Chapter two: researching emotion in the tourist place

  ã 2001 Sean Gillen. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

This work was completed in part-fulfilment of an MA Tourism and Leisure. Lancaster University, UK 2000—1, and is reproduced here strictly for scholarly purposes.

The preceding discussion began to set the scene for some empirical analysis of emotion in tourism.  It provides social and commercial contexts in which emotion plays a part and illustrates how tourism might me implicated in them.  However, in beginning to address emotion the researcher will be immediately confronted with a range of perspectives presenting divergent and often conflicting ideas on where emotion originates, its purpose and how it is experienced.  It is, as Williams asserts, a slippery subject, a ‘moving target’ that means many things to many people, a “complex, multidimensional, multifaceted human compound, including irreducible biological and cultural components, which arise or emerge in various socio-relational contexts.  As a thinking, moving, feeling ‘complex’- rather than a static, unidimensional ‘thing’” (2001:132).  (see references) The difficulty for the researcher is therefore in establishing what aspects of these socio-relational contexts are going to be most illuminating, and selecting techniques that can effectively open up the experience to scrutiny.  Hence, in order to inform and frame inquiry, this chapter begins by briefly drawing attention to some potentially useful influential perspectives on emotion, and uses them to develop a creative approach to its study in the tourism setting.

  2.1: Thinking about emotion

 Initially then, the range of perspectives on emotion can generally be quantified as lying on a polemic between the  ‘social constructionist’ standpoint and that of the organismic or positivist position.  The former, Williams (2001:13) explains, views emotion as entirely or predominantly a product of the social or cultural environment, fixed inextricably in their evocation to the language, rituals, customs and conventions that guide its subjects.  Conversely, the latter emphasises the biological origin of emotional response, largely based on a Darwinian viewpoint.  In this, ‘primary’ or basic emotions such as fear, anger and happiness, are merely pre-ordained reactions to environmental stimuli. What is missing from both models, according to Hochschild, is an acknowledgement of the essential subjectivity of human emotion, that takes into account the more ‘subtle and complex’ nuances that individualises emotional experience (1983:203). Several alternatives to these positions can be identified, offering perspectives that help to illuminate these subtleties. 

 In particular, the phenomenological viewpoint is of interest here.  Countering the claims of Cartesian duality, the ‘lived experience’ of the world is emphasised rather than the awareness of behaviour or indeed the behaviour itself (Davidson 2000). The body is not seen as the carrier of the mind, but more a means of interpretation of the experiential environment.  Reciprocally, the environment itself provides the stimuli for the awareness of the body, a viewpoint exemplified by Merleau-Ponty in stating  “I am conscious of the world through the medium of the body…I am conscious of my body through the world” (1962:40).  Hence, the interpretation of bodily sensations based on experience and conscious reflection is central, in that it provides “the only access we have to our senses and the world” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, cited by Davidson 2000:643).  In short then, the phenomenological perspective on emotions demands consideration of conscious or unconscious reflection on experience.  It is, as Denzin posits, always self referential and generated through interaction with others.  It is “how a person comes to know themselves and one another” (1984:50, cited by Thoits 1989).

 An important point is made by Crossley (1998) that augments the importance of the phenomenological perspective.  Although emotions might involve physical reactions, it is noted that “they are not reducible to them and do not derive their identity from them” (1998:22). Physiological emotional states do not necessarily reflect the actual interpretation of the sensation or experience, they may in fact appear to contradict.  Crying may indicate or emanate from sadness or joy, and the pounding heart of fear is physiologically indistinguishable from that associated with excitement, sensations themselves do not imply a predictable, definitive emotional response.   To begin to understand emotional experience therefore demands going beyond the surface of emotion, giving attention, to the self-referential ways in which individuals interpret their embodied experiences.

