Anthropologists and Tourists: A Sibling Rivalry

Chris Christou

A forgotten kinship between two types of people can help us to understand who we are and our place as people of consequence in foreign worlds.

The sibling studies of anthropology and ethnology encompass the study of human cultures. Anthropologists are considered by the dominant culture to be the intellectual ambassadors, the appointed interpreters of the world’s many cultures. While their place in the West appears less and less mainstream, their work continues, and not just by their own hands. The function of anthropologists is an inheritance, one taken up by tourists.

While tourists have lived through the same eras as anthropologists and while the latter secretly despises the former, the tourist is the anthropologist’s little brother. Each inherits the legacy of the museum, the conquests, and travel writing, and the interpretations that inseminate the spectacle on their travels.

While the anthropologist and tourist seem to set out with widely varying intentions – on the one hand academic and on the other pleasure-seeking – they seem to arrive together. In the nineteenth century, they meet at the public museum, one behind the scenes, the other in front of the glass. While their functions might be different, they serve the same masters: history and progress.

From at least the sixteenth century on, it has been History that brought them together, with modern tourists proceeding towards the foreign in the shadow of the anthropologist. Conquerors pave the way for anthropologists who pave the way for tourists. Conquest in order to extract local knowledge and wisdom in order to employ industry in the undoing of place.

While not all anthropologists proceed as tourists and not all tourists proceed in the manner of anthropologists, they share a knotted past. That past is not gone or dead, but follows us into our times. It is here among us, or more acutely understood, we inhabit it and it inhabits us.

A Confession

May we consider the words of Malcolm Crick in his book Resplendent Sites, Discordant Voices: Sri Lankans and International Tourism:

“...both anthropologists and tourists are metonyms of the western world. Both go to other cultures as temporary strangers, with interests derived largely from their home culture rather than the one they visit. Both occupy marginal roles, endeavouring from an intrinsically liminal position and with inadequate means of cultural communication to make sense of the “other.” Both utilise their resources to develop relationships with the sort of cultural brokers they require in order to access what it is they wish to obtain from another culture, the one using a guide and the other an interpreter or research assistant.
Tourists leave their ‘pleasure periphery’ after a period of conspicuous consumption with souvenirs and photos to remind them of their experiences, which are then told and retold to enhance status back home.
Anthropologists leave their ‘ethnographic periphery’ after a period of conspicuous consumption of data, to be written up elsewhere to craft an academic career.
The tourist is at play, of course, while the ethnographer is engaged in work - ‘field work’ - but both are equally out of [their own cultural and quotidian] space and time,  which for the anthropologist is not the ‘field’ but routine teaching and academic administration.
Even etymology robs the anthropologist of a difference on which they might like to insist, namely the serious theoretical intent of their professional presence as compared to the frivolity and spectacularisation of tourism; the term “theory” itself derives from the Greek for ‘sightseer’ and ‘spectacle.’”

Despite what some might have us believe, history is not past or over. It is fully alive among us today in ways we often barely comprehend. If we are products of this modern condition or culture then we are also descendants of it, and those who preceded us, each and everyone bearing the weight of this history.  Culturally, we inherit the past,but without the recognition of it, we are powerless to become any more than products on its assembly line.

Tourists and anthropologists are bred from the same stock. Anthropologists area type of tourist and tourists are a type of anthropologist, no matter how much we’d wish it was otherwise. This is what we must come to terms with – a history of conquest that both feeds and is fed by our inability to understand it as ongoing.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

Before becoming one of the anthropology's most celebrated statesmen, Claude-Levi Strauss, opened one of his early memoirs with this confession:

“I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions. But how long it has taken me to make up my mind to do so! It is now fifteen years since I left Brazil for the last time and all during this period I have often planned to undertake the present work, but on each occasion a sort of shame and repugnance have prevented me making a start.
Adventure has no place in the anthropologist's profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is unavailable; periods of hunger,exhaustion, sickness perhaps...
The truths we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross.”ii

Here, the Frenchman is wrestling with both the nature of his work, the arduous journey that is travel, and what at the time was perhaps the passing of the torch of such travel (minus the intellectual discipline) to modern tourists.

