The Emic and the Etic in Cross-Cultural Research

Occasionally, as a mother of three on the spectrum and an active autism-related blogger, I need a break from all things autism. Just as the psychology of religion is one of my areas of interest, so too is cultural psychology.
Psychology is replete with theoretical models, and the field of cultural psychology is no different. Smolka (2000) notes the considerable tension between various theoretical models of culture’s role in psychological processes. Ratner and Hui (2003) argue that the plurality of competing theories is in fact not a strength in the field, but a hindrance. Instead, according to Ratner and Hui, the limitations in these theoretical approaches must be “identified and corrected” (p. 67). One of these theoretical approaches is an eclectic one that looks at both the biological processes and cultural influence in behaviors as promulgated by Berry, Poortinga, Segall, and Dasen (1992, as cited in Ratner & Hui, 2003), noting that this approach is “haphazard” and “fragmented” with no attempt to integrate biological factors with cultural factors, nor any effort made towards distinguishing the primacy of either factor in any given psychological process (p. 69). I’d note that much of the criticism by Ratner and Hui of this eclectic approach is the simple fact that Berry et al. and like-minded researchers do not assert the primacy of one factor over the other. Perhaps as cohesive and unified theory it lacks some level of grace and style as the gist of the theory seems to be: culture and biology impact psychological processes, thereby asserting some universals when biology is primary and some culturally distinct differences when biology is not. This seems to combine the etic (universal) and emic (culture-specific) approaches in one (Matsumoto & Juang, 2008), rather than have the two approaches stand separate. While Matsumoto and Juang’s coverage of the emic and etic approaches offers only superficial information, Helfrich (1999) offers an in-depth approach that varies considerably from Matsumoto and Juang’s viewpoint of the etic  as universal and emic as culturally-specific psychological processes. Unlike Matsumoto and Juang’s connecting the emic and etic approach to Berry’s (1969, as cited in Matsumoto & Juang) linking with linguistic phonemes and phonetics, Helfrich suggests that these approaches are more akin with the “nomethetic and idiographic orientation in personality research” (p. 132).

For Matsumoto and Juang (2008), the etic approach deals with universal psychological characteristics across cultures, but for Helfrich (1999) is too simplistic an approach. In taking an etic approach, Helfrich argues that the “descriptive system” used must be “equally valid for all cultures” and provides for the “representation of similarities as well as differences between individual cultures” (p. 132). In Helfrich’s use of etic, the measures used are “equivalent” and the definitions of the variables under study are operationalized so that what is being measured across cultures. The results of these studies, because all variables and all measurement tools are equivalent, allow for comparisons between the cultures (p. 132). In this way, according to Helfrich, culture becomes a factor which can explain the differences between the cultures, as well as allowing for the ability to determine which “psychological results can be generalized from one cultural environment to another” (p. 133). In this way, culture is seen as “an external factor whose effects on the individual must be examined” (Helfrich, 1999). 

According to Helfrich (1999), the emic approach goes beyond the culturally-specific and refers to an approach that attempts to see things from the viewpoint of the individuals being studied. As such, then, the emic approach shows that everything is culture-dependent and nothing can be separated from the culture (Helfrich). This would seem to go beyond Matsumoto and Juang’s (2008) presentation of the emic as the culturally-specific in the sense they imply it to mean: that some psychological processes are universal (etic) and others which are specific to a given culture (emic).

Berry (1999) contends that both the emic and the etic approaches are necessary to cultural psychology where the emic approach is that of “local knowledge and interpretations” and the etic approach goes beyond the etic and is replicated in multiple studies across many cultures so that it is possible to “relate variations in cultural context to variations in behaviour” (p. 169). Berry cites Pike (1967), contending that the two approaches are “symbiotic”, thereby arguing against Helfrich’s contention that the two approaches are opposed to each other and provide a dilemma (p. 168). However, Berry notes that Pike states that the emic looks from outside the system while the etic looks at the system from inside. They are similar in that they are looking at the same things, but that their perspective is different. In such a way, a more complete, rounded picture can be generated of the processes being studied. Is Helfrich right that these are flawed theoretical approaches? I would have to argue back that the even the prettiest, tightest, most convincing theory is expected to have flaws. That is part of the scientific process: we submit a theory, propose a hypothesis, test it, and refine our theory, if we don’t chuck it completely.

Smolka (2000) argues fairly convincingly that none of the theoretical approaches concerning cross-cultural or cultural psychology has been thoroughly articulated in such a way as to act as an underlying theoretical construct with which to base the field of inquiry on. This inability to create or form unifying themes to underlie a particular field does not appear to be an isolated event in psychology. In a similar manner, the psychology of religion and spirituality also suffers from a lack of clear theoretical bases from which to go forward (Paloutzian & Park, 2005). In addition to this lack of agreement in the field of cultural psychology, Smolka (2000) contends that the disagreement between “universal or relativistic positions” remains a key and “acute controversy” in the field today (p. 493). I would argue that if researchers cannot even agree on what they mean when they use the terms etic and emic, it is no wonder that there is no consensus.

Berry, J. W. (1999). Emics and etics: A symbiotic conception. Culture & Psychology 5, 165 - 171.
Gardiner, H. W., & Kosmitzki, C. (2008). Lives across cultures: Cross-cultural human development (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Helfrich, H. (1999). Beyond the dilemma of cross-cultural psychology: Resolving the tension between etic and emic approaches. Culture & Psychology , 131-153.
Matsumoto, D., & Juang, L. (2008). Culture and psychology (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2005). Integrative themes in the current science of the psychology of religion. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 3-20). NY: Guilford Press.

Ratner, C., & Hui, L. (2003). Theoretical and methodological problems in cross–cultural psychology. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 33(1), 67-94.
Smolka, A. L. B. (2000). Cultural diversity and theoretical differences: perspectives and difficulties in (cross-cultural) psychology. Culture & Psychology 6(4): 477–49.

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