 An implication of this however, is that individual interpretations will inevitably draw on the cultural materials available.  As such, dominant discourses inevitably impact on the creation of personal meanings given that much of social life itself is mediated through spoken and written communication (Gilbert 1993:288).  Individuals are malleable to a degree, Lupton argues, hence discourses do not simply reflect or describe social and emotional experience, but actually impact on how this experience is constructed and shaped: “discourse mediates peoples’ views and experiences of reality and their embodied sensations, both when making sense of themselves, and when explaining them to others” (1998:40).  For example, for some commentators at least, Disney parks exemplify the efforts of cultural producers’ attempts to encourage a particular version of a  ‘good time’, even to surreptitiously promote ideologies (see for instance, Rojek 1993, Eco 1986, Gottdiener 1995).  The other side of this argument, however, suggests that people are not necessarily passive actors; they have the ability to select and use appropriate modes of communication, and that discourses themselves are social products, multiple and historically variable, available to be used or resisted either consciously nor unconsciously ‘within certain constraints’ (Lupton 1998:27).  Hence, the cultural environment can be used and interpreted in ways that reflect personally contrived desires, often against intended use, employing ‘guerilla tactics’ in response to the ‘strategies’ of cultural and commercial producers (See De Certeau 1984.  Also Frow 1991, Fiske 1989). 

 It can be seen then, that these diverse approaches each offer a distinct and valuable viewpoint that is of value to emotional research.  Furthermore, together they justify the label of emotions as a ‘moving target’, their experience irreducible to any one overarching influence.  They are, as Bendelow and Williams assert  “existentially embodied modes of being, which involve an active engagement with the world and an ultimate connection with both culture and self” (1998:XVI).  Similarly, tourism itself is equally multifaceted, a ‘chaotic conception’ of social discourses and practices (Rojek and Urry 1997:1).  What is proposed here then, is an analytical approach that draws on these important elements:- the identification and analysis of discourses that builds anticipation and sets the emotional tone of tourist sights, the acknowledgement of the sensory origins of emotion as an essentially embodied experience, and centrally, the actual lived experience of the sight by the tourist. 

 In light of this, the next section aims to develop these key concerns into a cohesive research agenda.  As a starting point, the importance of the tourist sight, as a place of social and emotional significance is asserted.  Following this, several research techniques are then drawn together, offering a pluralistic approach that aims to be able to capture the essence of these essential elements of emotional experience, as expressed at the tourist sights themselves.

 2.2: The affective significance of the tourist place

 The premise of the thesis so far would suggest that actual emotional experiences in social life emerge from the interplay of divergent yet sometimes complementary influences that present the opportunity for a personal, ‘self-referential’ and embodied encounter with the discourses, sensory and symbolic materials made available to them.  This experience itself operates within the cultural boundaries that help make it intelligible and meaningful.  If this is accepted, then the provision and construction of the tourist site, for instance, would in part reflect the characteristics of the society in which it is situated, and in some cases by consequence, the characteristics of those who visit.  The attraction only exists through and for the people that demand, construct and make use of it, (except perhaps in the case of symbolic sites such as war memorials or ancient monuments that might hold an ‘existence value’).  As such, the relationship between the tourist site and the sight as a cultural ‘object’ is of particular interest here.  Lupton emphasises the significance of this relationship:

 “The form and function of things, themselves shaped by their human developers serve to direct human action, embodiment and thought in certain ways.  The engagement of emotional states is central to this symbiotic meaning making process” (1998:138).

As has been alluded to already, this relationship is not necessarily one way. It is argued here though, that in engaging with the sight and its discourses, the tourists also retain the ability to resist or subvert its intentions and temptations.  In fact, transgressions may enhance the emotional or social significance of the experience: Goffman’s (1961) observations on ‘role distancing’ in some ways indicate a concern with the transgression of social expectations in specific circumstances, whilst Williams (2001, 77-90) highlights the pleasures of corporeal transgression through excess, the physically grotesque and the abject - all of which are observable elements of contemporary tourism.  The tourist sight itself might therefore provide the means for physical and emotional escape from the everyday, a ‘neutral zone’ that provides the opportunity for (or even encouraging) limited transgression and de-control of emotion.

