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.


Researching Culture and Tourism.


Culture, in its tangible, tradable form is perhaps an easier concept to grasp than that which it represents; ‘a’ culture- that which defines a society to itself in a way that somehow makes it different to the next. Yet it is the latter which is of interest here. Variously defined as a ‘system of habits, beliefs and dispositions’ (Boas 1940. In Ingold 2000:159), the symbolic material by which social action is given meaning and shape, or ‘whatever it is one has to know or believe in, in order to operate in a manner acceptable to [society’s] members” (Goodenough 1957, in Ingold 2000:159). Yet, contemporary societies are not isolated, insular entities, unaffected by the cultural dimensions of others. Symbolic material is constantly exchanged, recycled and reinvented; travel and tourism undoubtedly play a significant role in this. Long held ‘beliefs and dispositions’ are inevitably brought into contact and conflict, thereby confusing the notions of what ‘one has needs know’ and what is ‘acceptable’. The fact is, as Rojek and Urry(1997) illustrate, cultures themselves are as mobile as the human and non-human vessels that carry them; “tourism and culture plainly overlap and there is no clear frontier between the two” (1997:3). Such a culturally mobile world inevitably has implications for the understanding of culture itself, as well as how it comes to be known by both the social actor and the researcher. In the words of Alusaatari:

“Because of migration and the world economy, for instance, different cultures interact and mix with each other, not least through mass media. The continuing movement towards internationalisation will certainly make it more difficult to retain ones faith in naively self-evident meanings, interpretations and identities” (1995:37).

This, it seems, is a warning against complacency in definitions of cultures and their workings; all are fluid and metamorphic. It is also a call for informed study in the area, the implications of which are manifold. Not only must social actors coming to terms with cultural change in his or her environment (however that may be defined), but tourists must also come to terms with differences in linguistic as well as social ‘meanings’ whilst also being a catalyst for change in the first place. Indeed, the issue of ‘meaning’ can be seen to be central to cultural analysis, particularly if the perspective of Schutz can be accepted, that “it is the meaning of our experience, not the ontological structure of the objects which constitute reality” (1970:125, cited by Goffman 1974:4). Moreover, Schutz provides the useful terminology of ‘shock’ to describe the experience of being ‘thrust from one ‘world’ to another’ (1945: 231, cited by Goffman 1974:4). Although intended to apply to a shift in cognitive worlds, it can be argued that cultural and intercultural action inevitably provide similar experiences, perhaps akin to the notion of ‘culture shock’, as described by Jary and Jary: “The disruption of one’s normal social perspectives…as the result of a confrontation with an unfamiliar alien culture” (1991:140). Given such assertions and concepts, it is no surprise that Rojek and Urry suggest that tourism “has largely to be examined through the topics, theories and concepts of cultural analysis” (1997:5).

Unfortunately, in the view of Jamal and Hollinshead (2001), much of the research in tourism has neglected or ignored the situatedness of the researcher in and as a subject. The ‘god’s eye’ researcher, is “generally invisible in the text and focussed upon the sight-related discourses of the other rather than the experience-based encounter between host and guest, tourist and the ‘other’. Moreover, they go on to critique “works like Dann (1996a, Munt (1994) and Urry (1990) [who] project authorial texts which not only disembody the tourist and ‘the other’ but also disembody the analyst” (2001:74). Selwyn (1996) also argues for consideration of the researcher-researched relationship. Highlighting the value of ethnographic studies in addressing such issues, Selwyn draws together some rich and diverse anthropological accounts of the host and guest relationship, in the vein of De Kadt (1979) and Smith (1977). Importantly though, Selwyn goes on to suggest that postmodernity is ‘dissolving the visa controls’ between the roles of tourist, local and observer (1996:9). Whilst Selwyn argues for a strengthening of these controls, it is not necessarily the view to be propounded in this paper, as will be seen. What might be accepted though is that ethnography can provide valuable approaches to research that can accommodate varying perspectives on these roles, as will be discussed later.

Hence for the tourism/cultural researcher, it can be argued that it is crucial to at least grasp some understanding of the issues at the very foundation of his or her inquiry, because as has been asserted, they are inextricable linked. These issues are those at the heart of social inquiry: addressing the nature of culture, how its meaning might be shaped and comprehended by social actors [or tourists]; the relationship between the individual and society, be it his own or a foreign one; and the relationship between the researcher and researched. What follows in the first section then is an inevitably concise and relatively abstract explorative exercise addressing ontological and epistemological issues of culture and knowledge, which is intended to reveal a preferred research perspective. Following this, ethnography and photography are discussed with the intention of highlighting creative research options. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to address cultural and tourism analyses in a theoretically informed manner, through application of methods appropriate to the tourism subject, and the researcher’s position as discovered and revealed in section one.

