Research -- summary and critique

Sean Gillen

It would appear from the research, that the visitor/attraction relationship could be conceived of as offering both positive and negative connotations, emanating from both the presentation of classical mythology and the production of ideologically based texts.  The ‘hidden meanings’ of the sites however, revealed by their ‘second order’ signification, might indicate divergent implications.  Firstly, the formal gardens of Mount Edgecumbe could be seen to imply a place of rejuvenation and peaceful ‘escape’ (in the first order of signification).  In contrast, the presentation of classical mythology at Tintagel might be seen to present the visitor with an enlightening, mystical experience, with the suggestion of intangible magical forces.

These outcomes need not be seen as distinct however, as ideological undercurrents might be implied by both sites.  At Tintagel: those implied by Arthurian legend, of bravery, Britishness and mysticism; at Edgecumbe, the perpetuation of the values and characteristics of an aristocratic elite, further perpetuated by the State in a role as the new purveyors of civility and decency.  As Hewison posits,  “country house owners…continue to serve as a social paradigm and their values and tastes filter down, diluted for mass consumption” (1987:76).[ references here]

Whilst the State might be perceived as inheriting this role, the same might not be applicable to Tintagel’s owners, English heritage.  As has been demonstrated, the ‘playing on’ whilst ‘playing down’ of the Arthurian legend is evident.  Any ideological discourse surrounding this site therefore, could be seen as a product of the more commercialised industry of the village, augmented by the promotional efforts of the Cornwall tourist board.

One of the aims of the research is to assess the role of the tourism and leisure ‘industry’ as akin to that of a ‘shaman’ in the work of Levi Strauss.  In this respect, the idea that the formal gardens could be perceived as encouraging a more orderly and rejuvenated worker who, in turn, is encouraged to satisfy the subliminally created desire to consume, [perhaps even consume a holiday product such as the Tintagel experience]. As Levi Strauss (1963) demonstrates, the shaman elicits a ‘cure’by using the sick person as a battle ground between positive and negative mythical forces.  In this sense, the tourism and leisure industry could be viewed as perpetuating the means to create desire for its consumption, as well as the ability to supply satisfaction.  Furthermore, Levi Strauss asserts 

“There must be, and there is, a correspondence between the unconscious meaning of myth…and the conscious content it makes use of to reach that end, i.e. the plot” (1963: 201, in Hawkes1977: 43).  
The ‘conscious content’ [the first order denotations of Arthurian legend] offered at Tintagel, through its mystical extrapolations, could certainly be seen to correspond with the unconscious meanings suggested in the preceding essay; that of spirituality and pseudo-religious significance;  that life might be more than a mere cycle of work, rest and ultimate demise. Importantly, ‘myth’ in the above sense, could also be substituted by ‘myth’ in the Barthesian sense, without losing the assertion’s significance, indeed, the content offered by the landscaping of the gardens at Mount Edgecumbe, and the proposed ideological ends could demonstrate this.  The link between such ‘content’ and its ‘meaning’ however, remains at the unconscious level, unless exposed by semiotic analyses.

These meanings, it could be claimed, can only be enhanced through the perpetuation of the first order myths that are visible to the visitor. However, as Fiske proposes “every time a sign is used, it reinforces the life of its second order meaning, both in the culture and in the user” (1982:150).  By perpetuating the more innocuous myths associated with the sites, therefore, the promotion of the intrinsic benefits [and even ideological intentions] is ensured.  Whether this is to the advantage of the visitor, the state, or the leisure and tourism industry could depend on the motivation of the provider, as well as the content of the attraction.

Research Critique

The previous section has briefly summarised the outcome of the application of the methodological position that was set out in the literature review.  The aim of this section is to retrospectively analyse this methodology, drawing predominantly on the research experience itself, supported by relevant academic criticism.  An assertion of an alternative epistemological position will precede the final concise summary. 

