Research: Methods and Debates
Melvyn Penn

Tourist markers, as we shall see, are a system of signs used in tourism promotion to portray specific symbolic meanings to the consumer.  The study of signs and meanings is known as semiotics and Echtner (1996) [click here for references] informs us that its application to tourism studies is still quite limited.  So how can we go about investigating such an abstract concept?

"A comprehensive plurality of paradigms is inescapable if authentic understanding of consumer behaviour is preferable to the... domination of consumer research by one ontology and associated methodology "(Foxall, 1990) 
A paradigm is a kind of formula that can guide us with our research.  Each paradigm has a common set of assumptions that we can adhere to:
  1. Ontology- asks what is the nature of reality.
  2. Epistemology- concerns the acquisition of knowledge and the relationship between the researcher and the researched.
  3. Methodology- is the process of research by which knowledge is obtained
  4. Axiology- the researcher states their roles and values to validate the research. 
We are now going to look at each of these components in turn to validate our choice of paradigm and to shape the process of our research.


A basic scientific experiment would typically begin with an observable phenomenon.  Variables would then be tested and eliminated under controlled conditions until a desirable cause and effect is found.  A positivist paradigm is the basic belief that reality is 'out there' and that these methods of the natural sciences can be incorporated into the social sciences (Blaikie, 1993).  Ontologically, we must clearly reject this view for we are investigating the concept of meaning, which is not observable 'out there' but in the minds of our participants. 

A constructivist paradigm is a more suitable approach, for it assumes that "facts are facts only within some theoretical framework" (Hesse, 1980:25).  This tells us that our research should therefore be an inductive process.  We shall begin with an underlying theory or construct (information gathering) and then each new participant in the field will bring new constructs through their own meanings and experiences.  In constructivism, reality only exists in hitherto constructs and is always open to further research.


A constructivist paradigm can be associated with qualitative methods of research.  Long periods of fieldwork are desirable so that the researcher not only interacts with participants but also understands them; their culture, behaviour, attitude and background.  Only then can we arrive at sophisticated constructs.

This contrasts with a positivist paradigm, where the researcher usually retains some distance from the participant and what is being researched.  This ensures that values and bias are eliminated from the experiment as much as possible to establish objectivity.

While these epistemological stances are quite pronounced, it is also important to consider that "the research issue (should also) determine which style of research is employed" (Bryman, 1988:106).  In this context, we are going to provide sound reasoning for rejecting both of these paradigms.

Our research is constrained by finance and time scale and this prevents the desirable level of interaction required for a constructivist paradigm.  A positivist paradigm, on the other hand, does not warrant enough interaction with participants to articulate desired constructs.  In the words of Moutinho, (1989:97) we shall seek to bring "hidden stimuli up to the level of conscious awareness".

Here, we are going to adopt a post-positivist paradigm, a more flexible version of positivism, which recognises that human mechanisms are a barrier to obtaining objective reality.  More qualitative methods of research are required than with positivism to account for this intervention, however, these methods must be verified so that as much objectivity is retained as possible.  If we are only going to semi-interact with participants and still arrive at desirable constructs, then we must provide a counter-balance so that adequate generalisations can still be made from our data.  This is going to be achieved through triangulation and critical verification .


Triangulation is the use of two or more methods of research to collect data.  Consistent findings across a range of methods can help to reduce bias and increase the feasibility of the study.

A fixed-structured questionnaire will be presented to a non-probability convenience sample of visitors at Tintagel by two different methods.  Personal interviews will be conducted and questionnaires will also be distributed through key visitor sites at Tintagel. 

The questionnaire will use both directive (quantitative) and non-directive (qualitative) questions to obtain data .  The former will ask for statistical information so that we can begin to understand who visits Tintagel.  Qualitative questions will allow for participants to describe their expectations, experiences and perceptions of Tintagel.

The fixed-structured questionnaire will be complimented by unstructured personal interviews and non controlled observations.  Personal interviews will be presented to a non-probability convenience sample of the service sector at Tintagel.  Communication with the service sector is important for they are at the front line of the industry. Observations will complement the visitor experience and will bring an element of empiricism to our findings. 


We have seen how even with a positivist paradigm, natural phenomenon can still be contaminated with bias.  The researcher will influence the situation by their very presence in a setting, let alone their choice of topic, paradigm, instrumentation and interaction.  It is essential that our methods of research are not only justified but also critically analysed so that the reader can make a fair appraisal as to the validity of this study.

In an ideal situation the researcher would collect data from every member of the visitor population to Tintagel over a given period of time.  This is of course practically impossible so the researcher must specify the probability that each sampling unit (type of visitor) will be included.  The more sampling units that can be represented the closer the sample will come to resemble the visitor population.

We have selected a non-probability convenience sample due to limited finance and time-scale.  This type of sample allows the researcher to basically choose who, where and when to research so that a reasonable response rate may still be achieved.  As with the paradigm scenario, we can expect to pay a price for making such a compromise.  The random nature of the sampling frame means that it is impractical to specify the probability of each sampling unit being included.  There is a consensus at Tintagel that at Christmas time "you get a different class of visitor".  By selecting participants at random we may not, for example, adequately represent the perceptions of blue collar workers or the unemployed.

The visitor experience can be segregated into a series of part-encounters and events (Ryan, 1995) and personal interviews have been criticised for being "an obtrusive interruption of the natural flow of events" (Bryman, 1988:115).  As far as our questionnaire is concerned, it is questionable as to which is the most valid method of distribution.  Although structured personal interviews have the advantage of being more flexible than mail questionnaires, this very flexibility can also induce more bias (Nachmias & Nachmias, 1992).  A personal interview gives the interviewer the opportunity to clarify questions and to probe information from the respondent.  But in a tourist environment this encounter is particularly exposed to communication breakdown as different cultures and dialect are pervasive. 

A further characteristic of tourism is that it is essentially a fluctuating and dynamic industry and the visitor experience will be circumstantial.  This means that we can expect both tourist typologies and perceptions of Tintagel to change according to certain conditions and at different times of year.  We shall only be able to capture the visitor experience at Tintagel at a particular moment in time and this topic would undoubtedly benefit from further research.

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