Shepherd, R. (2002) 'Commodification, culture and tourism', in Tourist Studies, Vol 2, No 2: 183 - 201.
The idea that tourism has become commodified depends on a debatable notion of authenticity. This implicit contrast is rooted in Marx and his dualistic notion of value.
'The story is familiar to us all: once there was a pristine and natural place outside the West; then tourism arrived; now what was once pure and authentic has become spoiled and commodified' (183). This story of loss is a common theme in much academic work and has informed much modern work on tourism. Tourism has struggled to define itself as a legitimate academic field, and has borrowed problems from other subjects, especially anthropology. A key theme has been commodification, which has become the dominant way to study the question of tourism's impact on other people's culture.
There are several assumptions in this position, including the one that local actors can easily distinguish between the sacred and the profane in their culture. Another assumption is that tourist purchases are inauthentic 'marks' [presumably after MacCannell]. The Other is really a construct, purely imaginary, and people living in exotic culture has become idealized. The authentic, the real, get displaced by monetary versions -- commodities. As local cultures collapse, social problems grow. At its most extreme, Western commercial culture replaces all other cultures, as in Ritzer and Liska on Disneyfication or McDonaldization. As a result, tourists become increasingly disaffected as they fail to encounter real differences with others. However, this whole view assumes that there was some genuine pre-tourist culture, which can be used as a benchmark to assess the spread of commodification.
The discussion of commodification might begin with Adam Smith who distinguished between a natural value and a market value, the former been determined by the costs of the factors of production, and the latter by the market. Marx distinguished between use-value and exchange value, which took on undertones of distinctions between quality and quantity [Shepherd's discussion seems heavily dependent on Baudrillard here]. Commodities are exchanged, via a money form, and this leads to alienation for the producers [different periods of marxist writing are confused here of course]. Private property was not found in primitive communities, nor was systematic exchange, except on the basis of use-value. [Try my notes on Marx on commodity fetishism here].
Apparently, a frequently cited study applying this view to tourism is an essay by Greenwood (1989), which turns on the ways in which a local Spanish festival was turned into a tourist attraction, with a resulting loss of meaning. Another example is cited arguing the same case for heritage and how it turns into hyperreality (187 - 8).
This analysis actually involves a moral commentary too, however, assuming that any changes stemming from tourism are social problems or losses. Marxists share with 'development economists' the view that culture and tourism are binary opposites, akin to the eternal struggle between nature and culture [and, later, between purity and pollution] (188). However, perhaps local cultures are far too heterogeneous to have an authentic essence? For marxist work, Labour is supposed to be the site of true value [expanded a bit in terms of some of the basic economics -- see file]. Marx himself assumed use-value was concrete and exchange value was more abstract, which leads to a similar distinction between natural and false value, and, later, rational versus 'irrational, imposed, and cabalistic' values, or a distinction between spontaneous and calculative forms. None of these binaries really fit culture, however: 'the aesthetic and cultural objects are as much commodities as are seemingly non-cultural objects' (189). [Is Shepherd simply describing the situation now in a globalised economy, or is he attacking the distinction as such?]. [It seems to be the latter because] 'value itself is not universal nor quantifiable', and different social groups employ different criteria (189).
As a result, it is not easy to decide what is authentic and non-commodified. Certainly, it is not sufficient to argue that copies themselves are inauthentic [with references to the debate about the value of reproductions and their loss of aura]. Inauthenticity supposedly arises when cultural products travel to 'a corrupt, degrading, superficial sphere' (190). Such a view also assumes that cultural value is distinct and separate from economic value, and this is a value judgment itself: 'one is located in the temple, the other in the market' (190). Such locations no longer work in the literal sense, however -- what makes a gamelan performance more authentic because it is performed by Balinese rather than by non-Balinese? It is simply assumed that there is some natural relationship between cultural practices, particular people and particular places. Of course, it is not a natural relationship at all but 'a social and historical construct', a mapping of the world, produced by anthropology (191). Take another example, Chinese food served by Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant simply seems more authentic than 'Chinese food cooked by a Salvadorean immigrants at a fast food restaurant in an American suburban shopping mall' (191), yet western Chinese food is not the same as the food that Chinese people eat anyway.
