Emic & Etic

April 13, 2010

In knowledge management there is quite a lot of interest and use of anthropological and ethnographic methodologies. It is important to know the limitations of these methodologies. Simply listening to people’s stories is not ‘doing anthropology’ although that seems to be a rather common practice in knowledge management.

I studied Anthropology for an undergraduate degree in the 1970’s. I have continued to use many of the techniques and approaches I learned from all 4 anthropological disciplines ~ cultural, archaeology, linguistics and physical. I learned early on the importance of distinguishing between emic and etic points-of-view.

Emic is the insider’s view. When knowledge managers focus on the story from the story-teller’s point of view they are getting the ‘emic’ view. Etic is the observer’s point-of-view. When knowledge managers analyze email for social networking analysis they are getting the ‘etic‘ view. Both points of view are valid and can give the ‘participant observer‘ different insights into the group being studied.

I’m currently doing some initial analysis from both points of view. I gathered a group together a few days ago and used some elicitation techniques to collect current issues, hopeful expectations and perceived problems about a work process and a possible solution. At the same time, I’m collecting, counting and analyzing what I call ‘knowledge artifacts‘ ~ volume of documents, frequency of use, number of requests, who requested, who filled the request ~ all collected in someway by ‘not asking people questions’. By comparing these two points of view I’m pretty sure I can build a good picture of what these people ‘say they want‘ and ‘what they actually do’.

From my experience it is by combining the emic and etic points of view that is the most useful.

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