Levi-Strauss was writing in the 1950's, but his words could easily be mistaken for the tourism of the twenty-first century:

“Nowadays,being an explorer is a trade, which consists, as one might think, in discovering hitherto unknown facts after years of study, but in covering a great many miles and assembling lantern-slides or motion pictures, preferably in colour, so as to fill a hall with an audience...”ii

Consider Levi-Strauss, the explorer, as the modern backpacker or tourist, travelling and picking up bits of information, content with no context, arriving as it does today, his “learning” as “likes”in the incessant, social media assembly halls of modern people. An unwritten and generally unwelcome inheritance. Lineage, in other words.

Anthropology & Tourism, Conceived

It seems appropriate that anthropologists and their academic ilk have,for a long time, looked down on tourists. Seeing them as the mass-produced, unwanted descendants of themselves, shines a mirror on anthropology that it can only struggle to look away from.

Mass tourism is, in part, the half-millennia long consequence of western history coalescing around imperial conquest, the Grand Tours,anthropology, social evolutionism, the industrial revolution, and mass migrations..

While I don’t blame anthropologists for having such reservations, their very inability to see the connections between themselves and their travelling kin, the tourist, only speaks to what anthropology refuses to (or cannot) see in the rear view mirror. Tourism arrives as an unwanted child of anthropology, pimped out; the conquest's clean-up crew, fetishized.

The history of anthropology appears as a history oscillating between characterizations of the western citizen and of the foreigner. The anthropologist appears as cultural ambassador, and the foreigner as their subject, both academically and colonially speaking. The histories of conquest show us that the latter rarely, if ever,appeared as someone deserving of the title of the former. This inheritance is how modern tourism arrives in the world and this is how tourists arrive in foreign lands.

Anthropology & Tourism, Extended

The Grand Tours (of the 16th-18th centuries) assisted in birthing ideas and identities of “the westerner” and “Europe” within Europe. At the same time, many Christian missionaries and rationalists spoke their enmity and general disgust for newly encountered non-Christians in the codices and scriptures written in and about the “New World.”

This religious eye and inquisition continued into the Enlightenment and later informed by pseudo-scientific thought, perverting Darwin's mostly scholarly work. Elite intellectuals of the late 19th century reduced culture to biology and propagated the racist ideas of social evolutionist thought.

These mostly English and German-descendant men believed (and belief was as intellectual as it got) that the white, northern European races had evolved quicker than all other races, categorizing people in the same way that Darwin and Linnaeus categorized animal and plant species along evolutionary lines.

Such ideas, alongside further missionizing, culture and resource exploitation in colonized nations, ushered in the era of public museums and zoos, first in Europe and the in North America. These institutions were inaugurated, in part, by the study of anthropology, still very much in its infancy.4

Cheaper and safer leisure travel, accompanied by compulsory schooling meant that countless people could suddenly gain access to such worldly education that museums, zoos, and traditional tourist itineraries offered. The work of twentieth century anthropologists sometimes brought their investigations into a neutral light, one that attempted to be free of bias, often without understanding the extent of that bias.5

The mid-twentieth century saw the development of participant observation in anthropology, where the anthropologist would live and participate in the assigned communities, instead of just studying them “objectively.” Participant observation mirrors the new branches of tourist “experiences” that came to be marketed and meted out in the mid-late twentieth century. More than others, voluntourism and “hands-on” attractions reflect this.

Respect, but at What Cost?

Finally, the end of the twentieth century saw the stories of anthropology told by those still firmly at home – told from their own point of view.While the goal was to see the world through the locals eyes (sound familiar?) that sight was almost always translated by foreign anthropologists.