Section One

Cultural realities

Culture is a human construct, only existing in its representations and understanding by people. Hence, to study culture is actually to study people; the relationship between the intangible object of culture and the human cultural subject being elemental to any cultural analysis, none less than in studies of tourism where the social actor often [physically or cognitively] detaches from their usual, familiar cultural environment, being placed in another. Therefore, at the heart of cultural and tourism inquiry is the relationship between the social actors and their cultures, which can be envisaged as based on the tensions of structure and agency, and body and environment. Fortunately, Ingold (2000) provides an immensely useful account of this relationship that hacks through the undergrowth and thus forms the basis of this section.

The starting point for Ingold is a simple question: “Take people from different backgrounds and place them in the same situation; they are likely to differ in what they make of it…but why should that be so?” (:157). One reason could be that one is a researcher, and the other is the subject (an area to be addressed later in this analysis). Another might be meaning of ‘different backgrounds’. Apart from the connotations of ‘cultures’ as being perhaps linked to some geographically or ethnically defined parameter [as Ingold’s summary infers], it is propounded here that the ‘different backgrounds’ that relate to a culture can also include elements within a larger culture, such as social classes, genders, races, political affiliations, or indeed ‘research culture’. Thus, Ingold’s question might better read take people of ‘different identities’, or even ‘different perspectives’.

Nonetheless, beginning from a structuralist perspective, culture can be perceived as a ‘body of transmissible knowledge’, evident in collective representations or structures in society. In such Durkheimian thinking, even sensations are given shape and meaning by a ‘shared and agreed upon structure of language’ (Ingold 2000: 157-159). This begs the question perhaps, as to how does culture actually evolve if it is simply transmitted between generations? Some learning beyond such a framework must logically exist. Hence the position of Bordieu (1990), summarised by Ingold, suggesting that cultural knowledge itself “is…generated within the course of people’s involvement with others in the practical business of life”. Thus, shared knowledge evolves “because people work together, through their joint immersion in the settings of activity, in the process of its foundation” (2000:162).

The influence of Structuralist thought remains influential in cultural research though, as the cultural studies perspective of Alasuutari (1995) demonstrates. The ontological nature of a ‘reality that only exists through meaning’ is adopted, but allied with an insistence that the perception of this reality is ultimately ‘socially construed’ (:26-27). Here, semiotic structures act to enable yet constrain meaning of reality: “cultural conventions [being] adopted thorough the medium of language as [individuals] are socialised as members of a culture” (1995:29) (Such thinking can be applied to the understanding of tourism as a ‘symbolic language’, as proposed by Dann, 1996b). Although built on an acceptance of Durkheimian ‘norm’ theory, weight is also given to the ‘meaning’ of the norm that ‘appears as self control’:

“Even the most seemingly individualistic interpretations of the world are never truly and thoroughly individual and unique. On the other hand, the ‘deep’ structures of culture only exist as people act and behave in accordance with those structures and make use of them in their activity” (Alasuutari 1995: 35).

This position reflects that typified by Giddens (1984) in his assertion of a duality of structure, where structure is both the ‘medium and outcome’ of social action (cited by Jary and Jary 1991). Hence, reflexivity is still ultimately constrained. It is the nature of this constraint that divides many of the schools of thought that Ingold presents. For example, the perspective that innate structures in the brain account for a ‘universal’ human cognition of culture is propounded by cognitive science approaches; which Ingold claims is “still grounded in the Cartesian ontology…that divorces the activity of the mind from that of the body in the world.” (Referring to Dreyfus 1992). In this mode of thought the body is reduced merely an ‘input device’ rather than being active in cognition itself (Ingold 2000:163-165). For cognitive anthropologists meanwhile, cognitive schemata [or programs] may vary between cultures but are still constrained by ‘the invariant properties of the processor’(:163). Cultural anthropology, it is explained, breaks from such genetic factors and promotes the view that “people inhabit different cognitive worlds, each with its own rationality and judgement [hence] every human culture is locked into the cognitive framework of a unique world view” (:164). This is exactly the point made by Ireland and Kivi (1997) in a rare analysis of emotion in tourism, suggesting that the cultural backgrounds of Finnish and English tourists actually leads to divergent perceptions of similar environments.

