Emic and etic describe two contrasting kinds of field research done in the fields of anthropology, folkloristics, the social and behavioral sciences and many others. Broadly, the distinction is whether the viewpoint adopted by the researcher is that of the subject (emic) or of the observer (etic). The terms were coined by the linguist Kenneth Pike in 1954, and are derived from the linguistic terms phonemic and phonetic, where phonemics effectively addresses elements of meaning and phonetics elements of sound.
There has been a significant difference of opinion about the goals of emic/etic research between Pike and the anthropologist Marvin Harris as to the role of each. In particular, Pike believes that etic analysis is a starting point from which to study a system, later to be abandoned as the emic system is discovered. Harris, on the other hand, argues that there is an observable reality independent of people’s illusions, the understanding of which is the aim of anthropological research.
The question of whether a construct is emic or etic depends on whether it describes events, entities, or relationships whose physical locus is in the heads of the social actors or in the stream of behavior. In turn, the question of whether or not an entity is inside or outside some social actor’s head depends on the operations employed to get at it.
From a psychological perspective, emic constructs are specific to a given culture, whereas etic constructs are universal across all cultures. An example of etics would be the theory of archetypes developed by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who believed that universal structures of the collective unconscious, such as the persona, determine the way people perceive and process information.