Edward Bruner

Edward Bruner was an American anthropologist who was born in New York City on September 28, 1924 and died in Urbana, Illinois on August 7, 2020. After beginning his studies at Ohio State University, he pursued his doctoral research at the University of Chicago, where he studied under Robert Redfield and Sol Tax. After briefly replacing Alfred Kroeber at Yale, he became a professor at the University of Illinois, where he ended his career. Bruner’s particular contribution to the field of anthropology of tourism, for which he has been one of the most cited authors since the 1990s, is noteworthy because he became interested in it as he was nearing retirement, in the late 1980s. Despite having published only a dozen articles, most of which appear in Culture on Tour (2005), his best-known book on tourism, Bruner’s contribution to the understanding of tourism is recognised worldwide.


Bruner’s concept of anthropology is developed around a constructivist perception of culture, in a total departure from essentialism. It can be summarised as follows: “We all enter society in the middle, and culture is always in process” (Bruner, 1994). According to Bruner, culture is never fixed, it is not possible to preserve it or destroy it, it is always emerging.

Ill. 1. Portrait of Edward Bruner in February 2005 (Source: Wikipedia page on Edward Bruner, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Bruner (Ill. 1) developed this perception while conducting his doctoral research among the Mandan-Hidatsa, a Native American tribe living on a reservation in North Dakota (Bruner, 1954). His observations there led him to reject the concept of acculturation that one of his mentors, Robert Redfield, had placed at the centre of American anthropological studies.

Bruner challenged the concept of acculturation since his ethnographic studies revealed that on the Mandan-Hidatsa reservation, the “Indian way” and “the white way” coexisted. In his ethnographic approach to tourism, Bruner stressed the importance of examining individual-level interactions, since that is where people choose to use one cultural code or another. Bruner continued this approach in his subsequent fieldwork with the Batuk in Indonesia, who had transitioned from rural to urban living and exhibited a similar flexibility in dealing with diverse cultural attributes depending on the context (Bruner, 1961).

Based on these first two ethnographic investigations, Bruner developed a marked interest for what he calls the “borderzones” which, for him, constitute the space where culture is invented. Several years later, when he began to focus on tourism, Bruner continued to observe the constant relationships between mobility, identity, and intercultural encounters at the individual level. He believed that cultures are not only better observed at their borderzones, but they are also constructed in this space.

Ethnography of tourism

When Edward Bruner began to study tourism in the 1980s, he already had a theoretical framework in place that emphasised a perception of culture as being invented in spaces where intercultural encounters occur. Bruner knew that his work on tourism would require rigorous ethnography if he wanted to examine the ways in which different participants constructed the meaning of their experience. He immediately realised that there was no consensus among tourism scholars on how to interpret the meaning of the destinations or the experiences at the destinations.

For Bruner, the meaning of the tourist experience is not given a priori, it emerges from interactions. He focused on individual variations in the interpretation of tourist performances that are always new statements. This interest echoes theoretical work on the dynamic relationships between reality, experience and expression that he was conducting at the same time with Victor Turner (Bruner & Turner, 1986).

As soon as Bruner entered the field of tourism studies, he realised that the main challenge was methodological. While his response to this challenge varied slightly depending on the context, he developed an ethnographic framework that combined two approaches. Bruner recommended long-term fieldwork at the destination, with the individuals in tourism receiving countries. But he also followed the tourists from the beginning to the end of their travels to observe how a given experience is incorporated into their autobiographical narrative.

To achieve this, Bruner used multiple strategies, including participatory observation, working as a guide to stay close to the tourists. The articulation of these two types of fieldwork is a determining characteristic of Bruner’s work that makes it unique. Many anthropologists have opted for one or the other of these possibilities (following the tourists or staying in the destination). However, it is precisely the articulation of these two methods that led to Bruner’s most important conceptual contributions to the anthropology of tourism.