The modes of thought outlined up to now can therefore all be seen to promote the idea of some kind of structured, constrained notion of cultural learning and development; either by internal or external conditions, be they controlling norms, language or inherited biological characteristics. As such, each might explain why people from different cultures experience the same thing differently, or indeed why some tourists feel the need to remain securely cosseted within reproduced cultural ‘bubbles’ rather than confront alien environments (to draw on Cohen’s (1972) terminology; it is perhaps the difficulty of operating within different realms of meaning that underpins such needs.

Phenomenologists, whose divergent ontology is vividly portrayed in Merleau-Ponty’s view of the individual as ‘being-in-the-world’ offer a rather different explanation of the individual-society relationship. Processes involving cultural learning, assigning meaning and social integration are distanced from the constraining effects discussed above. The relevance of such a position to the discussion here is ably summarised by Grumet:

“The sense that we are, as Merleau-Ponty (1974) taught us, body-subjects, situated in our bodies in historical time and space, encourages to repudiate the Cartesian project to make thought fundamental. It is not ‘I think therefore I am’; rather it is because I am embodied and situated that I think in particular way” (1990:336)

In relation to this, Csordas asserts a comparable position in which the body is not seen as the ‘object’ of study, but “…is to be considered as the subject of culture, or in other words, as the existential as opposed to cognitive ground) of culture” (1990:5, cited by Ingold 2000:170). This mode of thought might illuminate the futility (and inevitable frustration) of tourists who motivation might be try to “opt out of ordinary social reality [and] withdraw from everyday adult social obligations” through travel, as suggested by Crompton (1979, cited by Crick 1989:327). Thus, as the analytical distinction between ontology and epistemology of culture becomes blurred, or even obsolete, so does the distinction between the culture of the tourist and the ‘Other’; they are at once the same and neither. The next section will briefly illustrate varying epistemological positions on culture and tourism, before drawing the two together in a proposed research paradigm.

From the situatedness of culture to the situatedness of the researcher

The paradigmatic basis of a research agenda, Guba (1990) explains, will revolve around the inquirer’s perspectives on the nature of reality, and the nature of the relationship between the inquirer and the ‘knowable’. In terms of social inquiry, these issues can concern views on the reality of the constitution of culture, whether this reality exists independently of social actors and whether knowledge should be gained through extraction from or immersion in the phenomenon under investigation (Blaikie 1993). As the previous section indicates though, such ontological and epistemological discourses cannot necessarily be easily separated as one inevitably informs the other. For instance, as Guba suggests, the extreme positivist epistemology asserts the existence of a verifiable reality, discoverable through the use of pure observation. Such a position demands that “the inquirer must behave in ways that put questions directly to nature and allow her to answer back”, thus entailing a methodology based closely on empirical experimentation (1990:19). The assessment of the flow of tourists in and around a site might be seen as an appropriate application of such an approach in tourism planning (see Veal 1997 116-128).

At the other epistemological spectrum stands subjectivism, proclaiming that ultimately, truth cannot be ascertained, that “realities are multiple and they exist in peoples’ minds” (Guba 1990:26). As a result, it is posited, inquiry from a detached position is not possible and subjective interaction is the only means of accessing these realities. As Blaikie (1993) infers, such a communicative process relies on the inquirer ‘entering the world’ of the researched, to some degree, and critically “all that is possible is culturally and historically situated accounts which lead to an unlimited number of interpretations” (1993:212). Guba advocates such a position in his promotion of constructivism, in which ‘findings are literally the creation of the process of interaction’ between researcher and researched (:27). Such thinking is prominent in anthropological tourism analyses, as exemplified by some of the ethnographic accounts compiled by Selwyn (1996), ranging from Boissevain’s account of tourism’s affect on Maltese village life, to Fees’ analysis of tourism on power relations in a small Cotswold town.

It is important though to consider the danger of what Jamal and Hollinshead describe as the ‘slippery slope’ towards “relativism and postmodern fragmentation of text and meaning” (2001:70). As such, approaches like constructivism might say little about the phenomenon, outside of the narrow context studied. Alasuutari provides a useful analogy that can be interpreted as a critique of relativism:

“In one way or another every individual is unique, just like every leaf on a tree…On the other hand, if one concentrates on the endless diversity of life and of the data, in the end it is hard to get a hold on the phenomenon. Everything is covered by the greyness of endless difference” (1995:15-116).

