller is often founded on a binary between the self and an exotic Other, where the self travels to “’exotic’ third world destinations” that bear absolutely no similarity to the world the traveller has come from. LP features predominantly Western writers providing information for other Western travellers about ‘exotic’ (read: non-Western/alien) destinations with language that heavily emphasises the traditions and “Otherness” of the people they write about. By privileging the Western Orientalist voice over the local, it becomes a vaguely colonialist form of communication that only further marginalises people outside of the “Western world” – they are unable to create themselves, rather, they are whatever the writer shapes them into being. […]


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