In this vein, Wearing and Wearing (1996) argue for the consideration of tourist spaces as areas of significant ‘social value’, rather than as a ‘mere object of a flaneur’s gaze’.  They are spaces that take their meaning from those that visit, as well as providing a ‘material resource’ that facilitates self-awareness and self-enhancement, often providing a transformative effect for the tourist (1996:234-236).  What is needed then is a methodological approach that captures the multi-faceted experiential and social elements of emotionality in these tourist sights, one that can in some way highlight the diversity of action, motivation and responses of the tourists.  Of use here is Abercrombie and Longhurst’s (1998) conception of the tourist spectacle as consisting of three interacting ‘moments’,  “…the moulding of tourist sites as spectacles, the perception of those sites as spectacles by the tourists, and the representations of tourist spectacles not only by means of photography, but also by souvenirs, travel brochures, and so on” (1998:81).  Through the application of appropriate techniques, these ‘moments’ reflect potential areas of analysis that could reveal something of the social significance of emotion in tourism, connecting the individual experience to wider social processes.

2.3: Emotional discourse and the mediation of experience

A common denominator that runs through these ‘moments’ is the significance of discourse, especially that of colourful, evocative language, or themes, to promote the site as of value or importance.  MacCannell (1976) demonstrates the use of ‘markers’ of tourist sites, that is, the information carried by its associated media or signs.  Often, markers may actually be the only way to bring any salient meaning to an otherwise meaningless place.  Moreover, they may dominate a site to the degree that the markers themselves constitute the attraction.  In the ‘Language of Tourism’ (1996:61) Dann notes how magical, ‘therapeutic’ use of communicative language and symbolism by the provider of the experience can apparently cast a ‘spell’ over the destination and tourist, even appearing to convert “a place into something else, often in a different time” (1996:59).  Even before the actual experience, discourses aim to tempt the tourist into consumption and increase anticipation, which in the opinion of Duncker, might amount to  “the better part of the enjoyment” that “belongs to the joys and sorrows of desire”, and is often experienced as a ‘feeling tone’ (1941:420).  Moreover, Urry identifies the ubiquity of such discourse in the construction of anticipation through a wide range of non-tourist practices, including film, TV, literature magazines, records and videos (1990:3), practices that are inevitably implicated in the wider processes of consumption, desire, pleasure and hedonism discussed earlier.  There is then a need to incorporate analysis of dominant discourses, both promotional and on-site, if a full picture is to be gained of how a site is both ‘moulded’ and ‘represented’ to the visitor and implicated in the evocation of a particular experience. 

Whilst the discourses associated with tourist sights are predominantly visually conveyed (see Macnaghten and Urry 1998) it is important to note that in terms of attempts to elicit emotional response, the overall discourse of a tourist site combines several techniques into broader sensory texts.  Naversen (2001 on line) insightfully assesses his role as a theme park designer, a role that intentionally utilises sensory and emotional stimulation, as well as the ‘sixth sense’- the ‘imagination, or the suspension of disbelief’.  Naversen goes on to assert the primacy of an engulfing storytelling narrative, as well as the power of sound that penetrates the visitor, claiming that “there is no more effective tool for shaping the mood in a space” (2001 on line).  Importantly though, it is the combination of all six senses that is most effective:

“…it is not enough just to add sights and sounds to an attraction, [it] should be a creative blend of sights, sounds, and storytelling devices used to stir the emotion and imagination of a guest”.


It is the stimulation of body and mind then, through vision and sensation which might be the key to inducing emotional experience in many tourist sites, although different kinds of sites might accentuate a particular aspect of stimulation.  Another attraction designer, Adam Berger (2001, online) provides an evocative account of the effect of a roller coaster that summarises the point:

“The premise for the Incredible Hulk coaster, like many of USIOA’s [Universal Studios Island of Adventure] top thrill rides, can be summed up psychologically, as the ‘runaway id’, with passengers subject to the primal emotions that torment the raging green Hulk.  Catapulted from zero to 40 miles per hour in two seconds flat and hurtling through the ride’s seven inversions, I find that premise reinforced with gut-wrenching efficiency”.