Of course for many researchers there is a limit to relativism, which is presented by an epistemological position based on a distinct world view. For example ‘critical theory’, in which the researcher might be a ‘reflexive partner’ in aiding emancipation of repressed groups (Blaikie 1993:210) or the freeing from a ‘false consciousness’ (Guba 1990:23). The ‘extreme’ approach of feminism reflects a similar position, embracing a ‘conscious partiality’ that employs feelings and intuitions with the aim of ‘facilitating change in lives and situations’ (Blaikie 1993:210-211). Edensor and Kotthari (1994) provide such an analysis of the representation of Scottish history in Stirling Castle, which apparently renders invisible the part played by women. Gottdeiner’s (1995:5-26) perspective seems appropriate here, in that ‘infinite regress’ of meaning is restricted by social restrictions on our experience. Hence, just as a social context might ‘reign in meaning’ for the social actor, it is inappropriate to suggest that researchers are immune to such constraints, without risking accusations of reductionism.

Thus, two elements of inquiry will inevitably guide thought and process in research. Firstly, the inquirer’s perspective on the situatedness of the individual in the world. Secondly, the inquirer’s perspective on his or her relationship with the ‘world’ of the researched. On this, the ‘Cartesian ontology’ that assumes things are initially ‘encountered in their pure occurentness, or brute facticity’, is reversed by Heidegger. Rather than a process of categorising of entities leading to ‘intelligible’ meaning and function, “things are initially encountered in their availableness, as already integrated into a set of practices for ‘coping’ or getting by” (Dreyfus 1991, summarised by Ingold 2000:168-169). Importantly, Ingold highlights the absurdity that scientific investigation can ever hope to achieve a detachment from ‘availableness’ that would allow the ‘stripping away’ of layers of contextual significance, for the simple reason that “the scientist, like everyone else, is a being-in-the-world” (:169).

The reason for highlighting this distinction is particularly important in recognising and acknowledging the embeddedness of the inquirer in the situation. This is exactly the problem that Jamal and Hollingshead (2001) attempt to address in their assertion of an epistemological position of ‘engaged interest’; one that ‘embraces ambiguity and candour’ in a hermeneutic methodology that seeks to interpret inevitably ‘messy texts’. Centrally, it is propounded:

“The challenge is to demonstrate la) that the researcher has a specific interest in engaging with the topic (engaged interest), and (b) that the text constitutes a dynamic tension between the topic which engages the researcher and the researcher’s own position, interest and role in the re-telling of the participants’ narratives” (2001:73).


Hence an assertion of the need to recognise the inquirer’s embeddedness and exposing (and even utilising) his/her influence in the text is widely (though not universally) propounded. For King (1996), such reflexivity should acknowledge that the researcher is ‘socially situated’, thus demanding ‘public display of their history, values and assumptions’. She continues: “researchers nowadays are increasingly encouraged to become aware of their feelings, biases and personal peccadilloes and to scrutinise these closely” (:175-6). 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” (:176). These views are largely synonymous with those of a constructivist paradigm, which, suggests Henwood, allows “researchers [to] construct versions of the world through their activities as social and political subjects, and…not merely reflect facts with a self evident objective reality” (1996:28).

What is proposed here then is a position that allows the researcher to be even more reflexive in not only recognising their situation, but also drawing on personal accounts and knowledge in the process of inquiry. This is similar what I have termed the perspective of ‘the informed tourist’ in a previous paper (Gillen 2000, [on line]). If this is not accepted, it must surely be asked why the inquirer’s cultural knowledge is given any less weight than that of a research participant’s? Both, as has been powerfully asserted above, are equal participants on the flux of cultural intercourse. To deny the value of the inquirer’s perspective is therefore to undermine the proposition that both inquirer and ‘inquired into’ are on an equal footing as ‘beings-in-the-same-world’, and therefore equally valuable subjects.

Section Two

Ethnography as situated inquiry

This analysis began by warning against complacency in defining culture and cultural meanings. It asserts a position that reflects on tensions of structure, agency and reflexivity as a starting point for analysis, and the notion that the researcher should recognise his or her place in the world and subject. Whilst not giving priority to his or her own inevitably subjective opinions over that of the research subjects, neither should it be neglected as of value. What follows then, is a discussion on ethnographic techniques as presenting the opportunity to engage with cultural phenomena in a way that accommodates the perspective stated above.

