There are two terms that I think all qualitative evaluators should know and take to heart: the etic and the emic. These are terms usually used by anthropologists. The etic perspective is the outsider’s perspective, the perspective that we have of a project’s parameters—for example, an outsider’s perception of gender in Afghanistan. The emic perspective is the insider’s perspective, the perspective that comes from within the culture where the project is situated—for example, gender perspectives of women involved in a project in Afghanistan.
Why do these different perspectives matter? In reality, it really isn’t an either/or situation. We need both an etic and an emic perspective. We most often use the emic and the etic in conjunction with each other. The emic helps us to understand local realities, and the etic helps us to analyze them.
In the case of a project targeting women in Afghanistan, it is helpful for project managers to understand local level emic perceptions of gender, so they will know how to craft and manage the project in culturally acceptable ways. It is also helpful to take a step back and look at the project, its activities, and its LogFrame, from the etic perspective, so we can analyze our progress and results.
Getting the Emic Perspective
How do we get the emic perspective? An anthropologist might conduct an ethnographic study or ethnography. When I have conducted ethnographies in various countries in Africa, I stayed in villages, used local languages, and ate local food. As an evaluator, I use qualitative data collection techniques such as participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and participatory tools to collect emic data.
Murchison (2010) explains that as a qualitative evaluator, I become the research instrument, and as such, we should consider the impact of the researcher on the actual data collected. Ethnographers and qualitative evaluator oftentimes keep journals throughout their research, to help them understand how their own state of mind might impact data collection. As a qualitative researcher and evaluator, we embrace that the data we collect is filtered through ourselves, and we find ways to mitigate our own biases and interpretations in trying to understand the emic.
Schensul and LeCompte (2013) discuss some of the skills that we need to be good ethnographers. These are also important for us as evaluators as we use qualitative data collection techniques to gather emic data. You are never going to be a full member of another culture, but you can gain skills to help you to fit in and understand the emic. The authors give us some important advice:
- You need to experience the culture without being obtrusive;
- You need to listen as much as possible;
- Learning local languages is a good way to fit in, communicate, and get to know how people think;
- You need to build rapport, which depends on your connections, how comfortable you are in the field, how well you maintain confidentiality, and how fast you learn local customs and norms; and
- You need to respect local culture, gain permission from gatekeepers and others, and understand the history and local conditions.
It takes practice and time to develop the skills to be a good listener and emic researcher. The understanding that we gain about a project and its culture is well worth the effort of learning how to collect emic data.
Julian Murchison, Ethnography Essentials: Designing, Conducting, and Presenting your Research, San Francisco: Wiley, 2010.
Jean Schensul and Margaret LeCompte, Essential Ethnographic Methods: A Mixed Methods Approach, 2nd ed., Lanham: AltaMira, 2013.
About the Author:
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.
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