In terms of delivering emotion then, the actual techniques of textual discourses, and the hyper-sensory and cognitive inducement of physical and mental states deserve particular attention.  Several avenues of inquiry can thus be advanced.  Firstly, it may be of value to consider the tone of verbal and symbolic language used, asking what themes are developed and what kind of experience can the visitor expect to consume. Further investigation might address how these themes and narratives be played out or delivered on site, how is anticipation developed and on what emotional plain, and whether hedonism, pleasure and sensation implicated in these practices.  Moreover, given the assertions made earlier, it is crucial to incorporate aspects of the embodied, lived experience of the attraction into the analysis, coinciding with perhaps the most significant of Abercrombie and Longhurst’s ‘moments’- the perceptions of the attraction by the tourists themselves.

2.4  Gaining insight into the tourist’s experience

In trying to determine the individual significance of emotionality in the experience of tourism spaces, at least two issues demand consideration.  Firstly, the tourist is a passing guest, moving in, experiencing, moving out.  Secondly, emotions may be characterised by their ephemeral nature.  Because of this, Parkinson proposes, the emotional experience of tourists ‘in the field’ may prove difficult (1995, cited by Ireland and Kivi 1997:9).  Moreover, in any situation it may be difficult to attain information on emotions because “often, people are unwilling to admit to, or simply unaware of, what they are feeling unless they are in a context perceived as a safe place for exploration” (Ellis 1991:31).  Ireland and Kivi argue that clues to the emotional experience can therefore only be gained post-experience, from verbal reports.  This is not entirely disputed here, but if the emotional itself experience is so short lived, it is worth at least attempting to gain an insight as close to the ‘as it happens, here and now’ as possible.  To do this requires a creative approach that draws on several methods of engaging with ‘lived experience’.

 2.5  An observing participant

Firstly, a basic application of participant observation is warranted.  Although usually applied in long term ethnographic studies, arguably its approach can offer benefits through attending to ‘what people do, what people say and what people use’ (Spradley 1980). The idea here, is to learn from the subjects through interaction and attention to how they ascribe meaning to their actions, and put some flesh on the bones of the theory” as Fiske (1990) suggests.  Some problems are evident though, none less than an ‘investigator effect’ as Fiske calls it; the inevitable impact that an observer has on the actions of the observed.  What is proposed here then, (perhaps controversially) is that participant observation can be carried out covertly.  Not only is this practical in view of the emotional subject, but also because of the nature tourist spaces.  As Erikson asserts:

“It would be absurd to insist as a point of ethics, that sociologists should introduce themselves as investigators everywhere they go and should inform every person who figures in their thinking exactly what their research is about” (1970:259).

The most important ethical point, Erikson argues, is that the researcher should not intentionally misrepresent themselves with the intention of gaining otherwise unattainable information. 

2.6  The situated researcher and self-observation

Linked to this kind of approach is the integration of the researcher’s own experience of the object of inquiry into the research process itself.  In a previous paper it has been argued that the researcher’s viewpoint on what is going on is as valid as that of other subjects, in that both are  ‘beings-in-the-same-world’.  King thus advocates a recognition of the researcher as an ‘integral part of the data’, which will “amplify rather than restrict the voices of the participants” (1976:176) (See Gillen 2001).  Such a perspective might even be of most value in addressing issues of emotional engagement.  Ellis (1991) is perhaps the most vehement proponent of such an approach, demanding the “use of one’s own emotional experience as a legitimate object of sociological research to be described, examined and theorised”, as researchers focus on their own feelings during research situations in the field (summarised by Carol Ronai, in Ellis 1992:103).  For Ellis, this amounts to creating personal, biographical and subjective narratives through ‘introspection’ that ‘embodies lived emotional experience’. It is:

“…a social process as well as a psychological one.  It is active thinking about one’s thoughts and feelings; it emerges from social interaction; it occurs in response to bodily sensations, mental processes, and external stimuli as well as affecting these same processes.  It is not just listening to one voice in one’s head; usually, it consists of interacting voices, which are products of social forces and roles” (1991:29).


These ‘voices’ it is pointed out, may emanate from the very discourse discussed earlier: literature, novels, fantasy, photography and even travel itself.  Ellis (1991) argues that it is not appropriate to think of emotions as something that ‘somebody else has’.  Nor is it appropriate to ‘sever the body from the lived experience’ of being in a culturally mediated environment.  Emotions “result from applying personal interpretations of collectively created rules to the situations in which we find ourslelves” (1991:20), and this applies as much to the researcher as it does to the subject. 