Veal (1997) usefully summarises the value of ethnography by situating it within a group of qualitative methods, including individual and group interviews, focus groups and participant observation. As such, ethnography is more accurately not a single technique but an approach that can ‘draw on a variety of analytical methods’. The starting point for ethnography, according to Rachel (1996) is the “social organisation of people and things” (:124). It recognises the construction of the world through everyday, mundane activity. Rather than concealing the connection between researcher and results, their relationship is ‘celebrated’. Hence, ethnography is a mainstay of anthropological research, although as Ingold (2000) reveals, within anthropology itself there exists considerable differences of opinion on the primacy of structure and agency in the construction and transmission of cultural knowledge. Inevitably, this will be reflected in the use of ethnographic techniques in their research.

Initially, it might be valuable to understand what ethnography aims to achieve. Spradley stipulates that the “essential core of ethnography is the concern with the meaning of actions and events to the people we seek to understand” (1980: 3). This understanding may be seen as the basis of the method; through ethnographic study, the researcher comes to comprehend, through detailed observation, the existences of peoples and their cultures. In terms of tourism, even greater claims can be made: “the ethnographic study of tourism, has, at its heart, the study of local tourist destinations, on the one hand, and wider... systems on the other” (Selwyn 1996: 8). To achieve this, Spradley differentiates between ‘studying’ and ‘learning’, suggesting that the researcher becomes more like a ‘student’, actually learning the culture in order to explain it. Rather than distant theoretical hypothesising, the ethnographer seeks to become involved in the subject. Ultimately, Spradley posits, “The central aim of ethnography is to understand another way of life from the natives point of view” (1980:3).

In practical terms, it is suggested that ethnography must deal with three fundamental aspects of human behaviour; what people do, what people say and what people use. By observation of these criteria it is intended that the researcher can ultimately theorise on ‘what people know’, that is, how they exist in and relate to their culture (Spradley 1980). It is apparent, then, that the researchers ‘student’ role could provide a suitable perspective from which to study unfamiliar cultural processes. The employment of participant observation, (perhaps more accurately, observer participation), can be seen as the ethnographic method of accumulating knowledge of “what is it that’s going on here?”, to coin Goffman’s terminology.(1974:8). Rather than analysis of ‘strips’ or ‘frames’, though, the ethnographer can be viewed as analysing entire reels of social situations.

Example: ‘National Day’ in Oslo

A recent visit to Norway provides a valuable example of how active engagement with a cultural phenomenon, in this case the ‘National Day’ celebrations can provide an experience that reveals much about the cultural subject, its significance and meaning, even through short term immersion. In fact, such was the nature of the event that it cannot be fully elaborated on given the scale of this paper. Nonetheless, through attention to what people ‘do, say and use’ certain elements are revealed that are worth mentioning, Not only do they say something about the phenomenon, but also usefully demonstrate the kind of material that is produced through participant observation.

By way of background, the events on May 17th each year mark the celebration of ‘Norwegian-ness’; in towns and villages across the country, supported by mass media, nationhood is brought to the fore as flags and colours are displayed, and traditional or formal dress is worn in attending public ceremonies. The biggest display happens in Oslo, and is centred on the ‘children’s march’ through the city’s main thoroughfares, leading to the Royal Palace where all involved in the parade pay respect to the Royal Family through waving, singing and playing music. Involving over 150 schools, bands and community groups and providing a parade taking three hours from beginning to end the scale is immense. The most significant aspect for an outsider though is the scale of attendance of spectators, and enthusiasm for the celebrations. The question here, then, is how could I, as an outsider, make sense of such an event?

It is no understatement to say that I was alien to the cultural environment and the language, certainly incorporating a significant amount of ‘culture shock’. The significance of what was happening, and why, could easily have been lost without a ‘way in’ to the event. This was provided by what ethnographers often call a ‘key informant’; in this case a personal acquaintance one who can act as a cultural interpreter and correspondent (called ‘Anne’ here, although the name has been changed for confidentiality). Whilst the researcher in an alien environment can easily raise questions, the ‘native’ insight can provide answers that inform analysis of wider meanings. It must be noted though, the information that was given could equally be gained through informal conversation, or slightly more structured informal interviews of other participants, especially when the researcher is ‘at home’ and no real language barrier presented.

