Emic & Etic Approaches in International Research

Emic & Etic Approaches in International Research


Jan 06, 2014

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In my last blog, I discussed some of the difficulties culture presents to conducting international market research. If we don’t account for the differences between cultures in all phases of the research process our research is next to meaningless.  Frankly, we can’t conduct effective international or cross-cultural research without first learning something about the culture(s) where we are focusing our attention.  When we are conducting international market research, especially comparative studies, we need to be aware of how we will perceive the data we will collect (research design), how we will analyze this data after collection is complete, and the objectives in conducting the research.  Historically, in cultural anthropology, this  comes down to the insider view or the outsider view, respectively called emic and etic approaches.  This distinction refers to the purpose and kind of fieldwork conducted and the various insights obtained.

I’ll explain the differences in emic (insider) vs. etic (outsider) approaches shortly, but first I wanted to make sure we have a good working definition of culture. Culture is a complex and holistic system of learned behaviors that include specific knowledges, beliefs, morals, laws, customs, ideas, and overall ways of life. Basically, culture is the lens in which us humans learn to view, perceive, and relate to the world. Differences in culture can result in different perceptions, ideas, and understandings. This is why we experience culture shock when traveling – we feel disoriented, confused, and are prone to misunderstandings.

As  I previously wrote, if we don’t acknowledge these cultural barriers to understanding each other in our research we are bound to come to faulty conclusions.

O.K., so these barriers exist, now what? What can we do to deal with these differences? The answer will ultimately depend on the research objectives. For this reason learning more about emic and etic approaches can be helpful.

Emic, the insider view, is focused on culturally-bound data and gets at how people within one culture think, perceive, and understand their world. This approach allows for a description that is meaningful to the person within that culture. Etic, on the other hand, is based on generalizations and observations made from the researcher (anthropologist, market researcher, etc.) that are assumed to be applied across cultures. This is where we get the insider and outsider distinction. In reality, emic vs. etic isn’t a dichotomy (not mutually exclusive) and can be used to varying degrees in the same project (more on this at the end). I’ve summarized some of the pros and cons of emic and etic approaches in the chart at the end of this post, but it is good to remember that the real strength is often in integrating the two.

As I’ve said above, the approach a research project takes ultimately depends on the objectives and insights you want to achieve. An emic approach might be good for studying one culture in detail to learn how they perceive, act, or experience a product or service. On the other hand, an etic approach might be valuable when attempting to compare one or two characteristics across multiple cultures such as the use of make-up products or shoe purchasing behaviors.

Whereas, the etic approach might seem to be more efficient in terms of time and financial considerations because you can assess multiple countries at once, a recent article in the International Journal of Management and Marketing Research[1] contains some warning signs. The authors raise the important issue of data equivalence in cross-cultural research, especially in etic approaches. Data equivalence refers to when data has, as much as possible, the same interpretation, meaning, and accuracy in all countries. They reviewed many international marketing and buyer behavior studies and note that most don’t examine the equivalence of the data and equivalence is assumed rather than tested. The authors of this study attempt to show an example of how data equivalence can be established. A more detailed summary of this article is far beyond the scope of this post, but if you are curious about their methodology and results (which are very insightful), I encourage you to take a look. The point remains, if you’re not cognizant of the possible pitfalls and barriers to international research your results will not be as accurate and useful.

You can imagine the trouble of assuming equivalence if you are trying to compare say grocery shopping behavior across cultures. The issue of course is that grocery shopping could mean very different things and involve very different behaviors from one culture to the next. Now, remember when I said that emic and etic aren’t mutually exclusive? Here is where using the two approaches can benefit the quality of the insights produced. One possibility is to do qualitative pilot studies in order to capture the emic experience of grocery shopping in the target countries. After you establish the nature of grocery shopping in each culture you are targeting, you can analyze the equivalence between these different experiences. If equivalence is established you can move on to etic type comparative analyses or further research. While this means more work, I’m of the opinion the usefulness greatly outweighs their costs  as we all know that garbage in equals garbage out. It is worth the investment if the insights are more relevant.

While international market research is increasing as we become more and more globalized and more and more connected, we need to be aware of how to navigate this complex multi-cultural world. Just because we are becoming more connected doesn’t mean our differences are less. In fact,  you could say that because of this increased connection our differences are becoming more pronounced.

Emic & Etic Approches table

[1] Rogers, Mary Margaret, Robert A. Person, and Gerald Albaum (2013). Measuring Business Related Ethicality Globally: Cultural Emic or Etic?. International Journal of Management and Marketing Research 6(1): 1-14.

The results we received from the iModerate one-on-one, in-depth conversations were much more enlightening than what we typically garner from open-ended verbatim responses. The live moderator offers us the ability and flexibility to probe deeper on certain points, enabling us to get stronger, less vague information. That unique capability has proved extremely valuable to us, and has made this IM-based platform an integral part of our research toolbox.

Colleen Hepner, VP, C&R Research