Anthropology of tourism

In France and elsewhere, tourism anthropology is not a unified field with academic recognition. The questions posed by anthropologists dealing more or less voluntarily with tourism are varied, and although researchers have come together and discussed their concerns and ethnographies, it is often to counteract the isolation they may encounter due to their choice of a research object often considered impure. The relationship between anthropology and tourism is ambiguous in several aspects, and these two distinct forms of activities in situ have sometimes been in competition.

In particular, the relationship that anthropologists and tourists have to culture demonstrates their similarities and differences. Anthropology has made culture its preferred object of research, at least since Bronislaw Malinowski (1944) made it the distinct field of his discipline. Tourism, on the other hand, consumes culture, emits a discourse on culture(s), and, as anthropologists quickly realised, creates culture, leading to new identity affirmations and syncretism. The history of the anthropology of tourism can be viewed as the evolution of these relationships, which began with violent rejection.

Difficult beginnings

For anthropologists, tourists are first and foremost people who intrude on their “field.” Since the end of the 19th century, ethnologists have made their prolonged presence among remote societies outside the Western world the founding principle of their work. Their data collection method, ethnography, requires direct observation and therefore travel, which was still quite difficult at the time when the discipline was established in the academic world. Travelling, which Claude Lévi-Strauss described as just a means to an end (ethnography), nevertheless gradually became a practice available to the masses, and today there are almost no regions that are not easily accessible to tourists. Mass travel and the development of air transport ended the monopoly of ethnologists, not without conflicts.

Tourists immediately appeared as people that ethnologists had to differentiate themselves from. This need for distinction is clear in the opening lines of “Tristes Tropiques,” where Levi-Strauss says: “I hate travelling and explorers.”

While ethnologists were frustrated by the presence of tourists on their study grounds, they did not immediately think to study them, and their first reaction seemed to be to ignore them. However, the presence of tourists and tourism in the environment of the peoples they were studying soon eliminated any possibility of ignoring them. And since tourism could not be ignored, anthropologists reacted with harsh criticism, especially American anthropologists.

It seems as if anthropologists had been forced to convert to the study of tourism, since it had imposed itself in place of their initial research object. When tourism started to become prevalent on a global scale, the discipline had not yet finished reconfiguring itself following what it considered to be the potential disappearance of its research object: “primitive” societies. As early as 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski pointed out this disappearance in the foreword of “The Argonauts of the Western Pacific”:

“Just now, when the methods and aims of scientific field ethnology have taken shape, when men fully trained for the work have begun to travel into savage countries and study their inhabitants—these die away under our very eyes.”

Malinowski, 1963

Uncredited photo of Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, 1915-1918, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The perceived extinction of “savage” peoples is the extinction of their culture. In this context, it becomes impossible to ignore that all peoples present on the planet have experienced the influence of Western civilisation. Yet, within anthropology, the myth of cultural isolation persists, making it difficult to perceive the signs of change and intercultural contacts among the studied populations.

Breaking with the myth of cultural isolation, American ethnologists, who mainly worked with indigenous tribes, were pioneers, noting the impossibility of observing pure cultures. However, they did not challenge the foundations of the belief in fixed and independent cultural identities. Influenced by Robert Redfield, American anthropology altered its approach and instead of isolating pure forms of cultures, began to focus on cultural change using a key concept, acculturation. Although the acculturation paradigm looked at the mutual influence between different societies, it remained rooted in culturalist theories, where change was the exception (and often a problem) and the preservation of cultures the norm.

It was in this intellectual context that tourism appeared. Tourism was generally seen as a new phase of colonialism, capable of destroying the last traditional cultures by turning them into entertainment objects. Although avoidance remained prevalent until the 1990s, anthropology, like other disciplines, initially studied tourism from the perspective of its impact.