Central to the research process has been the structuralist and Marxist work of Levi Strauss and Barthes, which it could be posited have contributed in several positive ways.  Levi Strauss has offered a perspective to this researcher that encouraged cultural analysis on a level not previously perceived of.  This has been enhanced by the practical application of Barthes’s concepts, particularly the notion of ‘2nd order signification’.  The application of a  linguistic/ semiotic framework, influenced by these eminent semioticians has offered valuable insights into society and the research process, whilst enhancing the critical knowledge base of this writer.  

The research experience has shown that disciplinary boundaries not only seem to develop the thought process but also provide a distinct focus for the analysis that is particularly helpful to the novice researcher.  As Harris proposes, “they generate knowledge [and] offer researchers some sort of reason for commitment to research or critique” (1992:113).  In particular, the application of Marxist and structuralist thinking has performed the role of a ‘devil’s advocate’, prompting self analysis whilst challenging preconceptions.  At the very least, these approaches might force the inexperienced researcher to at least consider the underlying ‘hidden meanings’ of the cultural text.

It would be naïve to suggest that these perspectives are without flaws.  Indeed, the evolution of post-structuralist and post-modern critiques might be seen as particularly enlightening (see: Lyotard 1984, Baudrillard 1983, even Barthes 1977). At the heart of this, it could be suggested, is the question of the nature of the subject, and the researcher’s relationship with it.  Such ontological and epistemological considerations are the concern of all scientific and sociological analyses.  Whilst acknowledging the problems associated with any assertion of knowledge, issues such as relativism, science and truth cannot feasibly be covered in a paper of this length (See, for instance, Kuhn 1962, Mannheim 1953, Feyerabend 1978).  However, the research experiences being discussed in this section might indicate the genuine development of post-structuralist or post-modern inclinations , through the research process itself, without prior in-depth sensitisation to these critiques.  This, it could be argued, offers a more honest and convincing perspective that might reflect fundamental sociological and philosophical debates, whilst not being intentionally constructed around them.

In general though, criticism of structuralist semiotic techniques might emanate from its process of interpretation, in which “an ideological framework inevitably guides the researcher” (Echtner 1999:51).  This is particularly pertinent given this paper’s influences.  As Echtner submits, “Barthes’ work most clearly illustrates the ideological embeddedness of semiotic interpretation” (1999:51).  Indeed, this might be seen to demonstrate a central problem in all sociology: whether structure is dominant over agency or vice-versa (as addressed by Giddens, 1984).  

The structuralist position relegates the individual to that of ‘cultural dope’, as Mellor posits, “we have assumed that people are not in active negotiation with their symbolic environment, but are passively shaped by it” (1991:114).  In response, the case for resistance is powerfully stated by many influential critics, none more so than De Certeau, in asserting that “The presence and circulation of a representation tells us nothing about what it is for the users” (1984:18, in Frow1991:53. See also Baudrillard 1983, Eco 1987).  It seems, however, that whilst asserting the case for the consideration of ‘agency’, the epistemological position of the researcher specifically is neglected.  

Structuralist interpretation might even be seen to assume that the researcher has a privileged position of being in society, whilst being immune to its ‘passively shaping’ influences. Barthes himself seems to take this position, exemplified by his remark “I see very well what it means to me”, when discussing the significance of the saluting black soldier. (1972:116): the insinuation being that others do not, or cannot ‘see it’.  Moreover, It seems implausible that structuralist researchers are the only individuals to exist in ‘active negotiation’ with society, whilst proclaiming the dominance of structure. The application of structuralist semiotics in this research, (following the promotion of the study of tourism, myth and culture as ‘languages’) might therefore demand that an alternative epistemological position is sought.  As Harris warns, 

“To withdraw into ‘pure’ linguistics, to consider only the play of signifiers, without referents, as in ‘pure’ textuality, is to risk an abstract formalism and a relativism that means a deep indifference to actual social practices, despite attempts to conjure them back into the analysis” (1992: 112)

