Trading Fish The blog of Hector Castro

A Useful Framework for Interpreting Success Stories

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Work Is Work, an essay by Coda Hale on organizational design. Aside from providing a thought-provoking perspective on scaling organizational efforts, the post makes reference to two terms from anthropological field research that were new to me: emic and etic. Below, I’ll describe how these terms provide a useful framework for interpreting success stories.

Emic and Etic

When we read success stories, we often do so to help narrow down the solution space for a problem we’re facing. During that process, it can sometimes be easy to lose track of how important details of the story (its plot, setting, actors, etc.) are different from ours.

Emic and etic help describe behaviors or beliefs from the actor’s perspective (emic) vs. behavior or beliefs observed by an outsider (etic). Continuing with the success story example, writing about how I had great success with a new JavaScript framework is an emic account. You reading my story as research for selecting a JavaScript framework to use for your project is an etic account.

This framework has been valuable to me in two ways. It:

  1. Helps heighten my awareness; prompting an additional level of scrutiny toward the solutions I consider (e.g., you had success, but the project you used the JavaScript framework on was small and mine is large).
  2. Provides shorthand terms for what are otherwise relatively difficult concepts to communicate.