What is an “emic concept?”

Travis DixonQualitative Research Methods, Social and Cultural Psychology

Children in Uganda have been participants in emic studies that aim to understand culturally specific symptoms of experiencing trauma. (Image source: Te Tugu, Uganda, Jan. 23, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jacqueline Kabluye)

This post is for the “old” syllabus (May and Nov 2018 exams) and is not needed for the new one. The LO for the old syllabus is: “Using one or more examples, explain “emic” and “etic” concepts.”

An emic concept refers to an approach to research that involves studying behaviour in a single culture. This is different to an etic approach which seeks to find universal behaviours and/or universal explanations for behaviour.

Some behaviours are culturally specific, whereas others are universal. The emic approach to research focuses on culturally specific behaviours. One of the characteristics of emic studies is that they often use members of the community or culture being studied, as they enable the researchers to understand the behaviour in that community. In this sense, they are studying a unique  behaviour “from the inside.” They also tend to be qualitative in nature and use a variety of methods, such as interviews, questionnaires and observations.

The word “concept” in this learning outcome really means “approach to research.” So if you rephrase this LO to read, “Using one or more examples, explain “emic” and “etic” approaches to research” it becomes much easier to understand.

One area of study that has benefited from an emic approach is understanding symptoms of psychological disorders. For example, experiencing trauma has an effect on people from a range of cultures. However, symptomatologies* may be different across cultures. Understanding culturally unique symptoms of experiencing trauma can be extremely valuable, especially for Aid workers and people trying to provide assistance to those in an area that is vulnerable to trauma-related symptoms.

*A symptomatology is a particular set of symptoms of a disease or disorder.

Key Study: Culturally-specific Symptoms of Experiencing Trauma in Ugandan Children (Betancourt, et al. 2009)

Before we look at the methodology of the study, it’s important to know some context about what is happening in Uganda, a country that has had ongoing conflict for over 20 years. Nearly 2 million people have lost their homes and are living in camps. Children are often abducted to become soldiers in one of the armies, the Lord’s Resistance Army. As you can imagine, many children living in camps have experienced and been exposed to extremely traumatic events (see video below).

Previous research on Ugandan children has shown that there are high levels of PTSD in these youths who have experienced traumatic events related to the war. However, some studies are criticized because they use Western diagnostic systems (e.g. the DSM) to understand the symptoms of Ugandan children.

Therefore, one of the main aims of Betancourt et al.’s (2009) study was to understand the psychosocial problems affecting Ugandan children from the perspective of the children and their caretakers. This would help organizations that were trying to help these children deliver better care and treatment for their symptoms.

The researchers used a purposive sample of 10-17 year old Ugandan children and their caretakers and conducted interviews to get their data. One of the interview methods they used was “Free List” which is when a question is asked in a way that encourages a list as a response. One of their FL questions was “What are the problems of children in this camp?”

Their research found some of the problems related to locally defined symptoms, including:

  • Two tam: which has symptoms similar to depression and was described as a problem of having “lots of thoughts,” including thoughts of guilt, hopelessness and suicide.
  • Kumu: this is a symptom relating to experiencing long-lasting grief or sadness.
  • Ma Lwor: this has anxiety-like symptoms and includes increased anxiety and arousal, not liking noise and thinking people are chasing you. It has similarities to PTSD’s symptoms related to re-experiencing and hyper-arousal.

What we can see from this sample of culturally-specific symptoms that the researches found in Ugandan children was that while these are similar to Western mood and anxiety disorders like depression and PTSD, they contain culturally unique elements.

This study is a good example of an emic concept (i.e. approach to research) because the researchers have no intent of generalizing their findings to other cultures. While they are by necessity drawing comparisons to Western symptoms of the disease (the necessity being so that the symptoms can be understood), they are not trying to find universal symptoms of PTSD, but rather understanding the culturally unique symptoms faced by the children. With knowledge of these unique problems, organizations (such as UNICEF) can provide more effective care and treatment for these kids.

In the following video from TIME Magazine’s youtube channel, you can hear the harrowing first hand account of a young boy abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ip08pjKngI]
Betancourt, Theresa Stichick, et al. “A Qualitative Study of Mental Health Problems among Children Displaced by War in Northern Uganda.” Transcultural Psychiatry, vol. 46, no. 2, 2009, pp. 238–256., doi:10.1177/1363461509105815. (Full article)