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Engaging ethnography in tourist research 
Julia Harrison (Trent University)
Susan Frohlick (University of British Columbia)
Series A: Tourism as ethnographic field
Start time:
11 April, 2007 at 11:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

This panel addresses challenges of ethnographic methodology, in which prolonged interaction is paramount, with highly mobile tourists. Papers examine the relationship between method and object, and suggest how engaging ethnography in tourist studies calls into question ethnographic conventions.

Long Abstract

For quite some time, anthropologists have struggled to find research strategies for studying tourists and tourism. Ethnographic methodology that relies on prolonged interaction with research participants can be problematic. How does a researcher sustain such contact with highly mobile tourists? But other problems arise as well. All too often, for example, interpretive analyses of tourism media do not take into account how tourists, locals, and others actually use the materials, or ignore the affective outcomes of tourist discourses. Nor do they acknowledge the complexities of engaging meaningfully with subjects who are both transient and reticent to be distracted from their pursuit of pleasure. Ethnographic methodology demands that the researcher make sense of these realities through painstaking attention to social and cultural context that is always complex and messy. Quick in and out won't suffice, yet nor will standard ethnographic practice. Fresh approaches must be devised. Some of the questions that might be addressed include: How does a researcher position themselves as being something other than a tourist? Does multi-sited ethnography offer a useful model here? Do the research strategies and analytical frameworks of visual anthropology offer particular guidance? Does the earnestness of ethnography need modification to fully capture the experience of 'fun' and 'leisure'? Does the experiential moment of touristic encounter provide the richest ethnographic context for research? Such questions invite a critical examination of the relationship between method and object, and suggest that engaging ethnography in tourist studies calls into question conventions regarding both ethnography and tourism.

Accepted papers:


Kenny Archibald (University of Hull)

Paper long abstract:

This paper argues that a potential source of inspiration for the ethnographic study of tourists is the anthropological community, on the philosophical basis, as Max Weber tells us, that we always already look inwards before outwards, bound as we are to our own ideas and interests. Given that we have the resources at our fingertips, I contend we must initially review that Holy Grail of taught ethnographic fieldwork, that of Malinowski, to identify the degree to which some standard(ised) ethnographic practice exists outside of that which is included in the formal published article and monograph. Following this, and drawing on more recent ideas and examples of the use of habitus, alongside those of mobile and multi-sited ethnography, and using both empirical studies of the 'backpacking community' and my own experiences of it, I seek to outline a series of strategies that are at once similar to and divergent from the aforementioned standard, both visible and hidden. Moreover, I aim to show that the radical doubt concerning the applicability of ethnographic practice is not only comparable but intrinsic to both the touristic experience and our study of it. Comparisons between tourists and anthropologists have long been made: both are extremely mobile, 'operate' in places outside of their normal contexts, and possess the paradoxically simultaneous persona of novice and expert. Hence, I argue, the similarities between ethnographer and tourist are both valid and indispensable, needing serious acknowledgement and theorising which allows an opening of the field for a newly radicalised ethnographic praxis.


Nicoletta Paphitou (Bristol University)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper i examine one particular case of anthropological research in tourism, which involves working with subsequent groups of tourists who explore the same cultural (Aphrodite's) route in Cyprus.

Paper long abstract:

My research involves working with subsequent groups of tourists who explore the same cultural route. This kind of participant observation is a unique kind of participating research: there is a similar tourist-setting (borrowing from the same cultural theme),the same cultural and physical landscape, a standard team of tourist professionals (the hosts: tourist guides and professionals) but different informants coming from a number of northern European destinations and diverse socio-cultural contexts. The field-site is Cyprus, known also as the birthplace of Aphrodite, and the cultural route followed by the tourists is one carefully designed by the Cypriot authorities to unite a number of known localities associated with this ancient Goddess. My overall research is concerned with the ideologies and practices involved in the promotion of cultural tourism in Cyprus. In this paper, however, i focus on the methodological parameters related to a unique anthropological positionality. The researcher has no other alternative but to follow successive groups of tourists who are in constant motion in space. The major challenge of this approach is to compare the hosts' and guests' expectations through the tourist experience, the tourists' perceptions, the tour, and the ethnographer, but without undermining the fact that the informants are still tourists in search for authentic experiences and totally indifferent to the priorities of the researcher. In this effort i draw some links between the methodological perspective of conducting anthropology at home and the theory on the anthropology of tourism.


Anders Sørensen (CEUS School of Business)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how ethnography has been applied to the study of backpacker tourism. An introduction to backpacker ethnography is presented, conceptual and methodological challenges are identified, and the value for anthropology of insights gained through the study of tourism is discussed.