Several aspects of the phenomenon provoked questions that revealed much about the significance of the event, as well as illuminating aspects of agency and structure in social learning. For instance, the style of clothing in the celebrations is important. For many of those attending the parade some degree of formality was apparent- shirts and ties, trousers, dresses. Most apparent though was the prevalence of traditional dress, or ‘bunader’; the folk costumes worn by women. The design of these, Anne explained, were representative of the regional identity of the family (perhaps in a similar way to Scottish Tartan). Bunader, it seems, far from being a stereotyp costume for tourists benefit, are not saved for National celebrations but are also used in community and family events such as weddings and baptisms. Another significant element was that of the music played in the parade which feeds into the patriotic symbolism of the event, as revealed by Anne :

“music is important - especially the hymns, but also some of the marches the school bands are playing. I think most important for people is our beautiful landscape, sympathetic and brave king and living in peace - the same as in the lyrics of national hymns”.

So, the music and attire is not incidental, they are a visual and auditory link between elements of national and local identities, and the symbolism of the Royal Family. What was is apparent is the interactive element of the parade and celebration; it was not just a display to be watched, but a chance to engage with a collective recognition of what it means to be Norwegian. Quite often during the parade, the crowds would burst into shouts of ‘Hurra!’ in response to prompting from the bands and marchers. Anne explains the significance of this to her:

“Kids are shouting 'hurra' in the parade most of the time but specially when passing the royal family. We were told in school that we were celebrating the constitution and also that we live in a peaceful, independent, rich country. So, 'hurra for Norge' means to celebrate Norway. Hm, strange, Norway is like a being - Mother Norway we call it”.

In this relatively small area then, it seems that most of Oslo turned out to reinforce a sense of identity, for themselves, not for tourist (like me) who without the benefit of native information might miss out on much of its significance. This is vividly revealed by the discovery that ‘alternative’ celebrations were underway in Oslo’s ‘Grünerløkka’ area which provides an opportunity to dress down, promote political activism (such as anti-racism)and listen to contemporary music. The fact that it occurs at the same time as the main celebrations, and away from the gaze of the Royal Family, is perhaps most revealing.

Some points can therefore be drawn from this brief description. Firstly, Norway is a relatively small but wealthy country that thrives independently outside of the European Union. The National celebrations might be seen as reaffirming the value of this independence through collective expression of identity which itself might provide a feeling of affiliation and ‘motherly’ security that avoids notions of European isolation. Alternatively it can provide the opportunity to express rejection of traditional structures, or indeed mean nothing more than an excuse for a party. Secondly, such a celebration provides evidence for the significance of the kind of structural forces that facilitate learning of culture through major collective events, at the same time as providing the opportunity for resistance and reflexivity by non-conformist youth.

The biggest benefit of this account however, is in illustrating how a short term engagement with a cultural phenomenon, utilising the perspective of the ‘participant observer’ can provide some indication of what is ‘going on’, and what it means to the participant. It has of course scraped the surface, but in identifying avenues of further investigation it can be of value.

Issues of perspective

The value of cultural informants cannot be underestimated, as Spradley asserts, “any explanation of behaviour which excludes what the actors themselves know, how they define their actions, remains a partial explanation that distorts the human situation” (1980:16). It has been argued though that the knowledge of the researcher should be incorporated into research. This assertion collides headlong with notions of ethnocentricity, or ‘cultural imprisonment’ that are founded on ‘tacit assumptions of researchers that Selwyn (1996) suggest might afflict both ethnographic and non-ethnographic analyses. The opinion expressed here though is one that warns against undue concern with such issues. Hence, issue is taken with two aspects of ethnographic research in general; namely the relevance of the researcher’s knowledge of that under investigation (hence, his or her ‘situatedness’), and the social and temporal level of immersion in the subject.

Firstly, the notion of ‘cultural imprisonment’ suggests that the researcher can view the phenomenon from a position so culturally embedded that judgements are made about it that miss out on the actual meaning of the observed, to those under observation. Conversely the dangers of ‘going native’ are worth acknowledging. This, Harris (2001, on line) warns, can lead to “the researcher becom[ing] so involved in the life of the group that she just becomes a member and stops being able to be critical”. In response to these issues, it is argued here that the position of self awareness and reflexivity that has been promoted so far seeks to acknowledge the dangers of ethnocentricity; simultaneously [or even inevitably] drawing on and using his or her own cultural frame of reference (thereby negating fears of ‘going native’). Furthermore, Spradley’s assertion that the observer must ‘assume no prior knowledge’ (1980:53) of the social situation is, arguably, unrealistic; nobody can pretend to not know what they know, even if it is incorrect or misguided. All that can be done is to acknowledge it and reflect on it. In the brief example above, the lack of knowledge of an alien phenomenon inevitably causes me to consciously and subconsciously reflect on what I know in of own culture, not to inappropriately infer or gloss over issues, but to frame questions that can be put to informants, or indeed be answered through more in depth observation or textual analysis of the cultural environment. Mulkay succinctly encapsulates this position:

“By abandoning the analyst’s usual assumption of interpretative privilege…enlist[ing] participants help in revealing ones own textuality [can] reveal ones own textuality, whilst at the same time digging more deeply into their interpretative capacities and your own” (1985;76, in Smith 1996:196).

