Through the looking glass: Viewpoints in ethnography

Ethnography as a methodology is primarily interested in studying people’s behaviour in everyday contexts, rather than under experimental, replicable conditions created by the researcher (Hammersley, 1990). The focus is generally limited to a small setting or group of people, but data is collected from various sources. The ethnographer generally divides his process into two stages: data collection and subsequently data analysis. The former is generally unstructured due to the highly complex and nebulous manner in which data is to be identified, extracted, and stored so it may be retrieved later. The latter stage (analysis) involves interpretations of meanings and functions of the human behaviour studied and findings are mainly expressed in the verbal descriptions and explanations. Ethnography is therefore a process in social research that results in ethnography as a product of public relevance (Hammersley, 1990).

Development of emic and etic

An inquiry into the intentions and motivations of another person invokes a need for the inquirer to apply the same process onto himself. American linguist Kenneth L. Pike proposed the distinction of emic/etic in establishing two complementary viewpoints in studying human language and behaviour (Mostowlansky & Rota, 2020; Pike, 1954, 2015). This was based on his knowledge of the study of phonetics and phonemics (origins of the term etic/emic) and experience as academic and missionary (Bible translation to lesser-known languages) where he looked into the form and function of local languages from a theoretical and practical perspective (Pike 1943, 1947). At the time, social sciences considered language as distinct and separate from non-linguistic behaviour while Pike saw them as being unified. The etic approach relied on a general classification system devised in advance for the study of any particular culture in or to analyse behavioural data from across the world. The emic approach focused on internal activity (mental and physical) that influenced the actions of members of a culture. Based on this model, the task of the researcher was to reconstruct the unexpressed ’emic knowledge’ that guides human behaviour. 

The anthropologist Marvin Harris offered his own term – cultural materialism – based on the assumption that ‘human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence’ (Harris, 1979). Therefore, his focus was on the objective causes of human behaviour by which anthropology served as a science in formulating general, explanatory and testable theories. Harris argues that etic is a method in developing arguments based on scientific frameworks that were built in agreement with peers in social sciences, thus rendering anthropology as a science of culture. Etic here is understood as being much more comprehensive in scope than merely an external description of a culture or subject. The emic-etic approach makes a distinction in the way data is analysed by the social scientist in either favouring their informants’ interpretations of an event (emic) or contextualising it within the framework of social, economic and even technological forces (Harris, 1979, 2001). Simply observing people during the performance of the ritual is insufficient in explaining what their motivations are. It is equally important to understand the conditions that shape the way they function within society. Naturally there are various differences and similarities in the way both Pike and Harris’ definition and the debate continued among anthropologists all through the 1960s and 1980s. Since then the term has gone on to develop on its own trajectory, repurposed by researchers to position themselves epistemologically or to indicate alignment with a major strand of anthropological theory. 

A thick description

It is generally accepted by ethnographers that the emic approach results in an ideal, “thick” description of culture. This term is commonly attributed to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s (1973) but the origins for this mode of thinking goes further back to Gilbert Ryle, a British philosopher who discussed the “description of intellectual work” (Ponterotto, 2006; Ryle, 1949). The term ‘thick’ appears later in Ryle’s lectures in the mid-1960’s (later published in 1971) where makes the distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ descriptions in ascribing intentionality to a person’s behaviour (Ryle, 1971). 

In Ryle’s view, a “thin” description is a superficial description which does not account for meaning or intention, while a “thick” description considers the context of the behaviour as well as past, present and future intentionality (Ponterotto, 2006). The term “thick” entered the functional vocabulary of the ethnographer when it was appropriated by Geertz (1973) to discuss in detail the instruments used by an ethnographer in making observations which includes building a rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, keeping a diary and so forth. 

Denzin extends this definition further to include “voices, feelings, actions and meanings” which uplifted the term into wider discussions within qualitative research (Denzin, 1989, p. 83). In my opinion, it is this definition that imbues the intellectual effort of making a “thick description” of beliefs and practices with a humanistic perspective, rather than a mechanical one. Thus an ethnographer who is interested in grasping meaning within the belief and practices observed considers both action and non-action in data collection. 

Denzin also introduced participant observation as a principal construct in ethnography, one which necessitates the act of participating, that is being present with the principal actors. The quality of data collection is further extended by Hobbs with the inclusion of different mediums beyond the proverbial pen and paper such as “interviews, documentary analysis, film and photography, life histories” as valid means in investigating the “intense meaning of social life” of the community being observed (Hobbs, 2006). To avoid any confusion in the use of terms discussed, emic/etic is used as a methodology in locating the position of the researcher within the framework of inquiry, while “thin” and “thick” are qualities of the description itself. 

Based on the origins and development of emic/etic, the terms should not be seen as a binary concept, with one being the opposite or absence of the other. Instead, both terms are used by scholars to frame viewpoints and processes in different ways. Today, it is common to see emic/etic used synonymously with other dual concepts like specific/universal, description/theory (Mostowlansky & Rota, 2020) or insider/outsider. Generally, in modern usage, there is no fixed definition. As these terms are repeatedly used, defined, and then redefined in line with the varied intentions of individual researchers in the social sciences, its meaning becomes simplified and assumes new slants. The following two examples of research below is an attempt to demonstrate how emic and etic elements are used in ethnography to achieve very specific results. 

