Etic and Emic are terms used by anthropologists and other social scientists referring to two different types of data collected on human behavior.

An etic point of view is one where the analysis of behavior and cultural systems is built on the perspective of one who does not participate in the culture being observed. This view point is one of an "outsider". An Anthropologist tries to create an mixture of both the emic and etic perspectives in their work.

A humorous interpretation of how etic anthropology may be viewed.


An etic account can be understood by all, regardless of preconceived cultural notions. Kenneth Pikecoined the terms emic and etic in 1954. Etic and Emic are derived from the linguistic terms phonetic and phonemic. Phonetics is the "description of sounds occurring in a language" while phonemics is the study of the use of sounds from phonetics to "diffwerentiate the meaning of sounds."[1]
Etic operations are the operations suitable for discovering patterns in the behavior stream; some anthropologists consider etic operations as a means to get to the emic point of view. They think etic data only provide access to a preliminary analysis, and eventually the data will be refined over time and become emic. Emic and Etic are endpoints of a continuum, rather than complete opposites. “Etic statements depend upon phenomenal distinctions judged appropriate by the community of scientific observers.”[2] Etic is based on observations and is completely separate from the cultural reasons for the action. The observer makes the conclusions based on the observations made and not on the opinions of the people practicing the actions. Harris describes watching children walk to school with only one shoe on and concluding that they enjoy walking barefoot as an example of an etic observation. After further research and interviews with the children it was discovered that poor families could only afford one pair of shoes for their children so siblings shared (this is emic).

Anthropologists use two different terms to describe the data collected on human behavior.The first being the "etic" approach and the second to anthropological ethnography is to observe in an "emic" way, meaning that the observer tries to explain behaviors or belief from the viewpoint of someone in the culture being observed. These two terms are beneficial to the anthropological perspective because it gives an understanding of culture in scientific terms from an objective point of view, while subjectively seeking to explain the relations between the element of the culture. Both etic and emic perspectives link cultural practices, tales, behaviors, etc. that are important for the framework of anthropology.

Anthropological Examples

Example 1

Pibloktoqis a condition experienced by Inuits; it is also called Arctic Hysteria. In 1972 Edward Foulks studied this condition. Symptoms of the disorder included "manic episodes in which and individual may remove his or her clothing, run around wildly into water or roll around on the snow, make nonsense sounds, or speak uncontrollably." According to Foulks, sufferers of Pibloktoq also have conditions which would be diagnosed in Western Culture including schizophrenia but there is no "single condition" which corresponds to a western diagnosis. The people are experiencing similar symptoms but the western diagnoses would be different. Foulks concluded that there must be a cultural component to the disorder. Foulks then looked at the culture itself to try to understand the cause for Arctic Hysteria. He concluded that social pressures and "severe and recurrent ear infections" together could be the cause of the Arctic Hysteria.[3]

Example 2

Fafafini are males who are raised as females in Samoan society. The Fafafini are not just raised as females however, they are essentially considered females by their community. They are accepted by society and they perform functions that are useful to the community. In Samoa the work roles are gender specific, meaning the Fafafini participate in work that is considered female. They practice domestic chores and are considered by some to be better than males and females due to their unique abilities. The Fafafini are able to perform duties that females can not due to their superior physical strength and can perform tasks that males are not generally taught. The Fafafini have sexual relationships with men but because the Fafafini are not considered male these relationships are considered heterosexual. The view of this relationship between a Fafafini and a male as heterosexual is an emic view from the perspective of the Samoans. The view of the Fafafini relationship with males as homosexual is an etic perspective from Westerners whose culture includes only two culturally constructed genders, male and female.

Video: The Fafafini are males raised as females in Samoan culture and are considered a third gender. They are accepted in society and their relationships with men are considered heterosexual. In western society these relationships would be considered homosexual, but in Samoa the Fafafini are considered female. The view of westerners of this practice is an etic point of view while the view of the Samoans is an emic point of view.

Example 3

Warfare patterns in a particular tribe:
Emic prespective: culture members talk about the history of their conflict with particular neighboring groups and the treachery of certain groups.
Etic perspective: the anthropologist may see the frequent warfare as a consequence of overpopulation and protein deficiency which warfare acts to remedy by redistributing the population.

Example 4

Women who go into a trance:
Emic perspective : culture members say a woman whose ancestors were priests or priestesses is likely to be called as a medium by a spirit who possesses her and makes her act as though she is crazy until she goes for training and becomes a medium priestess.
Etic Perspective: anthropologist may explain certain women going into trance by noting the subordinate position of housewives and the greatly enhanced social position of women who become religious leaders.


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Additional Resources

Cross-Cultural Model Testing: Toward a Solution of the Etic-Emic Dilemma by Davidson, et al.
An Etic-Emic Analysis of Individualism and Collectivism by Triandis, et al.
Imposed Etics-Emics-Derived Etics: The Operationalization of a Compelling Idea by Berry
Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate by Headland, Pike and Harris


  1. ^ Bonvillian, Nancy. )2008) Language Culture and Communication: The Learning of Messages. 5th edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
  2. ^ Harris, Marvin. (1976) History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction. Annual Review of Anthropology. 5: 329-350.
  3. ^ Wiley, Andrea S., Allen, John S. (2009). Medical Anthropology: A Biocultural Approach. New York: Oxford University Press