Cultural research: Emic vs etic

When discussing cultural research, one way to show critical thinking is to think about how the research was done - was it an etic or an emic approach? This makes a difference in the validity of the research and the ability to generalize the findings.

There are two key differences between an emic approach and an etic approach. First, an etic approach looks at grounded theory and attempts to test the theory cross-culturally with the goal of determining the extent to which a behaviour is universal. This means that the etic approach is a deductive approach, whereas an emic approach is inductive. 

Secondly, the etic approach is based on a positivistic approach to research - that is, a scientific approach to the study of behaviour.  An emic approach is based on a phenomenological approach - that is, the study of subjective experience; in this case, looking at a culture from within the culture.

Inductive vs deductive approaches

A deductive approach starts out with a general statement, or hypothesis, and examines the possibilities to reach a specific, logical conclusion. The scientific method uses deduction to test hypotheses and theories.

An example of a deductive approach can be seen in the application of the Asch paradigm.  The original procedure done by Solomon Asch has a participant match lines according to their length.  This is done as part of a group.  The group, however, is made up of confederates who unanimously give the wrong answer. Asch found that the majority of the participants conformed to the incorrect answer at least once as a result of normative social influence.

An etic approach would use the Asch paradigm in another culture to detemine whether the behaviour of conformity is universal.  Berry used a version of the Asch paradigm and found that collectivistic cultures have a higher rate of conformity than individualistic cultures.  An etic approach deduces the level to which a behavoiur may be universal by comparing it to a standard from the culture of the researchers.

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning. It is the basis of an emic approach to studying culture. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalizations from specific observations. In other words, start with the observation and then move to toward a hypothesis. This requires a certain amount of objectivity and openness on the part of the researcher.

An emic (inductive) approach starts by the researchers immersing themselves in the culture to be studied.  The researchers spend time observing the culture and begin to identify trends in a behavoiur in the culture.  The researchers eventually propose a hypothesis and then, working together with the local community, develop a way to test the hypothesis. Often a qualitative approach is used as there is not a goal of generalizing the findings universally, but rather only to the culture being studied.

 A Phenomenological Approach to Psychology

The phenomenological approach to psychology was a reaction to the dominant trend of positivism - that is, a highly deductive approach based on the scientific method which hoped to establish universal laws of human behaviour. It was felt that often participants were objectified, and their own subjective experience was being ignored. In fact, in the positivist approach, participants were called "subjects." Today, psychologists call them "participants."

The phenomenological approach focuses on three important factors. First, data is descriptive. The focus is not on quantitative data, but rather on qualitative data. It is a holistic approach to studying a participant's behaviour. Secondly, the process of research emphasizes inductive approaches. Lastly, it is important to recognize that "we all create our own truth." This is an existentialist focus of the approach. This recognizes the subjective nature of a lot of research and the need to confirm one's findings through discussion with the participant. When agreement can be reached between the researcher and the participants, then we can say that the interpretations of the research are credible.

ATL: Thinking critically: Identifying a phenomenological approach

Here is part of a biography of psychologist Stevan Weine who studies the psychology of refugees. Read through the information below and identify information that links him to a phenomenological approach to research.

Dr. Stevan Weine is the director of the International Center on Responses to Catastrophes at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In 1995 he began his work with Chicago’s Bosnian community. At this time in history, Muslim Bosnians and Christian Serbs were engaged in a Civil War. In addition, there were claims of genocide. In July 1995 in the town of Srebrenica, over 8000 Muslim men and boys were massacred. There were also concentration camps such as Omarska and Trnopolje in which murder, torture and rape were common. It is estimated that between 5000 and 7000 Croats and Bosnian Muslims were held in Omarska alone during 1992. When the refugees came to the USA, they suffered from symptoms of trauma and had difficulties integrating into their new society.

“We provided clinical mental health services to the refugees, but we tried to do it in the most effective way possible,” explained Weine. “There were a lot of outreach activities, like home visits and talking with families. One of the things that I learned was how limiting the perspective of a clinic is, and how we needed to get out there and talk to families and teachers and imams and community activists and to determine the ways in which we could work together to help people,” says Weine.

In addition to administering medication and providing psychotherapy, Weine was interacting with Bosnians in their community, playing basketball with them and going to their parties.

“I recognized their vitality and resilience, which was represented to me in their sense of togetherness, and in the way that Bosnians hang together as a family,” says Weine. “Chicago has one of the better systems for providing mental health services for refugees,” he continues, “but the services are more or less based on American/Western notions of individual suffering and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Yet many refugees, like Bosnians, define themselves more in terms of their family, and if they have a problem or a need, they seek help from within their family. I thought, why not bring families together in groups where they can supply mutual support to one another?”

In 1996 Weine began an oral history project, employing the idea of testimony. “Some people don’t want treatment but do have a story to tell,” he explains. “We created a space in which they could come and tell their stories, believing that it would help them to suffer less. But we allowed them to frame it as if they’re giving testimony.”

The stories were documented and studied as part of the Project on Genocide, Psychiatry and Witnessing.

“The traditional psychiatric pathological model was not the most appropriate or effective way to work with these families.”

(Adapted from His Story by Lisa Stodder. Full text available here).