This issue is perhaps even more relevant when the inquirer is researching a phenomenon within his or her own culture, with all its inevitable familiarity. Toren emphasises such a point, suggesting that the researcher ‘at home’ is “almost bound to take for granted ideas and practices that should themselves be a focus for analysis” (1996:104). In using participant observation as a method of immersion in the subject, the researcher is “at once a participant and a questioning observer of your own and other’s participation in ordinary events” (1996:103).

Secondly, ethnographic literature more often than not depicts the result of long term immersion in a relatively stable, often ‘primitive’ or traditional culture. Indeed, such in depth immersion is often considered an integral element of the research. For much of the study of tourism, the problem in applying the technique in this way lies in the nature of many tourist sites, and the tourist. Firstly, the site such as a Disney park, historic town centre or museum might not provide a stable social environment from which to gain in depth information. The interaction of ‘hosts’ (who in this case will often be no more than temporary paid service sector workers) and the ‘guests’ may be so transient that little if any justification for long term immersion can be made. The ‘hosts’ do not reflect the social and cultural depth that is revealed in many of the richest ethnographic studies. As mentioned previously, ethnography aims to ‘understand another way of life from the natives point of view’, using the techniques described earlier. This does not negate the value of techniques such as participant observation in ephemeral, transient communities that are frequently presented as tourist sites; the techniques and philosophy of ethnography can still be of use when there are no actual ‘natives’. What can still be revealed is the constitution of the tourist’s (or indeed the researcher’s) relationship with the site, and with each other, which it is argued here, does not necessarily demand [or warrant] prolonged immersion.

At this point it is important to reiterate that ethnography as a research method does not rely solely on participant observation. Its value, I believe, rests on a flexibility that allows the researcher to employ several techniques to gain data which can then be interpreted. Toren emphasises the point:

“Together with other more focussed methods, the ethnographic analysis of data gathered by means of participant observation is an excellent means of arriving at an understanding of the processes whereby people come to be enchanted by ideas that they themselves have brought into being”(1996:112).

This recognises the reciprocity of individual and culture that guides the cultural studies approach presented earlier; an approach that might also accommodate the perspective of the situated researcher. The final section will there briefly mention a ‘more focussed’ method that could support the kind of ethnographic approach advocated here.

Supporting ethnography: research in focus

Researchers are above all human, and therefore subject to the inadequacies of attention and sensory perception. No amount of consideration of philosophical issues can make up for our physical and cognitive limits. For this reason alone, anything that can improve perception of a cultural phenomenon should at least be considered: photography presents such an aid. In arguing for the situatedness of the researcher, it must also be recognised that we do perhaps “learn to see what we pragmatically need to see”, but interestingly, “when we do see critically it is often with the aid of some technology” (Collier 1967:2). Collier thus argues for the use of the camera in cultural research:

“The camera is another instrumental extension of our senses but one that is highly unspecialised and can record on the lowest level of abstraction…by its optical character [it] has whole vision. No matter how selective a unit we may wish to photograph, the camera faithfully records this specialised part, and then all other associated parts within focus and scope of its lens. This capacity should make the camera a most valuable tool for the researcher” (1967:2).

In presenting the photograph as an ‘image with a memory’, Collier asserts that the camera can provide ‘complete notation’, thus providing a ‘control factor’ for visual observation; “not only is it a check on memory, but further, it allows for an absolute check of position and identification in a congested and changing cultural event” (:5), producing precise records of ‘material reality’ that can be cross-referenced and re-assessed just as other forms of data recording. Photographic data can, as Albers and James (1988) demonstrate, provide media that can be analysed through such methods as semiotics and content analysis. Despite this, photography as a research method for tourism has been limited largely to analyses based around others’ photographs, such as in travel brochures (Dann 1996b) or postcards (Albers and James 1988); the relationship between the tourist and the meanings of their photographs (Markwell 1997) or its impact in creating perceptions of place (Urry and Crawshaw 1997). Moreover, Haywood (1990) demonstrates the use of ‘visitor employed photography’ as a way of revealing tourist’s experience of Toronto.

