The Etic versus Emic Debate

Until recently, most training institutions prepared mental health professionals to apply universal methods of assessment, therapy and counseling to clients from diverse cultural backgrounds. Theories of personality development have been thought to be universal in nature, and therefore therapeutic approaches stemming from such theories should have wide applications. Generally, this is known as the etic approach to multicultural psychotherapy and counseling (Fukuyama, 1990). The etic approach does not disregard differences across cultures, it simply focuses on the common themes as they relate to counseling and psychotherapy. Culture or worldview is regarded as just one among many factors to consider in providing mental health services to a client. Proponents of this approach assert that minor modifications are sufficient to account for cultural differences in clients. In contrast, the emic approach asserts that psychotherapy and counseling must be practiced within the context of a particular culture (Locke, 1990). This approach seeks to make major adjustments in theories and techniques in therapeutic practices across cultural groups, or even seeks to develop culturally specific theories and techniques. Although it may be interesting to go deeper into the theoretical issues fueling the debate between the proponents of the etic versus emic approaches, we think it is more practical for us to examine their merits in terms of their actual impact on clinical training and practice.

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