Paper long abstract:

Backpackers are probably the type of tourists that has been most intensely studied by means of ethnography. With good reason. Ethnographic research of the phenomenon is encouraged by factors such as the conspicuous social interaction among backpackers, the existence of backpacker enclaves, the relatively prolonged duration of most backpacker journeys (not least when compared with more conventional tourist trips), and the inviting traits of a classic anthropological subject, rites of passage. Parallel with the growth and expansion of the phenomenon itself, research into backpacker tourism has grown dramatically too, and a noteworthy share of that research has been conducted by means of ethnography, while a large share of the remainder display much influence from ethnographic methodology. The author has been part and parcel of this development as he, since 1990, in total has conducted more than two years of ethnographic fieldwork among backpackers and has published several papers on the ethnography of backpackers.

However, the relatively large amount of published material about backpacker tourism, based on ethnography or ethnographic methodology, also reveal a need to initiate conceptual and methodological reflections. The purpose of this paper is therefore to take a closer look at how ethnography has been applied to the study of backpacker tourism. As a foundation for the following reflections, a short introduction to backpacker ethnography is presented. Following this, key conceptual and methodological challenges in the application of ethnographic methodology to the study of backpackers are identified and discussed, not least the seeming re-emergence of the much debated "ethnographic present." After this the coin is flipped, and the remainder of the paper discusses the value for ethnography and anthropology in general of the conceptual, methodological and empirical insights gained through the particular study of tourism.


Scott McCabe (Nottingham University)
Valerio Simoni (The Graduate Institute, Geneva)

Paper long abstract:

Within anthropology and tourism studies, debates on reflexivity and the positioning of the ethnographer have highlighted the challenges that can arise during fieldwork in terms of (stereotypical) assumptions and interpretations of the researcher by the researched, competing obligations towards informants, and the various problematic negotiations involved in trying to shift perspectives and subjectivities and reach meaningful interpretations (Bruner: 1995, 1996; Hume and Mulcock (eds.) 2004; Narayan 1993). In this paper we discuss some of these issues in relation to field work in two different touristic contexts: from detailed, enduring participant observation of informal encounters between locals and tourists in Cuba, to the intermittent, snap-shot participant observation at a mass participation football game held over two days each year in the UK. The focus of our discussion will be on the ways in which we were both primarily framed (one as a local person returning 'home' and the other as a tourist outsider) by the subjects of our research, and on the dynamics and subsequent tensions arising out of our strategies to breach and negotiate these tropes, to manoeuvre between shifting standpoints and subjectivities, either by chance or by design. We consider the kinds of relationships we could establish with our informants and how these (often transient) relationships give us access to differing interpretations. We discuss how these issues restrained/enabled our research, and what are the more general implications in terms of meaningful collection, analysis and interpretation of field study data on tourism. We raise a number of issues which are likely to emerge in tourism research, including some ethical dilemmas related to covertness/overtness, reciprocity, and competing obligations towards our informants. We conclude by suggesting propositions and strategies which we hope will contribute to debates on ethnographic data collection in anthropological research on tourism.

Bruner, E. T. (1995) The Ethnographer/Tourist in Indonesia, In : M.-F. Lanfant, J. B. Allcock and E. M. Bruner, International Tourism. Identity and Change (pp. 224-241). London [etc.]: Sage.

(1996) Tourism in the Balinese Borderzone. In: S. Lavie and T. Swedenburg (eds.) Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity (pp. 157-179). Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hume, L. and Mulcock, J. (eds.) (2004) Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Narayan, K. (1993) How Native is 'Native' Anthropologist?. American Anthropologist 95 (3), 671-686.



Linda McNenly (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Paper long abstract:

Scholars have recognized the changing nature of 'the field' in response to an increasingly global, mobile, transnational world. This 'new field' consists of "pathways" (Marcus 1995) and "flows" or "-scapes" (Appadurai 1990). A focus on these border spaces and mobile world as opened up new questions for analysis and enriched studies on tourism. However, this "new field" also presents challenges to traditional ethnographic practices. Based on ethnographic, ethnohistorical research I conducted on Native experiences in historic and contemporary Wild West shows, this paper explores the feasibility of a multi-sited, multi-method approach to the study of tourism. I discuss the challenges and concerns with this approach, including questions of locality, informant relationships, prolonged interaction, data quality, and ethics. While this research project proved challenging, it also yielded rich data as it addressed several methodological and ethical concerns about the anthropological study of tourism.

E-paper: this Paper will not be presented, but read in advance and discussed