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Etic-emic: analytical perspectives in military intelligence.


Foreign cultures can be analyzed in two ways. The most common and accessible is the etic approach; the more difficult is the emic. Kenneth Pike, a linguistic anthropologist, coined these terms in 1954 to identify the distinction between those features of a language meaningful to a native speaker (emic) and those meaningful to the scientific observer (etic). Subsequently, the concept has been extended to methodological theory explaining native versus scientific analyses of other cultural phenomena, particularly analysis by cultural anthropologists influenced by Marvin Harris. All analysis of cultural information, either consciously or unconsciously, precisely or imprecisely, employs the etic-emic distinction. This article outlines the characteristics and applications of the etic-emic distinction in cultural analysis to provide a guide for Soldiers operating in the global, asymmetrical contemporary operating environment (COE).

Broadly, the difference in perspective between etic and emic analysis can be illustrated by two famous books. The etic is illustrated by Mark Twain's humorous Innocents Abroad. Slyly, Twain offers observations on an alien culture during his 1867 tour of Damascus and Jerusalem. He describes people and places seen through the cultural lens of a cynical American observer. Thus, all he reports is exotic, strange, and peculiar (by contrast with Americans and America). The emic approach is illustrated in T.E. "Lawrence of Arabia" Lawrence's more earnest Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence, a British intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East, attempts to represent to the reader the worldview of bedouin Arabs around 1916. His goal is to make Arab behavior patterns intelligible to the English-speaking Westerner. Lawrence tries to move beyond mere observation and get 'inside the mind' of Arabs.

Etic-Emic Characteristics

Pike's distinction between the etic and the emic is simple in concept: The etic perspective (Twain's) is "an alien view-the structuring of an outsider," while the emic (Lawrence's) "is domestic ... an insider familiar with and participating in the system." (1) Twain was writing for the Western reader as the witty outsider; Lawrence wrote addressing the same audience as a serious insider. The etic-emic distinction is not only academic. It is a profound distinction when analysis of cultural intelligence is the activity, where matters of life and death are at stake. In the operational context, both etic and emic convert data about an alien culture into information relevant to mission objectives, but the two types provide different levels of discrimination, or granularity, when analysts make claims to knowledge.

The Harrisian variation of Pike's distinction is broadly applicable to Military Intelligence and the COE. In practice, it works like this: When cultural information is processed into intelligence, the first question the evaluator must ask is, what claim to knowledge can be made? Other considerations are: How can the cultural intelligence producer claim to know what he or she claims to know? Is this intelligence based on an etic or an emic analysis of cultural information?

Intelligence, "a product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign countries or areas", (2) is based ultimately on some kind of claim to knowledge. In mission critical situations, product evaluation is nothing more than the evaluation of claims to knowledge based on analysis, and it is there that the etic-emic distinction applies. Ultimately, evaluation, interpretation, and-ideally-prediction of human behavior is a claim to knowledge of the foreign culture, either etic or emic.

The anthropologist, James Lett, has provided practical definitions of etic and emic in Harrisian terms:

Etic constructs are accounts, descriptions, and analyses expressed in terms of the conceptual schemes and categories that are regarded as meaningful and appropriate by the community of scientific observers. An etic construct is correctly termed "etic" if, and only if, it is in accord with the epistemological principles deemed appropriate by science (i.e., etic constructs should be precise, logical comprehensive, replicable, falsifiable, and observer independent). The validation of etic knowledge thus becomes a matter of logical and empirical analysis-in particular, the logical analysis of whether the construct meets the standards of falsifiability, comprehensiveness, and logical consistency, and then the empirical analysis of whether or not the concept has been falsified and/or replicated. Again, the particular research (collection) technique that is used in the acquisition of anthropological (cultural) knowledge has no bearing on the nature of that knowledge. Etic knowledge may be obtained at times through elicitation as well as observation, because it is entirely possible that native informants could possess scientifically valid knowledge.

Emic constructs are accounts, descriptions, and analyses expressed in terms of the conceptual schemes and categories that are regarded as meaningful and appropriate by members of the culture under study. An emic construct is correctly termed "emic" if, and only if, it is in accord with the perceptions and understandings deemed appropriate by the insider's culture. The validation of emic knowledge (epistemology) thus becomes a matter of consensus-namely the consensus of native informants, who must agree that the construct matches the shared perceptions that are characteristic of their culture. Note that the particular research (collection) technique used in acquiring anthropological knowledge has nothing to do with the nature of that knowledge. Emic knowledge can be obtained either through elicitation or through observation, because it is sometimes possible that objective observers can infer native perceptions. (3)

Awareness of how aspects of a culture shape the COE has recently been identified through lessons learned from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. "Factors such as religion, language, politics, and crime are some of the most important factors of Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB)." (4) Asymmetrical warfare dominates the most probable COEs in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) and its attendant stability operations in foreseeable deployments: "Stability operations and support operations demand greater attention to civil considerations-the political, social, economic, and cultural factors in an Area of Operations (AO)-that do the more conventional offensive and defensive operations. Commanders must expand IPB beyond geographical and force capability considerations. The centers of gravity frequently are not military forces or terrain but may be restoring basic services or influencing public support. Cultural information is critical to gauge the potential reactions to the operation, to avoid misunderstandings, and to improve the effectiveness of the operation. Changes in the behavior of the populace may suggest a needed change in tactics or even strategy. Biographical information and leadership analysis are key to understanding adversaries, or potential adversaries, their methods of operation, and how they interact with the environment. Knowledge of the ethnic and religious factions in the AO and the historical background of the contingency underlying the deployment are vital to mission success, preventing mission creep, and ultimately achieving the objectives of the operation." (5)

