Friday, April 15, 2011

The Social Conceptualization of the Tourist

The anthropological study of tourism has generated a body of theory that aims to define and delimit an object of study—the tourist—that in many cases is diluted among other forms of activities, experiences, and preoccupations in our contemporary society. Some of these studies, now classics in the anthropology of tourism (e.g. D. MacCannell, E. De Kadt, V. L. Smith, J. Urry, A. Santana), have theorized about the relationship between “hosts and guests”, differentiating them through a series of dichotomies such as leisure/work, foreigners/locals, consumption/production, and transience/stability. These studies have established the foundations for a branch of social research that has been largely ignored by the wider field of anthropology.

While the vast majority of tourism studies point to the subtle nature of the differences between hosts and guests (which are not seen as fixed), maybe we cannot simply ignor some of the dichotomies that do exist between hosts and guests.
 The conceptualization of the tourist has been generally treated by social scientists in a reductionist way. But as Clavé and González argue, the study of tourists “is not to defend them at all costs, or close our eyes to the negative effects of tourism” (2007:12). Instead, they argue that tourism research provides an opportunity to gain a better understanding of symbolic, economic, and territorial meanings from the perspective of the tourists themselves. This, according to Clavé and González, will allow us to move beyond a merely “ideological analysis” (2007:12). Over a century after Thomas Cook established the first organized tour package in the world, maybe we have to remind ourselves that without tourists, there is no tourism.

In tourism contexts, the perception of otherness produces a wide spectrum of attitudes, modes of communication, representations and practices which have, as their central figure, the tourist (Horta et al., 2010). But tourists no longer appear as the unknown foreign visitor, the exceptional "guest". Instead, they are a part of the urban landscape as much as any other human, and they are both responsible for and victims of the social dynamics that surround their own leisure activity.

In urban environments, the categorizations of human diversity are filled with stereotypes, and those stereotypes reflect the how people identify themselves as either insiders or outsiders in relation to particular social groups (González & Rodríguez, 1994). This reflects a need to develop the deeper understandings of personal identity formation, since the perception and attribution of characteristics is not a simple sensory or psychological process—social, cognitive, and cultural factors surely intervene. The representations that shape local understandings of tourists, as Agustín Santana argues, operate through non-specific elements based on critical factors such as nationality, ethnicity, and individual experience. At different levels, these factors adapt particular categorizations to new models of touristic industry, resulting in powerful transformations of identity categories. When stereotypes are effective, they change the norms, values and standards of hosts (Santana, 1997: 113).

Under the influence of powerful media discourses, the forces of leisure and recreational desire shape everyday behaviors in the tourist destinations. The mere generalization of this fact serves to legitimate forms of interaction that capitalize on this dynamic relationship. The drive to distinguish between resident and non-resident, non-local and local, citizens and citizens of passage, is insufficient if the aim is to capture the heterogeneity of activities, identities and lifestyles in relation to the contemporary function of tourist cities. The classic features that differentiate urban users are now mixed in a complex environment composed of practices, visions, modes of communication that blur our conceptualization of tourists.

In urban contexts, the tourist becomes an actor on the street: not just, or only, a foreign visitor, but also an actor who is able to hide among the rest of society or even resort to intentional camouflage himself. The dichotomy "tourist / local" has been spread between interstitial figures, so the map of urban users is extended to indeterminate characters that form a set of practices and relationships mediated by functions of leisure and tourism which may not fit the formal description of "tourist". Otherness does not just allude to what is exotic and distant, and it’s not necessarily about contrasting values; it is also about larger processes of identification. Within the anthropology of tourism, the "other" is the face of oneself. Almost all of us are, ultimately, tourists at some level: "today you work for it, and tomorrow you are, a tourist" (Santana, 2003: 51).

If we understand heritage as a social construction that symbolically represents identity (Prats 1997), the social, urban and heritage constructions of tourism sites, have resulted in a kaleidoscope of structures, uses of space, and identities that go beyond merely touristic. This forces a reconsideration of the boundaries between tourists and non-tourists, since the characteristics that are traditionally assumed to belong to tourists (mobility, transience, consumption, leisure) also apply to tourism’s stereotypical opposite: the local. In this sense, the tourist space is also an imagined, co-created space that exists at variegated levels, populated by a multiplicity of actors (Nogués Pedregal, 2005:14).

Drawing upon Mikel Aramburu’s analytical framework, which employs a methodology that takes account of both “racial tactics” and “differentiating strategies” to analyze the mechanisms for conceptualizing immigrants in Barcelona, we can proceed to certain hypotheses about the role of the tourist: locals do not question, in general, the inequalities or the turistic structure; instead, they use the category of "tourist" (beyond a marker of otherness) to mark the outer limits of their own social world. The culturalist strategy of Aramburu can be transformed into a "strategy of status and behavior", which can avoid xenophobic assumptions in favor of approaches that are more focused on power relationships and socio-economic conditions.

Such conceptualizations of the tourist play a critical role in the larger touristic imaginary. This involves a vast array of media and cultural references that combine themselves to create deeply embedded stereotypes. These stereotypes serve to rearrange the power dynamics of tourism encounters: the tourist is discredited and discounted by locals as as a non-citizen, an outsider, unaware of the city, open to ridicule and abuse. At the same time, the tourist is also—somewhat contradictorily—considered a privileged actor situated above the rules and laws that locals must obey. Remember the painted wall: "Tourist, you are the Terrorist".

Sergi Yanes
Turiscòpia and Observatori de la Vida Quotidiana


Anton Clavé, S. González, F.
2007  A propósito del turismo. La construcción social del espacio turístico. Editorial UOC. Barcelona.

Aramburu, M.
2002  Los otros y nosotros: imágenes del inmigrante en Ciutat Vella de Barcelona. Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, Secretaría de Estado de Cultura

González, R/Armando, P. 
1994  “El contenido de los estereotipos y su relación con las teorías implícitas”. Psicothema, vol. 6 nº3. 375-386

Horta, G. et al. 
2010  “A voltes. Pels itineraris turístics de Barcelona (1908-2008)”. Revista d’Etnologia de Catalunya, núm. 36, Barcelona, Generalitat de Catalunya - Departament de Cultura.

Nogués Pedregal, A. M. 
2005  “Etnografías de la globalización: cómo pensar el turismo desde la antropología”, Archipiélago, núm 68. 33-38.

Prats, L.
1997  Antropología y patrimonio. Barcelona: Ariel.

Santana, A. 
1997  Antropología y turismo. ¿Nuevas hordas, viejas culturas?. Ariel. Barcelona.
2003  “Jugant a ser amfitrions: trobades i impactes en el sistema turístic”. Revista d'Etnologia de Catalunya. Nº22. 46-51

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