Understanding Culture for Global Communication- Etic and Emic Approaches to Culture

Global communication is the term used to describe ways to connect, share, relate and mobilize across geographic, political, economic, social and cultural divides. It redefines soft and hard power as well as information power and diplomacy in ways not considered by traditional theories of international relations.

Global Communication implies a transfer of knowledge and ideas from centers of power to peripheries and the imposition of a new intercultural hegemony by means of the “soft power” of global news and entertainment.

The study of global communication is an interdisciplinary field that studies the continuous flows of information used in transferring values, opinions, knowledge, and culture across boundaries.

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.

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.

An emic view of culture is ultimately a perspective focus on the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society, often considered to be an ‘insider’s’ perspective. While this perspective stems from the concept of immersion in a specific culture, the emic participant isn’t always a member of that culture or society. Studies done from an emic perspective often include more detailed and culturally rich information than studies done from an etic point of view. Because the observer places themselves within the culture of intended study, they are able to go further in-depth on the details of practices and beliefs of a society that may otherwise have been ignored. However, the emic perspective has its downfalls. Studies done from an emic perspective can create bias on the part of the participant, especially if said individual is a member of the culture they are studying, thereby failing to keep in mind how their practices are perceived by others and possibly causing valuable information to be left out. The emic perspective serves the purpose of providing descriptive in-depth reports about how insiders of a culture understand their rituals.

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