American anthropology, a pioneer in tourism studies

In anthropology, early research focused on the impact paradigm, which derived from culturalist principles and a certain essentialism that needed to be deconstructed before research on tourism could be established. This work began in the 1970s thanks to several researchers, particularly in the United States, who focused on other aspects of tourism and opened a broader analytical framework for its study. While the impact paradigm did not view either tourists (insatiable consumers) or recipients (passively acculturated) as actors in tourist situations, the new research focus brought about a change.

In 1976, “The Tourist” was published, in which Dean MacCannell described tourists as complex characters, whereas many previous studies portrayed them as followers who were content with simulacra as tourist attractions. The concept of authenticity, which MacCannell introduced into the study of tourism, was decisive not only because it considered tourists in a more complex way, but because it presented the tourist encounter as the result of a dynamic process (MacCannell, 1976). In a theatrical metaphor that MacCannell borrowed from Goffman, the locals perform scenes for tourists, but still restrict access to the backstage.

Cover of The Tourist. A New Theory of the Leisure Class, by Dean MacCannell

Around the same time, Nelson Graburn published “Ethnic and Tourist Arts” in 1976 and an article titled “The Sacred Journey” in 1977 in which he compared tourism to a rite of passage. This article was fundamental in that it showed how anthropology can use the traditional concepts and approaches of the discipline to examine tourism, a perspective that would remain rare thereafter. In 1977, under the direction of Valene Smith, a first collective work of tourism anthropology compiled articles based on ethnographies of tourist situations. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism (Smith, 1977) was republished in 1989 and 2001, thus demonstrating the continued relevance of the collected works.  Furthermore, the creation in 1973 of the journal “Annals of Tourism Research” founded by the anthropologist Jafar Jafari played a crucial role in the structuring of tourism research in anthropology.

Cover of Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism by Valene Smith

American tourism anthropology was then influenced by the work of Edward Bruner, who symbolised the move away from the impact paradigm particularly well. A student of Redfield in Chicago, Bruner nonetheless took a different approach from his mentor, rejecting his principle of acculturation for anthropology.

If Bruner was willing to see tourism as something other than the imposition of change on local, defenceless populations, it was probably because he honed his ethnographic skills on the issue of cultural change. First among the Mandan-Hidasta of North Dakota and then among the Batuk of Indonesia, Bruner observed, through meticulous ethnography, that the individuals he observed were not acculturated, but navigated between cultures by changing registers to suit their purposes. He drew a fundamental conclusion from this: cultures are constructed at the boundaries and are in constant change. It is this attitude towards culture, which breaks with all forms of essentialism, that determined the way Bruner studied tourism in several contexts. His almost unique academic success, achieved despite constantly shifting between tourism anthropology and “fundamental” anthropology, made him a key figure in tourism studies.

Tourism and Cultural Dynamics

In the 1970s, the anthropology of tourism saw decisive growth in the United States, where for the first time, a number of anthropologists began to focus on ethnographic research that was attentive to the complexity of the tourist phenomenon. Even though they were no longer isolated, there were still quite a few anthropologists interested in tourism, and the impact paradigm remained dominant.

In addition to these ideological biases, anthropology was slow to integrate the study of tourism due to numerous methodological difficulties posed by the object of research. The main difficulty was maintaining the principles of ethnography and participatory observation that comprised the discipline’s identity. Although the early days of tourism anthropology coincided with a revolution in the ethnographic framework that several researchers had long been calling for, tourists remained a complex research subject due to their constant mobility. Always on the move, staying only for short periods in one place, the condition of tourists did not align well with the traditional frameworks of ethnographic work, which typically required a prolonged stay in one place. Without an investigation technique that could integrate mobility, tourists simply disappeared from ethnographies and formed an anonymous mass that was constant despite the continual replacement of the entities that comprised it. Thus, tourists became the first victims of attempts to maintain the traditional ethnographic framework at all costs.