An exception to this is provided by Cohen (et al 1992) who support camera use in anthropological research, but “only as a means of documentation related to other kinds of data” (1992:231). Their reservations in its use are based on the problem of contextualisation of the photograph, in terms of inevitable ‘photographer-photographee interaction’, and that the photograph cannot entirely reflect its context, although, they say, the context can often be deducted from its contents and ‘close reading’. However, Collier addresses these issues, suggesting that the camera’s limitations are the same as those faced by ethnographers; that any observations are a ‘casualty of personal values’, rather than the method of observation (1967:5). Moreover, in some ways photography is no less a valid method than written note taking, in that “photographs do not capture the entire range of appearances that exist, just as languages do not name and semantically differentiate all the worldly phenomena to which their speakers are exposed”(Albers and James 1988:139). Hence, although issues of context, construction and composition, and analysis of photographic data require consideration, it is difficult to discount its value in support of methods like participant observation. Collier powerfully summarises the value of photography:

“In a sense we think photographically and certainly communicate photographically. The nonverbal language of photorealism is the language that is most understood interculturally and cross-culturally. This fluency of recognition is the basic reason that the camera can be of such importance in anthropological communication and analysis” (1967:4).

Perhaps its most important role however, given the perspective in this paper, is that taking photographs might allow the researcher to get on with ‘being in the cultural world’, freeing time from unnecessary note taking, making time for reflection and interaction through the use of conversation or interviews with ‘key informants’, as illustrated above.


Given the discursive nature of the issues presented here, it is worth drawing them briefly together. After situating tourism and culture within a similar ontological frame, issues of the creation, exchange and communication of ‘meanings’ have been addressed with the intention of understanding some of the issues that form the basis of both concepts. It has been seen that perspectives range from those accept the primacy of structural influences on the individual, to the phenomenological angle of ‘being-in-the-world’. The researcher’s view on this aspect, it has been suggested, is inextricably linked to the epistemological position that guides inquiry; crudely delineated as being between positivism and relativism. Central to these distinctions is whether the meanings of cultural ‘reality’ can ever hoped to be ‘discovered’, or whether they can only be subjectively ascertained through mediated inquiry.

The central assertion that emanates from the first section therefore, is the preference for an epistemology of ‘engaged interest’; one that acknowledges the situatedness of the researcher, thus recognising that the inquirer is in some way part and parcel of the cultural milieu that is under investigation. He or she brings knowledge, experience and values that either relate directly to the object of inquiry (when researching ‘at home’) or indirectly, as a frame of reference or comparison, when taking place in a relatively alien culture. Hence it is accepted here that whilst cultural embeddedness must be recognised, in doing so, reflection on this can aid inquiry.

In turning to ethnographic techniques as a method that can potentially accommodate such perspectives, it was acknowledged that the issue of immersion in the subject was vital to consider; be it through fears of ethnocentrism or ‘going native’. Both of these issues, it is argued, are somewhat negated in two ways. Firstly, the self-reflexive participant observer can adopt (or acknowledge) the epistemological position above. Secondly, full use of key informants should be used, which could feasibly incorporate a range of techniques from informal and fleeting conversation on site, to the use of semi-structured individual or group interviews. Indeed, the example of the Norwegian National Day showed the importance of being able to reflect on ‘native’ perspectives. Moreover, this example also attacked the traditional idea that to be of real value, participant observation needs to be a long-term process. As such, it is argued that because of the transience of the social actors, and ephemeral nature of many of the encounters in tourism, to investigate culture in many tourism contexts demands the adaptation of methods like participant observation if they are to be of value. Additionally, the incorporation of a technique like photography might well provide a valuable tool that enhances recording, documentation and analysis, as well as providing an aide-memoir for the researcher.

Of course, an analysis of this breadth cannot but fail to raise more issues than it addresses, especially when such brief reference is made to such complex issues. For instance, Bruyn highlights central issues to consider: ‘scientific integrity’ and validity of findings, ‘ethical integrity’ (particularly in observation), and ‘how to become a natural part of the observed’ (1966, cited by Humphries 1997:233) all of which have not been addressed. Nonetheless, as was asserted at the outset, the intention here was to take an exploratory approach to developing a more theoretically informed inquiry. It is hoped that a small step has been taken towards achieving this objective.


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