13 October 2016

Ethnography & Tourism: Part I

Part of the blog-writing duo had the opportunity to travel from Canada to Japan for one short week. During this time, blogger Jennifer Long wanted to explore the question: What are the similarities and differences between ethnography and tourism? 

Michael A. Di Giovine (2011) proposes that anthropology can better embrace tourism’s relevance and dynamicism when research is undertaken as a form of "global ethnography".

He goes on to write about the theoretical and phenomenological underpinnings of tourism as a viable and worthwhile location for ethnographic investigation:
Tourists not only understand that there exists alterity outside of their everyday boundaries, but they actively seek it out—as John Urry pointed out in his seminal book, The Tourist Gaze (Sage 1990). The “tourist gaze” is a form of seeing that is predicated on difference, on literally looking for alterity. In Valene Smith’s classic edited volume, Hosts and Guests (U Penn Press, 1977), Nelson Graburn asserted that tourism is fundamentally a break from the work-a-day normalcy, an endeavor to temporarily step out of one’s comfortable (or uncomfortable) everyday life, to experience difference. 
On my first day here in Iwata, Japan, I found myself entering this "tourist gaze". I noticed the differences around me which included the culture of (utter) politeness, the lack of street lights and garbage, the practice of bowing, or the presence of a urinal in the female bathroom (for boys accompanying their mothers into the washroom).
During these moments where I took notice of these 'oddities', I was, as Giovine says, struck by the alterity of my (past) experience.

As I walked the streets, I surely broke from my everyday normalcy of sitting behind my computer. This first experience of a new place however was not without its similarities to my world 'back home'. Iwata, like Canada, was celebrating a national holiday (Thanksgiving) on the first full day. As my colleagues and I struggled to find a open restaurant to eat lunch, we commented on the quietness of the city - despite its 168,000 inhabitants - and the similarities we saw and felt about quietness of the city streets that reminded us of certain quiet moments back home in Canada.

Giovine goes on to write:    
While the experience itself is ephemeral, the taking of photographs, the bringing back of souvenirs, the exchange of travel tales, and, most importantly, the frequent desire to repeat or relive the experience (perhaps in a different destination) all point to tourism’s formative and lasting role in fashioning and re-presenting one’s identity through time. As the anthropological truism goes, people often describe themselves by what they are not, rather than what they are.
At the time of writing, I've taken approximately 100 photos and even shared some with family and friends. These practices surely shape how I see myself and how others see me; yet, I already know that these practices will likely not shape me the same way living in the Netherlands for 12 months for my doctoral research shaped my identity. As argued by Giovine, the temporality of tourism is an important factor. My lack of language comprehension and sheer lack of familiarity were painfully obvious throughout the day. From the tourist/ethnographer vantage point, I can already identify a few questions I consider interesting and perhaps important for further investigation: what does the temporary nature of my stay mean with regard to my lack of knowledge of cultural etiquette? As a white female traveler, do I have more leeway making social faux pas than someone who looks Japanese or Asian? 

I hope to address these and other questions in these posts as a Canadian (anthropologist) visiting Japan.

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