Jafar Jafari explains the progression of tourism anthropology by showing how it aligns with the perceptions of tourism that were in vogue in international institutions. Until the 1990s, the perception of “mass tourism” as dangerous for local communities dominated, leaving little room for the consideration of the complex identity negotiations that actually took place between tourists and local populations (Jafari, 2007). It was only in the 1990s that the paradigm changed at the international institutional level as well as in research circles, and tourism became a global phenomenon that needed to be studied in order to produce knowledge.

The 1990s corresponded to a new upswing in tourism anthropology research, which this time was felt in France. In 1991, Jean-Didier Urbain published “L’Idiot du Voyage,” which, although it was not based on specific ethnographic work, had the merit of exposing the processes behind the negative perception of tourism that had long undermined its recognition as an object of study. In 1993, Michel Picard published “Bali, Tourisme Culturel et Culture Touristique,” which deeply marked tourism anthropology by showing how local populations integrate tourism into the evolution of their cultural identity from within.

Cover of the book Bali. Tourisme culturel et culture touristique, by Michel Picard

In the field of tourism, anthropology’s interest in identity renegotiations allowed the discipline to continue using its preferred method, staying in close contact with local populations and, therefore, with the problems related to the reception of tourism. One of the great contributions of anthropology to the study of tourism was to show how tourism is presented locally as a space for construction and reconstruction of identity. In France, in the early 2000s, anthropologists produced numerous studies on tourism in various contexts (LeMenestrel, 1999; Michel, 2000; Cauvin-Verner, 2007; Roux, 2011; Cousin, 2011).

At the same time, the evolution of anthropological research was specifically discussed in special issues (Ethnologie française, 2002; Autrepart, 2006; Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 2007; Civilisations, 2008; Cahiers d’études africaines, 2009) and at a seminar “Tourisme: Recherches, Institutions, Pratiques,” which since 2004 has brought together anthropologists working on tourism.

Tourism and Anthropology, a Mutual Influence?

When tourism first emerged, anthropology initially opposed and reviled it. However, as culturalist foundations that influenced these attitudes crumbled, tourism and anthropology were revealed to have more in common than previously thought. In fact, the rejection by anthropologists might have been a sign of their bitter realisation that they were not so different from tourists after all. It turned out that anthropologists who dared to examine the similarities found that they could not objectively distinguish themselves from tourists.

Anthropologists do not all dislike travelling, and they seek the same thing as the tourists they encounter in their field – alterity, which leads to an understanding of both the world and oneself. Malcolm Crick took a decisive step when he raised the question of what differentiates an ethnologist from a tourist in the eyes of local populations (Crick, 1995). For Jean-Didier Urbain, it is not a difference of kind, but of degree. It is the “generalisation of a mode of knowledge” (Urbain, 1991), and one must not be misled by the distinction strategies that tend to rank travellers and in which ethnologists and tourists seem to occupy opposing positions.

Contrary to what anthropologists who witnessed the growth of global tourism claimed, anthropologists and tourists do inhabit the same world. This means that there is a channel of communication between the two, and, in fact, anthropologists have had an impact on tourism, starting with the definition of places. This is what Anne Doquet claims when she writes: “If we tried to superimpose two maps printed on clear overlays, one showing the societies referred to as ‘ethnologised,’ and the other representing the main cultural tourism sites, it is likely that they would coincide in many points” (Doquet, 2016). Noël Salazar has also studied this impact in Tanzania and Indonesia (Salazar, 2013).

The fact that anthropology influences tourists in their practice necessarily implies that tourism practitioners are, outside of the university, the main readers of ethnology, the privileged audience of anthropologists whose work sometimes ends up being an invitation to travel. It is difficult to establish this connection with any accuracy, and even more so to quantify it, and it obviously does not concern the anthropology of tourism, an enterprise of demystification of travel that is ill-suited to the sense of wonder that tourists are seeking. However, it is undeniable that an entire generation was encouraged to travel by the golden age of mass-market anthropological literature, including the “Terre Humaine” collection published by Plon (and, notably, Tristes Tropiques, the book by Claude Levi Strauss in this collection, which does not offer the most wonder-filled vision of travel).

Thomas Apchain


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