Multiple interpretations of the tourist experience

If Bruner’s work had such a great impact on tourism studies, it is undoubtedly due to the heuristic scope of the conceptual system he developed from the observation, always in situ, of the modes of interpretation of the object of the tourist experience. First, Bruner reconceptualised the spaces of encounter between tourists and other actors. He called these spaces “touristic borderzones” rather than destinations. He assumes that, like tourists, locals also have a space protected from tourist presence, echoing the distinction between frontstage and backstage that Dean MacCannell had previously borrowed from Erving Goffman. For Bruner, the borderzone is the arena within which the tourist product is created, where different groups leave their daily space and come together. As a result, the tourist destination as a borderzone generates different interpretations. The very function of the site varies, since the borderzone is a zone of work for some and a zone of leisure for others.

Edward Bruner’s interest lies in exploring what he terms “contested sites,” a concept he forged during his ethnographic observations. The places where he conducted his research all have several potential levels of interpretation activated by different groups according to their interests. The sites Bruner studied (Lincoln’s New Salem, the reconstruction of a village where Abraham Lincoln lived (Ill. 2), Elmina Fort in Ghana, Mayers Ranch, the site of Maasai dance performances in Kenya, etc.) all have multiple interpretations, and this polysemy makes it challenging to arrive at a single interpretation, leading to more or less vigorous confrontations.

Ill. 2. Several potential levels of interpretation are activated by different groups according to their interests, for example with Lincoln’s New Salem (Source: Wikipedia, photo by Amos Oliver Doyle, CC BY-SA 3.0).

The article he co-authored with Phyllis Gorfain on the Masada fortress in Israel is an example of forceful contestation. The fortress is famous as the place where besieged Jewish soldiers resisted Roman troops, and then committed suicide rather than surrendering. In the case of Masada, the debate over meaning is profound. For Bruner, it has a political dimension based on the question “Should the Jews fight or accommodate?” (Bruner & Gorfain, 1984). This shows that the meaning that actors give to a site is fluid, it varies according to interests and evolves over time.

This polysemy of meaning can be observed at the sites in the way the guides present them, as well as in the way tourists focus their attention on certain elements rather than others that they deem less important or that are less in line with their expectations.

Moreover, the narrative that tourists create about their experience also evolves after visiting the site. Bruner was interested in how tourist narratives evolve, a process he divided into three stages:

  • the “pre-tour” stage consisting of narratives that precede the experience and inform the tourists’ expectations,
  • the “on-tour” stage during which these narratives confront reality,
  • the “post-tour” stage that lasts indefinitely and during which tourists recount their experience, sometimes changing its nature completely.

Toward the end of his life, Edward Bruner expressed regret that he had not been able to study post-tour commentary to analyse the constant reformulation of tourist narratives (Di Giovine, 2020).

Edward Bruner’s contribution is important because he applies a constructivist perspective on culture and the meaning participants give to their experience in tourist situations. Bruner believed that meaning is never derived directly from tourist products, but rather from different and sometimes conflicting interpretations. This perspective is not only essential from a theoretical standpoint, but also encourages researchers to contextualise the study of tourist practices in a constantly evolving context based on ever-changing interpretations. In this respect, Bruner’s work is both a theoretical monument and a guide for ethnography in tourist situations. Edward Bruner was already a world-renowned scholar when he began to take an interest in tourism, and he also helped establish tourism as a legitimate object of study for anthropology.

Thomas Apchain


  • Bruner Edward M., 1954, «A Study of Cultural Change and Persistence in a Mandan-Hidasta Indian Village», PhD diss., University of Chicago.
  • Bruner Edward M., 1961, «Urbanization and Ethnic Identity in North Sumatra», American Anthropologist, vol.59, n°4, p. 605-623.
  • Bruner Edward M. et Gorfain Phyllis, 1984, «Dialogic Narration and the Paradoxes of Masada», dans Bruner Edward M. (ed.), Text, Play and Story, Long Grove, Waveland, p. 59-79.
  • Bruner Edward M., 1994, «Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction», American Anthropologist, vol.96, n°2, p. 397-415.
  • Bruner Edward M., 2005, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 308 p.
  • Di Giovine Michael A., 2020, «Taking Tourism Seriously», dans Leite Naomi M., Castañeda Quetzil E. et Adams Kathleen M. (ed.), The Ethnography of Tourism, Londres/New York, Lexington Book, coll. «Anthropology of Tourism: Heritage, Mobility and Society», 318 p.
  • Turner Victor et Bruner Edward M. (ed.), 1986, The Anthropology of Experience, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 391p.