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Study of tourism is topic of emeritus professor’s new book

by Karen Singer - August 27, 2007

Though humans probably have always been tourists, it was not until the 20th century that social scientists began to investigate tourism.

Those who pioneered the field are the subject of The Study of Tourism: Anthropology and Sociological Beginnings (Elsevier 2007), edited by UConn’s Dennison Nash, an emeritus professor of anthropology.

“In every science there comes a time when it looks at itself as an institution. The investigators, their methods, and theories become of interest,” says Nash, who spent five years working on the book.

“I was involved, and probably was the best qualified to do it.”

Nash recently gave a presentation on the topic at a meeting of the International Academy for the Study of Tourism in Fethiye, Turkey.

According to Nash, 20th-century European scholars paid some attention to tourism, especially beginning in the 1930s, but the mid-1970s surge of interest in the subject coincided with the reality that more and more people were traveling.

He says the trend represents a late stage of industrialization, when people have more free time on their hands to engage in leisure pursuits.

The diminution of the Protestant work ethic was a corollary, he adds.

The book chronicles the careers of a dozen American, British, and French sociologists and anthropologists, who contributed personal histories detailing their involvement in tourism research.

They include Jeremy Boissevain, a social anthropologist who has spent decades studying tourism in Malta; Michel Picard, a specialist in Balinese culture; Margaret Byrne Swain, a feminist and anthropologist whose work has focused on gender and tourism; Jafar Jafai, founder and editor-in-chief of Annals of Tourism Research: A Social Sciences Journal; Marie-Françoise Lanfant, who developed an intensive program of international tourism research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France; and Nash himself, who has been writing about tourism for over three decades.

His last book was Anthropology of Tourism (Pergamon 1996).

“I wanted to do an inside story about these people, who are scientists and whose business is the pursuit of knowledge,” he says.

Researching tourism “was something that they dreamed about on their own.

Nobody helped them, and at the beginning … they didn’t have any assistance, but they went ahead anyway, against the grain of those who didn’t think it was worthy of serious attention.

“But it is serious to people who are in the industry, and it’s serious to some of these small countries who are putting all their bets on tourism development.”

Dennison Nash, emeritus professor of anthropology.
Dennison Nash, emeritus professor of anthropology.
Photo by Daniel Buttrey

Nash says he too did not get support for his tourism research.

“People would chuckle, and say, ‘You consider that work?’” he says.

“So it was not unexpected that I found these scholars were stubborn and persistent and strongly independent-minded.”

Nash, who has studied expatriates and taught a course on “Americans Abroad” at UConn, says his interest in tourism spiked when he gave a paper on tourism as a kind of imperialism at a 1974 meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

The paper, he says, generated great enthusiasm.

The momentum continued with Jafari’s founding of Annals of Tourism Research (now one of more than 50 periodicals on the subject in English); the establishment of tourism study-oriented associations; and the creation of academic research centers on tourism, which have multiplied to more than 550 in 86 countries.

“Scholars in European countries generally got involved earlier than Americans, and now there are some whole departments involved,” Nash says.

Over the years, researchers expanded their interest in the subject to all its aspects, he says, including the impact of tourism on local cultures, and tourists themselves.

“For a while, scholars were excited about different kinds of tourism,” Nash says.

“Now some of them are looking at themselves and the institutions that have been developed to deal with the subject.”

He says he is troubled by an increasingly “business-oriented” approach, with far more investigators conducting applied research than basic research in the field.

“This creates practical problems, where you sell yourself, or work for people who want results favorable to tourism,” he says.

Nash believes travelers typically “go on tours to get away from things and to enjoy themselves;” but those who read his book should come away with a different perspective.

“Not only will they begin to see what kinds of social activities they’re really involved in, but also the natures and activities of those who take tourism seriously as a scientific subject.”

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