Parallels to this in modern twenty-first century tourism also abound in ways facilitated by the agents of tourism, such as cultural shows and local tours where the stories told are the ones best suited to glorify the culture and the encounter between peoples. Yet, those stories are always, in some manner, for the tourist. They inevitably reflect the economy and cultural interaction that binds spectacle and commodification to such encounters.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, another anthropologist, Franz Boas, laid the groundwork for a more objective, unbiased approach to the study of human cultures. The idea is that researchers could become aware of their own cultural lenses in order to consciously remove them, as much as might be possible. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby comments that, “it took anthropologists and other researchers close to a century” to begin to do so.iv

In that century, and the ones that preceded it, anthropologists and their religious predecessors (mostly) didn’t give a fuck about other cultures. The costs of such centuries-long learning in which western scholars finally arrive with reverence and respect, if they arrive in such a way, is the undoing of local culture by such scholars, past or present.

Both in Europe and beyond, local people and places (locality itself) have been paying the tuition on western learning for the last centuries, if not millennia. Even if the anthropologist shows up today, fully welcomed and woven into a way of learning that serves a world where many worlds belong and are nourished,the scholar and the study still have the looming presence of the tourism encroaching on that learning.

In other words, tourism is like the little brother who went off to live in foreign lands, but never grew past the stage of adolescence. This is anthropology’s debt. It is the West’s debt, and the question that demands being asked is how could we possibly pay that debt in foreign lands, as tourists or travellers or scholars, knowing that one way or another, we are simply extending this story, this conquering history, ad infinitum into the future, into the world?

Clues Among the Conquerors

Let's return one last time to the confessions of Claude-Levi Strauss, as he struggled to reconcile his studies with what his studies taught him of life. Let us read the words of a young man who would go on to spend decades of his life with indigenous peoples, searching out, perhaps unknowingly, that which many tourists and travellers have been seeking for centuries – culture, memory, roots, and belonging. Throughout his book, Tristes Tropiques, the anthropologist is haunted by what he sees and what has been left behind, both where he travelled to and back home.

“Farewell to savages, then. Farewell to journeying. And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man; in the scent, more subtly evoked than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience,serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.”v

There is no lesson it seems, only a good example. The lesson is what is done by witnessing the example and proceeding accordingly – according to what is need of us in our time.

Levi-Strauss, still resolutely a man of his place and time (mid-20th century France), understood, even in his raised-nose, conquerant tone that what we search for is not to be found elsewhere. That it can’t be found elsewhere. This centuries-long search that has spurned conquest after conquest,the social sciences and tourism is, in the end, a way of evading the necessary and overdue work of staying home, of planting roots, of tending to them so that those who might come after us are fed by our manner of being in the world. Together.

So, when western people travel, regardless of demographic or diaspora,they travel as tourists, with all of anthropology’s burdened past in hand. Likewise, the anthropologist cannot escape what his or her own academic lineage has produced in the form of tourism. They cannot deny the manner of being foreign and the manner of approaching the foreign that we see so often in tourists. Each are braided to the same history. Sibling rivals, whose desire to serve a better world starts by stopping, by staying home. It begins by learning that history and honouring it at the offering bowl of the local, feeding home.

1 On comparison: pattern recognition has taught us to conflate and reduce things others. This is paramount in western education and epidemic in its consequences. It is as important to know and honour our differences as much as our similarities. This essay is not a comparative assessment, but one that attempts to re-cognize and re-member how our culturally inherited ancestry shows up and most often how it doesn’t.

2 Metonym (n.) A word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated.

3 Liminal (adj.) 1. Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2. Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

4 It is an important consideration that up until the 16th century, there is no record of the term “human” being used in European scholarship.

5 An example of this might be the myriad ways in which the liberal arts or scientific worldview might proceed with the assumption that their scholastic foundation is non-religious or objective, when, in fact, they were built by western, monotheistic thinkers and institutions.

i Crick, Malcolm. Resplendent Sites, Discordant Voices: Sri Lankans and International Tourism. Routledge. New York, 2012.

ii Levi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Translation John & Doreen Weightman. Penguin. New York, 2012. pp 1.

iii Levi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Translation John & Doreen Weightman. Penguin. New York, 2012. pp 1.

iv Narby, Jeremy. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. Tarcher/Penguin. New York, 2004. pp244.

v. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. New York :Criterion Books, 1961.

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