Etics is a term used by some cultural anthropologists to denote descriptions and explanations of human beliefs and behaviors that are presented in terms relevant to an outside analyst or observer but not necessarily meaningful or relevant to the native practitioners of the culture in question. The linguist Kenneth Pike coined the term etics from the linguistic term phonetics, the articulatory, acoustic, or auditory study of the sounds used by speakers of human languages. Pike used etics to represent a level of description of human behavior based on categories meaningfully relevant to scientists but not necessarily to the people performing the behavior.
Marvin Harris and other cultural materialists popularized the term within anthropology by using it to refer to explanations for cultural beliefs and behaviors constructed by objective, scientifically oriented analysts and separate from native explanations. One of Harris’s best-known examples is his analysis of the Hindu Indian cattle complex. Hindus revere cattle as sacred and claim that their religion prevents them from killing cattle. However, Harris identified what he saw as objective reasons for not killing cattle, related to their usefulness for pulling plows in the fields and also as producers of dung, which was used as fuel and fertilizer. Furthermore, despite their emic beliefs and behaviors regarding cattle, cattle do in fact end up being killed, particularly male cattle. Thus, the etic level of explanation can be further divided into two categories: etic-mental (“Let the male calves starve to death when food is scarce”) and etic-behavioral (“Male calves are starved to death”).
It is important to emphasize that in Pike’s original formulation, etics represented a level of description. Pike saw physical behavior, like speech, as composed of waves; humans, however, perceive, categorize, and react to behavior in terms of particles, or contrastive units, which in the case of language correspond to phonemes. Pike’s goal of an etic description of any human behavior was to present that behavior in terms of categories relevant to the scientific analysts. Harris and other anthropologists have used the term to represent a level of explanation. Etic explanations correspond very approximately to what some anthropologists refer to as analytic models.
- Harris, M. (1987). Cultural materialism: The search for a science of culture. New York: Random House.
- Headland, T. N., Pike K. L., & Harris, M. (Eds.). (1990). Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Pike, K. L. (1971). Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. The Hague: Mouton.