Etic vs Emic Approaches in Anthropology

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 12 October 2016

Etic vs Emic Approaches in Anthropology

Working in the field as a cultural anthropologist requires participant observation, interviews, and observation. (Knight) The etic and emic-orientated styles are two different styles that applied anthropologists use in their field work. The etic-orientated approach is a perspective that in ethnography uses concepts and categories for the anthropologists culture to describe another culture. (Ferraro/Andretta) The emic-orientated approach is a viewpoint in ethnography that uses the concepts and categories that are relevant and meaningful to the culture under analysis (Ferraro/Andreatta).

There has been much debate on whether the etic or emic-orientated techniques of research should be used in the field. Cultural anthropology should focus on a joint permutation on both the etic and emic-oriented research styles to produce the most useful results because of the advantages and disadvantages both contain. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari,” “Shakespeare in the Bush,” and “Instructor’s Notes: Emic and Etic” are all intelligent sources that have helped lead me to the conclusion that a joint permutation of etic and emic is best for doing research in the field.

This paper will outline the principles of etic and emic-orientation and why both are needed to have the most preeminent information available about cultures, with examples from multiple articles. A meal consists usually of a food and a drink of sorts. Let’s take spaghetti and red wine. For a person who enjoys both spaghetti and red wine this will being the most optimum results to their pleasure of the meal from the combination of the two. People commonly enjoy their meals with a drink. Research can be looked at in the same way.

Statistics are a great way of looking at how a community is either improving or falling behind the rest of their culture as far as their social economic status is concerned. We would not be able to know why they are improving or falling behind without involving oneself within that community and studying their families, work, hobbies, etc. Etic and emic research techniques can be looked at in the same fashion. Etic is a more scientific way of reviewing field work. Emic is a more in-depth look at what cannot be calculated or graphed.

Math and Literacy are both commonly needed to have a high paying job with paid acation, and other extras tied in, within the United States. Etic allows connections to be made universally and strong rational points to be made. Emic allows things that cannot be defined, such as love, a definition within the context of the culture it is being used. When we see our similarities we can have empathy and sympathy, which creates harmony. When we see our differences but know that under cultural relativism they are not to be afraid of but appreciated we understand that we are all unique individuals in which to be valued. Learning empathy/sympathy and valuing each other leads to more harmony.

Harmony brings happiness. Happiness is the ultimate life goal. To achieve happiness we need to use both the etic and emic techniques. Etic-orientated studies succeed because it analyzes the culture being studied based on the basic needs of humans such as food, water, shelter, etc. This can give a reason to why a culture might be capitalist based or socialist based. It always has a reasonable well thought out explanation that typically cannot be argued against logically. For example there is no water in the lake. That can be understood from the etic perspective that it has not rained for several months.

The etic style of field work also brings around universal truths, showing us that we are all connected. Etic-orientated research fails because it does not look at individuals and things that cannot be defined within the humanities. Why someone thinks and acts a certain way can sometimes be predicted by scientific means, but the majority of the time they are just educated guesses, referred to as theories. In this sense one will have to understand other principles about the persons being studied then just the facts. One will need to look to the humanities to understand the culture.

This turn to the humanities is an emic technique used in the field. Emic-orientated investigations succeed because it engages applied anthropologists to live with and live like the people of the culture they are studying. It becomes a personal study under the emic practice. Being personally involved allows one to connect to the culture and why that culture thinks and performs a certain way. Emic-orientated research fails because it gets too personal with its subjects. This can cause one to stop looking at its subjects as research to be analyzed but as people, which they are, to just befriend and not critically think about.

One may begin sympathizing with those within the culture and not be able to learn about the culture from an outsider’s point of view. It would be difficult from an emic view to understand why a family may be dehydrated if they are blaming their religious beliefs when they are in fact dehydrated because it has not rained for a month. Religion in this case would be an unreasonable rationale. You cannot understand a culture from just an etic approach; you need emic research methods as well in order to get accurate information to help you understand that culture.

Etic and emic investigations both have their pros and cons, and together they compliment and support each other. The subsequent will look at readings that give examples of etic and emic studies. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” (Lee) is about a anthropologist having Christmas in the bush with the ! Kung. The ! Kung are a tribe in the Kalahari. “I had come to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the ! Kung, and to accomplish this it was essential not to provide them with food, share my food, or interfere, in any way with their food-gathering activities. (Lee) Lee was using the etic method to study the ! Kung. This is made clear by him stating he will not be involving himself in any way, as far as food is concerned, with the ! Kung. I am not sure if he was able to gain subsistent economy of hunting and gathering of the ! Kung because it was never mentioned later in the article. He gained further knowledge none the less by emic techniques. “The Christmas ox was to be my way of saying thank you for the cooperation of the past year… ” (Lee) Lee is referring to the ox he bought for the ! Kung for Christmas. The ! Kung called the ox weak, and the meat useless.

This was obvious not true though and Lee became very confused and hurt by their words and the situation. After talking to villagers through emic techniques he discovered; “There are no totally generous acts. All “acts” have an element of calculation…” (Lee) Lee’s gift of the ox was what the Bushmen do for each other every other day and him doing it once does not make up for other times he never presented meat to the ! Kung. The ! Kung do this as to teach one humility. The anthropologist came in with an etic approach only to use an emic one to understand the culture further.

Etic and emic approaches are needed to fully understand a culture. “Shakespeare in the Bush” (Bohnnan) clearly uses emic-orientated research to understand the Tiv in West Africa. “I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over…” Bohannan believes the general tale of Hamlet by Shakespeare will be understood by the tribe she is currently researching in South Africa. She tells them the story of Hamlet. “I was too upset and thrown too far off-balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet knocked straight out of the picture. (Bohannan) Bohannan to her surprise is thrown off by the different interpretation the tribe has taken of Hamlet. Through the emic approach she was able to learn that different cultures can interpret a story differently. Bohannan had a successful emic approach of how cultures experienced Hamlet. She gained knowledge first hand that can be written and explained. Etic techniques were not used in this instance but could have been helpful. Emic, in this research, only gave us the conclusion that different cultures interpret stories differently, but did not explain why this is.

Etic could have given a clear direct reason to why cultures don’t always interpret a story the same way. My instructor, Mr. Knight, showed a great example, from Harris, of how the etic and emic approach can both be used to come up with the best explanation to a certain aspect within a culture. The example Mr. Knight used was of that of “Why cows are sacred to Hindus in India, specifically why there is a prohibition against eating cows. ” (Knight) The etic reasoning involves the value of the cow alive to the farming family is more valuable than if the cow was dead economically.

The emic reason would involve Hinduism as a religion, cosmologic ideas, and symbolism. (Knight) Knight goes on to say that the etic look at this idea would be better to represent this human behavior. I believe both the etic amd emic-orientated approaches are needed in this case though because it completely encompasses the issue and answers it from all sides. Anthropologists use both etic and emic- orientated research to study a culture through participant observation, interviews, and participation. Applied anthropologists in the field will acquire the best information by using a joint permutation of the etic and emic styles of research.

The advantages and disadvantages of etic and emic techniques even each other out when used simultaneously. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari,” “Shakespeare in the Bush,” and “Instructor’s Notes: Emic and Etic” demonstrate etic and emic approaches and how the two styles produce the optimum result. By using the two styles anthropologists will have a clearer view on the similarities and differences in various cultures throughout the world. By acknowledging our similarities and differences we will better understand each other, furthering harmony in the world.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 12 October 2016

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