Etic approaches to research in psychology

So, now that we understand the difference between inductive and deductive approaches, and the phenomenological approach to psychology, it is time to look at how this all relates to the study of culture in psychology.

Much of the early research in psychology used an "etic" approach - that is, their research has the following characteristics:

  • They decided what to study and how to analyze it before arriving in the field.
  • They applied and compared their research findings globally - with the assumption that there was some commonality of behaviour among all cultures.
  • They analysed behaviour using established theories and data collection methods from their culture or from "mainstream" psychology.
  • "Professionals" carried out the research upon arrival.

Some examples of this include:

  • Berry's research on conformity. He used the Asch paradigm to test conformity in Temne and Inuits.
  • Ainsworth studied her "Strange Situation Test" in Uganda and in Japan.
  • LeVine's studies of helping behaviour in different cultures.

Some of the strengths and limitations of the approach are:

  • The research is often replicable - allowing researchers to establish the reliability of the findings.
  • The research process is less time consuming and less expensive.
  • Findings may actually have global applications which could improve the situation for many people.
  • The imposed etic - that is, a sense of ethnocentrism that biases the researcher toward what is "correct" or "normal" behaviour. It makes the researcher blind to important differences and why they exist.
  • The researchers adopt instruments for assessment rather than adapting or developing new ones that have meaning for the participants. Instruments include tests, questionnaires, diagnostic tools and treatments for disorders.

Emic approaches to research in psychology

Emic approaches use a more phenomenological and inductive approach to the study of culture. Emic approaches have the following characteristics:

  • Researchers first immerse themselves in the culture in order to develop understanding. They do not come right into the field and carry out research.
  • There is no hypothesis to start off the research. Research questions are developed by interactions within the local culture.
  • The researchers adapt or assemble instruments for assessment through interaction with indigenous researchers or members of the community to be studied. When they adapt an instrument, they are making changes to an existing instrument in order to make it more relevant to the participants so that the findings will reflect their cultural realities. For example, Cole & Scribner adapted their instrument in order to make sure that the vocabulary on the lists was relevant to the Liberian children. When researchers assemble an instrument, they are basing the entire concept and structure of the instrument on the culture which they are now immersed in. For example, Bolton worked with Rwanda mental health leaders to assemble an instrument that would help to determine the mental health of survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
  • The goal is not to draw universal conclusions about human behaviour, but rather to apply the findings in the culture in which the research was done. It is possible, however, that over time several emic studies may lead to psychologists noting trends among certain cultures.

Other examples of emic research in psychology include:

Some of the strengths and limitations of the approach are:

  • It is problem focused and comes up with solutions that can be applied to directly to the community being studied.
  • The results are confirmed by the participants, so we can know that the interpretations of the research do reflect the realities of the culture.
  • Has the potential to be more objective.
  • Emic approaches take a long time and can be very expensive.
  • Instruments may not be highly reliable, or information may not yet be available about the reliability of the instrument within that culture.
  • The etic/emic dichotomy may not be as clear as we think. Often cultural psychologists start with an imposed etic approach and then move on to an emic approach. It is perhaps not reasonable to expect that a researcher would go into a culture with no idea of what s/he would want to study and only develop a research question after a totally objective long-term interaction with a local culture.

To conclude, the following quote is from the World Health Organization:

Experience shows that health programs that fail to recognize and work with indigenous beliefs and practices fail to reach their goals. Similarly, research to plan and evaluate a health program must take cultural beliefs and behaviours into account in order to understand why programs are not working and what to do about it. Health and illness are defined, labeled, evaluated and acted upon in the context of culture. If you wish to help a community improve its health you must learn to think like the people of the community. Before asking a group of people to assume new health habits, it is wise to ascertain the existing habits, how these habits are linked to one another, what functions they perform, and what they mean to those who practice them. This approach is relevant to our research since it is based on an intervention outcome (WHO)

Checking for understanding

1. What is meant by a phenomenological approach?

A phenomenological approach acknowledges the role of the participant in determining the validity of the data - and it is not trying to determine information simply from the position of the "objective observer." The research is holistic and focuses on qualitative data.  Inductive strategies are used to draw conclusions - in other words, established theories are not tested, but trends are observed and then theories are generated from those trends.

2. Why is Berry's research considered an etic study?

An etic approach uses "grounded theory" and established assessment devices. In this case, he based his research on the Asch paradigm to test the level of conformity in the Temne & Inuit communities.

3. What is meant by "indigenous beliefs?"

Indigenous beliefs are the beliefs or values that are particular to the local people in a specific location. It is important that researchers understand indigenous beliefs before studying a specific culture.

4. How does the variable of "ethnocentrism" affect cross-cultural research?

Ethnocentrism is when we judge another culture through the eyes of our own culture; when we see what our culture does as the norm or as "correct behaviour."  When we observe other cultures through an etic approach, we often impose our own values on the culture.  This may lead to us misinterpreting behaviour because of researcher bias.

5.  What are two ways that credibility are established in emic research?

Emic approaches take the results back to the participants to see if they agree with the findings. They also use the process of back translation in which interviews are carried out in the native language and then translated into the language of the researcher; then they are translated back into the native language and the transcript taken back to the participant to confirm that this is what was meant.

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