The Emic and the Etic in Practice: Working with Refugees in Chios, Greece

My professional background is in development, but recently I made my first foray into humanitarian relief, as a volunteer on the island of Chios in Greece. My role was to provide aid to refugees during boat landings and to assist with the preparation and distribution of clothing, food, beverages, and other necessary items in the Souda refugee camp. As I worked in and around the camp, I reflected on the importance of using etic and emic approaches to understand the culture and needs of beneficiaries, who in this case were the refugees.

As students in AU’s M&E program, we learned from Professor Beverly Peters that the etic perspective is the outsider’s perspective, emphasizing an intervention’s parameters, while the emic perspective derives from inside the culture of beneficiaries. Etic approaches are more objective. They tend to use concrete methods and quantitative data. Emic perspectives, on the other hand, are subjective and rely more on participatory methods and qualitative data.

In their emergency needs response toolkit, the United National High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) stresses the importance of using participatory methods in refugee camps to plan and monitor humanitarian responses. These methods minimize the risks that:

  • A given intervention will cause harm to refugees,
  • A given intervention will disempower refugees by discouraging natural coping responses,
  • A given intervention will neglect marginalized individuals or groups, and
  • Resources will be wasted on aid that is not needed.

Humanitarian groups on Chios seemed to favor etic approaches in their programming, based on external, measurable aspects of refugees’ needs. One group I observed enters the camp several times weekly, classifying refugees by tent number, gender, sex, nationality, and expected departure date for Athens. They use these identifiers to determine what items to provide in the coming days, such as onesies and diapers for infants or suitcases for those traveling to Athens. It is an efficient system for meeting basic needs, but it is solely an etic one, imposed on the camp from the outside by people who spend limited time in the camp.

I suspect these systems have been in place since boats began landing on Chios in 2015. Back then, refugees were coming to the island en masse; most did not stay long before leaving for Athens and other parts of Europe. Ensuring the health and safety of refugees during landings, as well as supplying them with food, clothing, and temporary shelter for the following few days was a monumental task in those days — the success of which depended on maximum efficiency and coordination. It makes sense that groups were using standardized processes to catalog needs during this initial stage of the humanitarian intervention.

But conditions on Chios changed in March of 2016, when the EU-Turkey decision stalled refugee flows in and out of Greece. Populations in the camps stabilized, and groups’ efforts shifted from boat landings and crisis triage to meeting longer-term human needs. By the time I arrived, the camps had morphed into pseudo-villages, with their own gatekeepers, inner workings, and subcultures. But the only people I met who seemed to understand these things were the refugees themselves and the handful of volunteers who spent a lot of time in the camp. These volunteers went into the camp on their own time, after their daily chores were finished, to provide additional psychosocial support to vulnerable individuals and families. A few even seemed to have been accepted as members of the camp itself. Yet these volunteers, with all their emic knowledge, were not as involved in programmatic decisions as they might have been; nor were the refugees themselves. This struck me as a significant oversight.

It’s true that emic information may be costly and time-consuming to obtain, relative to other kinds of data. It takes more time to conduct an in-depth interview than to record vital statistics, such as gender and age. But the pay-off may be worth the investment, particularly in camps, where emic systems can help monitor threats to safety and security. For example, tension in a camp may be invisible to outsiders while building beneath the surface. If allowed to run unchecked for too long, this tension can flare up suddenly, into an episode of violence. One night in Souda, clashing groups of refugees lit fire to each other’s tents. One tent was completely incinerated and several others were damaged. Thankfully no one was injured; it could have been far worse. After this incident, I wondered how humanitarian groups might use emic approaches to prevent something like this from happening again.

One way would be to engage personnel and especially volunteers with insider knowledge in decision-making. Ask them to serve as bridges between aid groups and camp gatekeepers; enlist their help in identifying the most vulnerable cases; and use them as a warning system to know when trouble is brewing. Another would be to incorporate participatory methods, to give refugees a say in planning and evaluating programming. Invite them to serve on committees; conduct more focus groups and interviews. When conducting interviews, ask open-ended questions, to allow them to speak freely and openly. In sum, give the refugees a voice, and then listen carefully to what they have to say.

Lessons Learned

  • In the emergency stage of the humanitarian response, the kinds of data we use to assess a situation may be more etic: quantitative, standardized, and streamlined.
  • As the crisis moves to a steady state, qualitative, emic approaches become more critical, especially those that involve participatory methods and allow us to understand subtle aspects of quality of life in the camps.
  • When organizations become locked in to an etic approach during the emergency stage of the crisis and then fail to draw upon the emic when conditions call for it, critical information may be missed. This can have dire consequences.
  • Refugee camps are dynamic and unpredictable. They require thorough assessments and frequent monitoring, using a range of etic and emic approaches and participatory methods when possible.

We need to listen more to refugees and involve them in planning interventions. This is not only more likely to lead to better results, it is a form of intervention in and of itself. It gives power back to people who are profoundly disempowered because they have lost control of their lives. It’s also humanizing. To humanize, when and where we can, is the least we can do for people who are enduring an indeterminate period of waiting in the camps.


Peters, B. (n.d.). Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: The Emic and the Etic: Their Importance to Qualitative Evaluators. Retrieved from

UNHCR. (n.d.). Emergency Information Management Toolkit: Emergency Needs Assessments. Retrieved from

About the Author

Jen Ottolino holding a childJen Ottolino is an international development and humanitarian professional with expertise in management, organizational development, and monitoring and evaluation. She most recently worked in the Souda refugee camp on the island of Chios in Greece, and before that, spent several years working for grassroots nongovernmental organizations in Tanzania. She has a BA in Psychology from Northwestern, an MBA from Arizona State University, a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and a Graduate Certificate in Monitoring and Evaluation from American University. Jen is passionate about evaluation science and excited about opportunities to apply her skills in new ways and in new settings.

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