The emic perspective – the insider’s or native’s perspective of reality – is at the heart of most ethnographic research (Berg & Lune, 2012). The insider’s perception of reality is instrumental to understanding and accurately describing situations and behaviors (Creswell, 2012). Native perceptions may not conform to an ‘objective’ reality, but they help the fieldworker understand why members of the social group do what they do (Daly, 2007). In contrast to a priori assumptions about how systems work from a simple, linear, logical perspective – which might be completely off target – ethnography typically takes a phenomenologically oriented research approach (Loseke, 2013). An emic perspective compels the recognition and acceptance of multiple realities (Marshall & Rossman, 2010). Documenting multiple perspectives of reality in a given study is crucial to an understanding of why people think and act in the different ways they do (Maxwell, 2012). Differing perceptions of reality can be useful clues to individuals’ religious, economic, or political status and can help a researcher understand maladaptive behavior patterns (Mills & Birks, 2014).
An etic perspective is an external, social scientific perspective on reality. Some ethnographers are interested only in describing the emic view, without placing their data in an etic or scientific perspective (Saldana, 2016). They stand at the ideational and phenomenological end of the ethnographic spectrum (Silverman, 2013). Other ethnographers prefer to rely on etically derived data first, and consider emically derived data secondary in their analysis (Tracy, 2013). They stand at the materialist and positivist philosophical end of the ethnographic spectrum (Creswell, 2012). Most ethnographers simply see emic and etic orientations as markers along a continuum of styles or different levels of analysis (Anfara & Mertz, 2015). Most ethnographers start collecting data from the emic perspective, then try to make sense of what they have collected in terms of both the native’s view and their own scientific analysis (Dougherty, 2011).
Just as thorough fieldwork requires an insightful and sensitive cultural interpretation combined with rigorous data-collection techniques, so good ethnography requires both emic and etic perspectives (Glesne, 2011). Many researchers now recognize that the two strategies are better viewed as lying on a continuum rather than as mutually exclusive and incompatible (Jaccard & Jacoby, 2010). Thus, the emic–etic distinction has been redefined as referring to endpoints of a continuum that ranges from cultural specificity (emic) to universality (etic) (Berg & Lune, 2012). In this new approach, emic and etic aspects can coexist and work together because many phenomena studied in cross-cultural research have both universal and culture-specific aspects. An organization represents a mixture of diverse culture hence a consultant will be able to have a holistic view of how to develop solutions using both the emic and etic perspectives.
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