It is easy to question authenticity in this way. Yet the desire for authenticity seems important to Western culture. Paradoxes abound -- we like to think of the authentic as irretrievably lost, which makes any present cultural activity necessarily inauthentic; because the past is more authentic, the present must be of less value and interest. [Shepherd takes the example of foreign tourists' disappointment with the Chinese Great Wall theme park they commonly encounter at the special tourist site constructed for them, especially since the site also features parking lots and a roller-coaster. However, Chinese tourists themselves 'seemed largely untroubled by such concerns' (192), apparently because they had a different notion of authenticity. How exactly Shephard knows all this is not clear].
Western longing for the authentic turns on a view that we can find ourselves in Others who are more natural than we are [see Beezer on this]. Anthropologists also collude in this in their 'unending search for the Other's hidden good nature' (192), and many sociologists and philosophers also enshrine the view of an original community. This view lies beneath all the complaints about tourism as profane, and the worries about tourism and its impact.. In reality, no actual Others ever occupied this pure state --'there have always been those who have come before -- if not always tourists, then missionaries, traders, political agents, explorers, and anthropologists' (193). It is impossible to define what is original [especially given global TV?]. Given the historical dimension, it is quite likely that today's 'staged hokiness stands a good chance of becoming tomorrow's authentic cultural tradition' (193). Steam trains were once seen as a dangerous modern corruption of the traditional, and are now seen as traditional and authentic themselves. Maybe even 'California's original Disneyland will be re-marked as a site of a certain type of Disney authenticity' (193).
Even the Frankfurt School with their view of cultures as an industry partake of this view, which makes them 'implicitly elitist and culturally conservative' [about time they appeared, with the usual dismissive insults -- try Adorno on the culture industry here]. The whole Marxist argument is reductionist, reducing multi-faceted consumption to commodification. [There is then a curious bit on the gift relationship -- Shepherd takes this as an early example of calculative intent, but we always knew this. More seriously, he seems to be suggesting that calculative intent is universal, and that commodification is merely a specific version of it. Marx would argue that commodification is in fact very special, the result of quite distinctive social and political changes, and not universal at all. Try Bourdieu for a study of the impact of specific commodified forms on the previous social calculations and manoeuvres of Algerian society]. The distinction between culture and commodity was also used to defend every day folk culture, but that also ignores the penetration of commodity production into that folk culture [when? Are we assuming that calculative intent and commodity production are the same thing again?].
Returning to tourism, cheap copies of authentic art are often condemned as profane compared to that which was pure. Yet the authentic needs to be defined against the inauthentic [see Kingston on this]. It is hard to separate the two in practice. [Again a general point is made about binary terms necessarily involving both]. Tourism can both increase interest in local arts and corrupt them. Interacting with generalised or idealized others can similarly have a beneficial effect on local traditions, and those local traditions often mix the authentic and the inauthentic anyway. Local artists can even deliberately produce copies or fakes 'authentically', that is, not specifically for the tourist trade.
These complexities also affect policies to regulate tourism. In societies such as Bali, it is too late, and tourism has been operating for a long period of time. More generally, any distinctions between authentic and commodified are likely to be arbitrary. 'Commodification within the sphere of culture is a social fact' (195). We should not constantly focus on a perfect but lost past, and instead operate with'competing authenticities, all products of particular social forces engaged in a process of cultural (re)invention and consumption within the context of existing social relations' (196). We should reject the romantic view that commodification must be resisted: that does not mean we should wholeheartedly embrace the global market. Instead, we should investigate how 'people make meaning in their lives within the world of tourism' (196).
Greenwood, D (1989) 'Culture by the Pound: An Anthropological Perspective on Tourism as Cultural Commoditization', in Valene Smith (ed) Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
back to key concepts