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Scholar: Tourists should reflect on themselves, tourism experience

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Anthropologist/ethnographer Edward Bruner
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Photo by Kwame Ross
Anthropologist/ethnographer Edward Bruner is a pioneer in the field of ethnographic tourism studies. His latest book is "Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel."

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — This summer, millions of Americans will morph overnight.

Swapping their drivers’ licenses for airline tickets, their corporate clothes for casual, and their comfort zones for zones of intermittent pleasure and pain, these Americans will take flight, turn into tourists.

With months of planning behind them, their guidebooks in tow, they are ready – or so they think. In reality, most will not have given a moment’s thought about how they should process their tourism experiences and about what kind of tourists they should be.

This is where anthropologist/ethnographer Edward Bruner may be of some help.

In his new book, “Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel” (University of Chicago Press) Bruner, a pioneer in the field of ethnographic tourism studies, explores these and other neglected and nuanced aspects of tourism.

What readers discover early in the book is that Bruner, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is particularly keen on what he calls the “reflexive” or self-inquiring tourist, that is, the one who continually questions how the culture on view is being presented, while at the same time questioning “the biases, egocentrisms and taken-for-granted beliefs” he or she brings to the viewing.

“I want tourists to become more aware of their role as tourists,” Bruner said.

“I want them to approach other cultures with an open mind, almost naively, realizing that others have their mindsets and worldviews, and I want them to empathize with other peoples.”

A wide range of tourists appear in Bruner’s book, an analysis of popular sites the anthropologist has studied across the globe and the long span of his career.

These include a Maasai re-enactment production in Kenya; a dance drama in Bali; a theme park in Indonesia; an Abraham Lincoln village in New Salem, Ill.; an upscale safari “excursion” throughout Africa; a former slave castle in Ghana; and a mountain-fortress site of mass suicide in Israel.

Not chosen arbitrarily, these places represent different types of sites, characterized, for example, by contested meanings, competing narratives or stories, and self-construction.

Woven into his honest, sometimes brutally frank, analyses, is a new worldview, so to speak: Bruner argues against old conceptions of tourism, where the issue of authenticity has reigned supreme, and for a new conception that sees tourism as a valid system in its own right. This is a radical shift in thinking in the field of tourism studies.

Indeed, in contrast to many postmodern scholars who have belittled tourists as marauding invaders, conspicuous consumers, voyeurs and rich spoiled adventurers in quest of the elusive “authentic,” Bruner accepts the tourist, and in fact all players, as legitimate “agents” in the drama that is tourism.

Tourism, he concedes, is a “mystifying subject” because “being a tourist is deprecated by almost everyone,” he wrote. “Even tourists themselves belittle tourism as it connotes something commercial, tacky, and superficial.”

Still, while some tourists and many anthropologists and cultural scholars criticize tourists for exploiting local people, Bruner notes that exploitation does occur, but also that “Many poor peoples of the world profit from tourism.”

While many scholars demean tourists for intruding into their remote field sites and studies, Bruner says he admires “hardy tourists who travel to distant lands to experience different ways of life.”

“Some scholars and critics see tourism as evil, superficial, but I don’t,” Bruner said. In his view, which has evolved over the last two decades and now draws on performance and narration theories, “the issue of authenticity has been overdone in the tourism literature. Authenticity is a red herring.”

Bruner’s book, like his work in general, is “an effort to move beyond such limiting binaries as authentic-inauthentic, true-false, real-show, back-front. I take the exact opposite approach, analyzing all of the tourist productions I encounter for what they are in themselves: authentic – that is, authentic tourist productions that are worthy subjects of serious anthropological inquiry.

“I do not look behind, beneath, or beyond anything,” he wrote. “I reject concepts such as simulacra that are so privileged by some postmodern scholars, in part because what is presented in tourism is new culture constructed specifically for a tourist audience. There is no simulacrum because there is no original. Performances for tourists arise, of course, from within the local cultural matrix, but all performances are ‘new’ in that the context, the audience, and the times are continually changing. Performances are not mere imitations of something else.”

In analyzing tourist performances “not as representations, metaphors, texts or simulacra of something located elsewhere, but as social practice to be studied in its own right,” Bruner argues that he is “taking tourism seriously.”

He also argues, based on his studies, that most tourists are not primarily concerned with authenticity, but rather, with “a good show.” Thus, he believes that it would be more productive to pursue other metaphors than to study “touristic verisimilitude.”

For Bruner, the better metaphor is theater, improvisational theater, at that, “where tourists enter into a willing suspension of disbelief.” If tourism is theater, the stage, according to Bruner, is in a place he calls the “borderzone.”

This concept of the borderzone is one of Bruner’s original contributions to the study of tourism.

For him, the borderzone is a point of conjuncture or encounter, a “meeting place between the tourists who come forth from their hotels and the local performers, the ‘natives,’ who leave their homes to engage the tourists in structured ways in predetermined localities for defined periods of time.”

“The touristic borderzone is a creative space, a site for the invention of culture on a massive scale. It is a festive, liberated zone, one that anthropology should investigate, not denigrate.”

Bruner believes that while on the stage and in the borderzone, everyone wins when everyone plays his or her “proper collaborative role.”

However, in his conceptualization, the roles are not fixed, and the locals are not passive recipients of a touristic invader from the outside.
“Rather, both locals and tourists engage in a co-production: They each take account of the other in an ever-shifting, contested, evolving borderzone of engagement.”

The professor also distinguishes between the tourist’s trip as lived: as it happened, the reality; as experienced: consisting of the images, feelings, desires, thoughts, and meanings that emerge in his or her consciousness; and as told: “usually a story, but possibly a series of photographs or other forms of expression.”

Story, as it is in drama, is at the heart of tourism, Bruner contends. In fact, what tourists are seeking in tourism is “experiences that will make prime stories in which the tourist is a main character, so as to dramatize and personalize the tour and to claim the journey as their own.”

“Although many tourist stories are about the everyday, the ones most cherished are those about experiences outside the regular itinerary that lead to improvisation as they introduce spontaneity and unexpected elements of adventure.

“Experience may be the ultimate tourist commodity,” Bruner wrote, “but in itself, experience is inchoate without an ordering narrative, for it is the story, the telling, that makes sense of it all, and the story is how people interpret their journey and their lives.”