With this in mind, the position being asserted in this section is that the commentator is as much a part of the society under consideration as his subjects, and that effective outcomes can only be gained through reference to the possibility of variable interpretation of texts by both.  This could be seen to reflect the position of hermeneutics described by Palmer (1969). Understanding through interpretation is central to hermeneutics, and this “understanding, therefore…calls forth personal experience of being here in the world” (1969:10), a perspective apparently supported by Gadamer (1960),  as Jary and Jary summarise, 

“We can recognise and generalise a particular view only because we interpret instances of it, but can only understand a particular act or artefact with reference to the ‘world view’ that produced it” (1991:272).
This approach, therefore, would seem to give credibility to the centrality of the researcher’s experience, of life and the subject under analysis, whilst also supporting the view that individuals in general can offer resistance through ‘interpretation’.  Criticism of the subjectivity of the hermeneutic approach as highlighted by Jary and Jary, (1991:272) can itself be criticised.  Indeed, it could be propounded that there is no objectivity without the integration of the ‘self’ into the analysis; a perspective that appears to be opposite to that of structuralism.

The actual research carried out for this paper offers examples of why this position is being taken. Firstly, the research carried out at Mount Edgecumbe provided an inadvertent over-hearing of an innocuous observation made by an elderly woman, amongst a group of four peers.  Commenting on the formal gardens, it was proclaimed that they are a

 “wonderful recreation of the last century, not at all overdone like those walled gardens in Heligan” 
This suggests two significant points. One, that individuals have the ability to recognise the true nature of such sites, i.e.: as a ‘recreation’ rather than ‘authentic’ (even though elements of this site are indeed at least ‘original’), as well as actively applying a form of ‘intertextual’ analysis through comparison.  Despite this, the woman in question still appeared to enjoy the experience.  Secondly, and perhaps even more significant, is the fact that this considerable enjoyment was gained from the sites being sites analysed, despite the application of the chosen methodology.  The stunning natural environments as well as the more ‘mystical’ elements contributed to this enjoyment, even arousing feelings of ‘guilt’ at the assertions being made.  

The problem here is that this recognition of internal conflicts and feelings does not necessarily undermine the structuralist perspective.  Indeed, in some ways they could actually enhance the claims made in the research summary, especially if ‘structuring’ is working at a subconscious level on the researcher too.  However, it is equally conceivable that the elderly woman’s analysis, and the experience of enjoyment by the researcher, could constitute resistance to  ideological or structural influences.  Giddens theory of a ‘duality of structure’, as accounting for the ‘knowledgeability’ of social actors, but with structure as the ‘medium and outcome’ of agency seems applicable. (1984, cited in Jary and Jary 1991:635).  

The epistemological problem remains, however.  If this is to be overcome, new approaches need to be developed.  The perspective offered by Gottdiener (1995) might be seen as potentially beneficial in offering a socio-semiotic model that “highlights the important reciprocal linkages between producers and users as mediated through mass cultural objects” (1995:168).  Specifically, the influence of the ‘social context’ on the generation of ‘meaning’, and the distinguishing between “an object as an indicator of function and an object that signifies” is asserted, [note that the emphasis of Pierce’s ‘interpretant’ in the process of semiosis seems apparent].   Moreover, Gottdiener is equally explicit in the rejection of the Marxist ideological approach of Barthes, and Baudrillard’s assertion of a universal ‘sign-value’ of objects.  Instead, a three way model is proposed, featuring the interplay between the producer, user and object.  Through focussing on the ‘process’ of meaning generation, tenuous interpretation is reduced.  