Ellis also confronts the common methodological criticism of introspection, that claims that “the act of self-observation ‘changes the content of introspection’, thereby interfering ‘with the very life experience we were trying to understand" (1991:29).    In response, it is argued, no method ever offers ‘unmediated, pure thought’; introspection being part of all research, and “comparing ‘pure thought’ with the ‘self observation of pure thought, as psychologists tried to do, cant be done”.  Centrally, “the ‘I’ is never directly observed, since reflection changes it to past ‘me’” (citing Stone and Faberman 1970).  Fiske also raises some concerns, such as the inevitable lack of objectivity and generalisability in the interpretation of data (1990:162-163).  However, it is argued here that (as Jamal and Hollinshead 2001 also argue) there is no need or desire to claim an unambiguous, objective truth, but more important to embrace ambiguity and candour, situating the researcher’s voice and “provid[ing] a sense of the complexity of perspectives and choices that constitute being in  a participative world” (2001:77).  If meaning and emotional experience is at all subjective, such an approach is entirely justified.

2.7  Engaging with the tourists

A significant aim of ethnographic based study is to engage with the people to find out ‘what they know’ (Spradley 1980).  Yet, as has been suggested above, the tourist site might not be conducive to long term engagement with the tourist.  To access their experience directly then, an on-site analysis would benefit from some form of direct and open engagement, one that allows a succinct and pithy reflection on the experience at hand.  Initial considerations suggests that the use of focus groups might therefore be of benefit in that it recognises both researcher and participants “as active subjects, who are involved in constructing reality through interaction” (Cunningham-Burley et al, 1999:198).  Through effective moderation, the researcher can mobilise the group’s collective knowledge, “allowing for the exploration of the way in which participant’s social, cultural and economic location relates to the accounts which they provide” (1999:198). 

However, given the nature of the tourist’s visit, and the desire to capture the emotional experience as-it-happens, the practicality of conducting full scale focus groups on-site is undermined.  In such circumstances, the use of more informal, ‘semi-standardised’ group interviews might be seen as more productive. Dale (1998) summarises the approach as requiring the researcher to have a clear focus on the questions to be asked, and be ready to adapt the interview in response to its progression.  What it offers is flexibility in application, and its ‘efficient and economic collection of data’ (citing Rubin and Rubin 1995, Flick 1998).  As Fielding proposes, the semi-structured approach allows the interviewer to ask specific questions whilst also altering the process to probe deeper when particular issues arise.  Most importantly, the researcher can

 “…adapt the research instrument to the level of comprehension and articulacy of the respondent, and to handle the fact that in responding to a question, people often also provide answers to questions we were going to ask later” (Fielding 1998:136).

The use of this style of group interview is proposed as the most appropriate for research on site, where the tourists are, after all, there to enjoy themselves, not to be grilled in a lengthy and demanding group exercise.  It allows an informality that engages with the tourists on a level conducive to the leisurely atmosphere. In particular, it can shed light on the data from the researcher’s own experience, participant observation and themes of discourse identified.  Along with the appearance of informality, combined with the naturalistic setting, it should be seen as adding to, rather than diminishing validity of such an approach. 

What is proposed then, is an approach that immerses the researcher in the subject from as many angles that is practical.  It recognises the significance of cultural artefacts and physical places in emotionality, as a mediator of experience.  It also recognises the agential and reflexive experience of the tourist place in construction of self, or indeed the possibility of resistance and transgression, as well as purely hedonistic motivations.  The object of this is not to answer fundamental sociological questions, or to assess the validity of major theories that have been used in framing the research agenda, but to obtain an account of the significance of emotionality in certain tourist places, perhaps raising questions for further analyses.  Hence, the next two chapters takes the theoretical grounding that has been developed so far, and applies it in turn, to two popular yet distinctive tourist attractions: Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and the Beatles Story Exhibition, Liverpool.

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