Emic and etic applied

For an example of an ethnographic research that limits itself to the etic viewpoint, we can consider Haron Daud’s article (2010) on Malay oral traditions with an emphasis on shamanistic rituals and its continuity in Malay communities in Malaysia. The descriptions of the rituals are brief and narrow, supplemented by details of the mantra recited by the shamans. Although photographs of the author and shamans are included, the data presented does not include the personal thoughts and beliefs of the shamans themselves. The feelings, intentions and motivations of those who consulted these shamans or participated in the rituals were also excluded. The resulting description can be described as “thin”. Additionally, the events described were set in multiple places, allowing us to develop a wide view and construct general patterns that may then be used to compare with similar rituals observed in other cultures (Morris et al., 1999). In this case, the quality of the description is “thin”, and indicates the researcher’s interest in assuming an external vantage point (etic), rather than exploring the internal motivations of these rituals (emic).

As identified previously, a key feature of the emic approach in ethnographic studies is the involvement of the researcher as a participant, and the collection of data by means of conducting interviews. In the following example we will consider how emic elements are incorporated in the works of Lye Tuck Po (1998, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2016) in studying the worldview of the Batek tribe in Pahang. Tuck-Po’s sustained work over many decades demonstrates the value of making ’long-standing, wide-ranging’ observations of one setting, or one group over a number of settings (Morris et al., 1999). This application of emic is related to the function of time and familiarity in observing a variety of behaviours expressed in many ways and under different circumstances. In a paper studying the walking practises of the Batek, Tuck-Po describes how in one of the walking episodes she was instructed to walk at the head of the trail:

We disagreed. To me, the front of the line is the place of navigation: how could I lead the group if I didn’t know where we were going and how to get there? Later I realized that the front is for the weak – the rear-guard is literally that. Giving the lead to the slow and clumsy paces the group and ensures that those who cannot catch up are not left behind. The ‘weak’ among the Batek, usually the kids, knew how to follow a trail and were comfortable going ahead; I was not. Anthropologically, the front is also a place of weakness: from there it is impossible to hear the muted calls and conversations of those at the back. So I chose the middle. As a participant I could train my body by mimicking the movements of those in front, and as an observer I could monitor moods and concerns aurally.  

(Tuck-Po, 2008, p. 29)


Ethnographers working towards a producing “thick description” will find it useful to consider emic and etic as being intertwined with each complementing, rather than conflicting the other. In my opinion both elements are equally useful to move between throughout the process of inquiry, filling in gaps as necessary. Therefore, it would serve the ethnographer well to consider emic and etic on either ends of a spectrum and then adjust their methodological preferences accordingly. Emic-leaning inquiries can encounter limitations in explaining only internal factors (personal motivations, faith, emotion etc.). When this happens, etic elements complement the data with considerations of external factors that the informant might not consciously consider (social values, geography, society, technology). Furthermore, an awareness of straddling between these two viewpoints can prove to be very useful in formulating a line of questioning in interviews, especially in Southeast Asia where the most important insights are usually derived from unplanned, informal conversations. 

Alternatively, an etic-leaning study can also produce a rich account of culture by extending the scope covered by multiple emic studies. Consider Kataoka’s exploration into “Thai Buddhism” from the perspective of Chinese temples (2012). The author establishes the starting point with a review of various completed work which helps define what Chinese religion and temples mean to the Chinese in Thailand. Overall, an etic approach is employed in mapping out Chinese and Buddhist temples, the various institutional factors that shape the religious landscape of Thailand, and concludes with an analysis of “Thai Buddhism” as a national construct that includes Chinese temples even when the temples themselves do not occupy the official domain of religion. In this way, Kataoka’s study can be described as taking an etic approach that relies upon, and expands on previous works resulting in a study with a sharp and focused outcome. 


Emic/etic elements are methodological devices that can be used by ethnographers in various capacities.  Rather that restrict oneself to a binary view of inside/outside, I would propose for a combination of both. A Southeast Asian ethnographer must be able to move between viewpoints fluidly, particularly while collecting data. This is especially important in researching belief systems and practices in Southeast Asia, a highly complex and fluid area of study for all parties involved. For the Southeast Asian who is studying Southeast Asia, he is necessarily studying himself. And therefore there will be situations where he finds himself positioned as both an outsider and insider. Here, the act of asking a question itself presents a conflict. On one hand it reinforces the position of the researcher as an outsider, and instigates an awareness within the informant of being the subject that is observed. More often than not, practitioners within a belief system are not equipped with sufficient knowledge to fully explain it. After all there is no real way to convey understanding.

Herein lies a dilemma that the researcher must confront: the desire to explore and explain a belief system is conflicted with the faith of the believer, which resists explanation. The act of unraveling the unknown by the researcher imposes the construction of a value system, framing the belief or practise with a form and purpose which did not exist before the intervention of the researcher. While our intentions to study are clear, reaction to the outcome of it varies from one community to the next. Some find it helpful, while some are simply indifferent. Some consider research as a political tool. The point that must be considered is the public relevance of research (Hammersley, 1990).

In the same way that the distinction of emic/etic has developed over time (and over many debates) to arrive at its present utility, Southeast Asian scholars should also consider developing or expanding on present theories to better reflect the complexities of our cultural landscape. One dimension that could be explored is in bridging the gap between the subject and constructed knowledge. If emic/etic elements are important considerations in extracting information, then surely we can find ways to give back. Apart from publishing papers, are there ways for us to relate our findings and interpretations back to the community so they may also benefit from it? For all those who have given us so much, so willingly, this is the least we could offer in return. 

Note: This essay was originally written and submitted as partial fulfilment for a course on ethnography at the University of Malaya.


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