Culture is the ultimate open source where mapping the human terrain is key. "There's another expression though that is worth remembering in terms of what has to be done out there at all levels of our command and is done by all levels of our command. We've talked increasingly over the last several years as we continue to move forward in Afghanistan with the idea of what we call the human terrain. The military, let's say back in the 1980s and '90s, we talked about the geographic terrain, that we fight over the hills, the forests we go through. We're in a campaign in Afghanistan which is about stability operations, strengthening the state of Afghanistan which is about a counter-insurgency where the key terrain is the human terrain. That is, what do the people of Afghanistan think about their own security? What do they think about their government? How confident are they? So it's those walks through their bazaars, it's talking to the governors, it's talking to the tribal leaders where we're working over the human terrain of Afghanistan." (6)


Most important, the nature of the Soldier's training for most probable COEs must necessarily change through introducing CA in both kinetic and non-kinetic intelligence products. Major General Barbara G. Fast, USAIC&FH Commanding General, well understands the kind of training required by the most probable COEs. She observes that: "A body of knowledge on culture, economics, geography, military affairs, and politics that was once in the domain of "grey-beard" scholars now rests in the hands of high school graduates." (7)

In most probable asymmetrical COEs, warfare includes the continuation of a cultural struggle for ideological legitimacy. A sign of the changed global operational environment is the incorporation by the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas of 136 hours of Anthropology in the Red Team Leader's Course. A reflection of the recognition of cultural variables in most probable COEs is also found in a nascent professional specialty, Military Anthropology, and in articles appearing in the U.S. Army Professional Writing Collection. The task of the military anthropologist is similar to that of the Intelligence Analyst; the collection and processing of open source information about foreign cultures. Military Anthropology adds policy and mission objectives to constructs of cultural facts in light of military mission.

The crucial question for the evaluator of cultural intelligence is whether the product is based on etic or emic analysis of sources. If the claim is that the interpretation of information coincides with the native's worldview, then the implicit claim is that the analysis represents a consensus of the native view-it is an emic analysis. The epistemological claim is that the analyst is making the same cultural distinctions a native makes. Such claims are best validated by native informants. Emic analysis can be therefore difficult to evaluate.

Etic analysis, by contrast, imposes templates and categories generated by the analyst to structure cultural phenomena, emphasizing knowledge acquired by participation, observation, generalization, and inference. This is the Western scientific research technique, where the "boom and buzz" of culture is structured by the observer's (i.e., the analyst's) worldview.


The importance of Cultural Awareness applied to intelligence in the COE lies in understanding the epistemologies of the social sciences, and it can reasonably be expected to grow in importance in the most probable COEs. The integration of Cultural Awareness training in the Professional Military Education in the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) schools and guidance is advancing as the nature of GWOT becomes more apparent. For example: Some in the non-Western world reject Western political and cultural values. In some instances, regimes that use Western political forms of government are under attack by ethnic, religious, and nationalist groups seeking to establish or reestablish their identity. As tribal, nationalist, or religious movements compete with Western models of government, instability can increase. This instability threatens not only Western interests within the state, but often threatens to spill across borders." (8) Military understanding of the nature of cultural intelligence and modes of its analysis will certainly increase in importance.


(1.) Kenneth L. Pike, A Stereoscopic Window on the World (1957) at (accessed June 15, 2006).

(2.) FM 1-02, Operational Terms and Graphics, Headquarters, Department of the Army, September 2004, 1-101.

(3.) James Lett, Emic/Etic Distinctions (1996), Indian River Community College Faculty WebPage at (accessed 21 June 2006).

(4.) Cultural Awareness Impact Upon Battle Command, Center for Army Lessons Learned IIR 05-35 (2006) at (accessed 4 January 2006).

(5.) FM 3-07, Stability Operations and Support Operations, Headquarters, Department of the Army, February 2003, 2-3.

(6.) Radio interview with Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, Commander, JFC Afghanistan, on NPR's Morning Edition, 10 May 2006 at (accessed 1 June 2006).

(7.) Major General Barbara G. Fast, "Open Source Intelligence," Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin Volume 31, Number 4: 2.

(8.) FM 3-07, 1-30.

by Charles R. Morrison, PhD

Dr. Morrison is an instructor/curriculum developer for the TRADOC Culture Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Dr. Morrison holds a BA in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico, an MA in Anthropology from the University of Arizona, and a Doctorate in Public Administration from the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. He has taught at the graduate level in Japan, Korea, and Arizona. His military experience was with the Army Security Agency in Korea and Colorado. He also has 27 years of federal service in agencies of the Department of the Interior as an archaeologist specializing in cultural resources management.
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Author:Morrison, Charles R.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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