Of particular relevance to this paper is the user/object relationship (:181); the ‘second stage of semiosis’ in which the user ‘personalises’ an object through second order signification that “attenuates the primary function” that can be implied by the producer.  Parallels can be drawn with the structuralist application of Echtner’s (1999) ‘destination/potential tourist’ relationship that underpins this paper.  Whilst the application of this framework prompted the question “What is the symbolic consumption experience offered to the tourist by the destination?” (Echtner 1999:53), the application of Gottdiener’s model might prompt a more complex yet  also more rational analysis than has been undertaken here.  Indeed, the alternative question could now read ‘How is the symbolic experience constructed, and how might it be interpreted and utilised by the individual’.  Vitally, the term ‘tourist’ has been replaced by ‘individual’, allowing for the alternative insertion of ‘the researcher’.

Although an in depth appraisal of Gottdiener’s model is beyond the remit of this paper, it is commendable in its development of semiotics beyond its linguistic boundaries, via the analysis of the exchange of meaning between social actors.  However, it could be suggested that both Gottdiener and Ecthner still appear to neglect the position of the researcher: as part of the ‘social context’ that is being addressed; subjected to its conventions and its influences.  The contention here is that the action of analysis does not, perhaps even cannot, remove the researcher from a position that is within the models proposed by Gottdeiner and Ecthner, either as a ‘potential tourist’, ‘user’ or indeed ‘producer’.  Furthermore, this might present a problem for the Marxist and structuralist perspectives: If structure is paramount, how can the researcher ever hope to escape its influence on his actions or thought processes?  

Clough (1992) proposes a ‘post-structural semiotic approach’ that takes account of the effect of  ‘emotional realism’ that “affects the viewer’s feelings by focussing the viewer on an experience of self” (:70).   Extrapolating this notion, the term ‘emotional realism’ could also therefore refer to the individual effect of the text on the researcher, as a viewer of ‘cultural texts’.  Indeed, Becker’s (1986) notion that  “sociology produces factual representations when it evokes self-feeling” (cited by Clough 1992, 65) might support the idea that emotional realism is also applicable to the research process.

This perspective has appeal in that it appears to recognise the influence of the ‘object’ on the ‘user’, as well as the potential for resistance through individual interpretation by the user [or indeed researcher].  Either through personalisation, as posited by Gottdeiner, or the emotional realism appealed for by Clough, this viewpoint might begin to account for the effect of agency and the researcher. Whilst aimed at ethnography, such thinking might also be appropriate for the semiotician: both might be seen to depend on interpretation of cultural meaning.  The application of emotional realism might therefore be proposed as beneficial in attempting to overcome epistemological problems that could arise in the application of Gottdiener’s or Ecthner’s models.

Having asserted the opinion that the researcher should not view himself as distinct from other ‘users’, it follows that cultural/semiotic theorising should also consider the actions and emotions of other users: the tourist themselves. Whilst commendably calling for a more empirical semiotic approach, Mellor posits: 

“The point of departure has generally been, not peoples’ intentions and activities, but the meaning and representations that surround them…Had we begun with the visitors’ own understanding and activity, the difference between Camelot, the Albert Dock and Beamish World would still be open to us” (1991:113)
This raises a further problem that is particularly relevant to the analysis of a cross-cultural activity like tourism: Without reference to the distinct cultural aspects of the individual user, producer or object, it seems that any structuralist interpretation could be undermined, through the omission of  ‘visitors’ own understandings’.   As Turner proposes, “different cultures may not only use different language systems, but they may also, in a definitive sense inhabit different worlds” (1990:14). 

As discussed earlier, Fromm (1952), Propp (1968) and Levi Strauss (1963) have attempted to illustrate the commonality of function and structure within mythology and fairy tales; it has been suggested in this paper that contemporary tourism might perform a similar function to these.  On a practical level, however, a task for semiotics could be to analyse any inter-textuality between attractions of the genre [i.e. Tintagel, the attractions based on Viking conquests, Robin Hood or even ‘Nessie’] and whether their meanings are culturally transferable.  In this sense, the seminal ideas of Saussure (1915) might still seem to be influential.  As Turner suggests, for Saussure, “the way we ‘see’ the world is determined by the cultural conventions through which we conceptualise the images we receive” (1990:13).   Indeed, Ireland and Kivi (1997) suggest that different cultures actually perceive attractions on different emotional levels, a position that would seem to concur with that of hermeneutics.  Furthermore, given the assertions being made in this section, both tourists and researchers might actually perceive attractions differently. Consequently, the amalgamation of Gottdiener’s model, Clough’s reasoning and the epistemological position asserted here, might help to alleviate any potential cultural language barrier. 

In this way, the application of semiotics could even contribute to the development of more effective and enjoyable visitor attractions.  Rather than using the text to create an ideological influence, a ‘reverse-engineering’ of meaning could feasibly see the tourist influencing attraction’s development, via semiotician’s research. 

In summary, the research carried out for this paper has been beneficial for several reasons.  It has raised awareness of the possibility of ideological and structural influences operating through tourism and leisure.  Simultaneously, it has also demonstrated, [through experience of the research process itself] certain faults within the semiotic paradigm as applied. At the heart of this, it is suggested, is the epistemological question of the researcher/subject relationship, that could be seen as of paramount importance to sociological research in particular.  The reason being, as Harris asserts, “(concrete) texts, including philosophies, are produced by specialists embedded in social processes in social contexts” (1992:115).  It is therefore critical that the analyst recognises and accounts for these processes and contexts.  

The argument in this section is that the researcher is as much a part of the analysis as the tourist/user. Reflecting elements of hermeneutic reasoning, it is asserted that both may hold technical knowledge on the subject [i.e. through popular media or education],  cultural knowledge through socialisation, and are exposed to the actual cultural phenomenon under analysis.  This could be seen as a convergence of the ontological and epistemological positions of semiotics.  Consequently, not only could the tourist be presented as an impassive researcher of his own social arena; the researcher himself could be conceived as offering the perspective of an ‘informed tourist’.


By applying the techniques and thinking of structuralist semiotics, this study has attempted to trace a path through the ‘hidden meanings’ of classical mythology and contemporary tourism. Through this, it has been possible to suggest that intrinsic structuring influences and/or ideological forces are present, perhaps even performing a ‘shaman’-like role through the use of myth and mythology. 

It would appear that myth, mythology, tourism and structuralism could be bound together through the nature of their reality; their ‘truths’ being perceived as convincing only by those that conceive them.  Hence, the techniques and theoretical framework used merely provide considerable insight into the possibility that the tourism product/destination relationship might in some way offer a socially significant experience to the tourist.  

Whilst the semiotic technique could perhaps have been more rigidly applied, the process of theorising, application and critique that has been undertaken has yielded considerable benefits.  Significantly, the  development of a more analytical and critical attitude has been fostered, encouraging deeper awareness of cultural phenomena. In order to elucidate the reasoning behind this paper, the perspective of the ‘informed tourist’ has been advanced.  This position, it has been suggested, would draw on the experience of the research process, recognising and utilising the position of being within the social context of [for instance] the touristic experience.   Likewise, the experiences of other social actors [i.e.: the tourists themselves] must also be considered.  

To crystallise the argument, semiotic analysis could perhaps benefit from honesty and empiricism, based on the hermeneutic rationale and ‘emotional realism’ discussed earlier.   Thus, the advocation of movement towards a re-centring of the individual within social discourse and research might be appropriate, even if only to promote the discovery of ‘truth’ and meanings that are only truly hidden within the social actor himself. 

No doubt, such a position raises significant methodological problems in itself; a full discussion of which is well beyond the scope of this study, and the expertise of this writer.  Moreover, many of the areas introduced throughout this paper would have been addressed to an extent  appropriate to the remit of the task being undertaken.  Nevertheless,  many profoundly important areas of thought have been considered.  Ultimately, it is hoped, this writer at least, has become a little more ‘informed’. 

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