Ethnographers vs ‘Tourists’

Anthropologists love to compare themselves to tourists. Nothing more confirms the merit of anthropology and its commitment to ‘in-depth’ fieldwork than the cultural missteps of globetrotters – especially wealthy Western ones – as they bumble through quagmires of etiquette and faux pas in the act of rubbing up against foreign cultures across the world. Anthropologists get to know locals in and out, while tourists fly in and fly out, we like to say, seeing only a bare scrapping of what’s to offer, and usually even that has been commodified and packaged for their entertainment.

The distinction between tourists who come in week-long whirlwinds of sightseeing, expats, and those who understand themselves as ‘travellers’ is often similarly couched. “You’ve been to Indonesia? Where did you go? Oh, Bali? Well you haven’t seen the real Indonesia until you’ve been to Aceh”, or at least, so goes the tired conversation.

For all that anthropologists may claim they’ve moved beyond the Malinowskian spectre of hermetically sealing oneself off from the rest of society, one only need to step into a conversation between two fieldworkers to see how quickly the gloves come off over who has been further away, more isolated, and spent less time conversing in their native tongue.

But debates about the authenticity of the remote over the near aside, as tourism grows, so too do genuine questions pertaining to the ethical responsibilities of wealthy travellers who can afford to leave their home and go to other countries. Should tourists refuse to go to countries that are gross violators of human rights, or alternatively, who are we to cast a stone? Should we even be travelling so widely, given how heavily the travel industry and flight impacts upon our carbon footprint? Who do we give our money to while overseas, and is there any really successful way to give back to the ‘local’ economy without it going into the hands of large corporations? And, finally, but for me, most importantly – how much should we learn about a country before we go, and how best can we show respect?

 R-E-S-P-E-C-T – What does it mean?

But it is important I think to recognise at the same time that travelling is not, in and of itself, a right. For most of human history, our species basically never budged more than a few miles from our place of birth. The spread of humanity out of Africa and into the rest of the world was incremental, occurring in the thousands of years, not in a matter of days. Only recently has the prospect of travel been plausible, and even then, mostly as trade or pilgrimage, often on voyages that were hazardous.

The idea today that one can simply get in a plane, fly thousands of kilometres across the globe, and arrive in another place is something that needs to be understood in its context – both a) a total revolution in the way that homo sapiens move – and b) a luxury that is still outside the purview of many.

Travellers bypass the historical norms that created the world we see around us today, in effect parachuting themselves into the streets and homes of people they otherwise had no chance of meeting. Although respect is usually couched as a two-way street – show me respect, and I’ll show you respect – part of respecting others is recognising that the forms of respect are not universal. Deference in one country can be seen as rude in another, or, friendliness can become overfamiliarity.

As a tourist, the expectation of knowing a foreign culture inside out definitely is not there. Most people will forgive errors that can be chalked up to cultural misunderstandings of a minor variety. But, as those with the power to travel, the onus is on travellers then to take the first step in cultural awareness, especially when visiting the world outside of wealthy Europe, Japan, and North America.


‘Cultural awareness’, however, can be one-sided. Take for instance, the following: In 2014, American-based Iranian-born journalist Masih Alinejad launched the website “My stealthy freedom” [azadi-ye yavoshaki-ye zanan dar iran], a platform for women in Iran who disagreed with the policy of mandatory hijab in public to take pictures of themselves without their headscarves. Her work has been lauded (and criticised) for its condemnation of the mandatory hijab (and not the hijab in general).

While originally a movement exclusively among Iranian women, with the rise in the number of female tourists visiting the country, the website encouraged foreigners in Iran to likewise challenge the state, posting images of themselves at visitor hotspots, again without hijab. So popular was this move that it spawned the hashtag “see you in Iran without hijab”.

While doubtless coming from a wellspring of good intentions, for foreign tourists to arrive in a country, tour it for a handful of weeks, weigh up a decision about the relative merits of obeying the law, and then choosing to break it, strikes me as a) rash, b) potentially dangerous, and c) one that fails to recognise the dual standards which are already imposed on them as a foreigner in Iran.

Non-Iranians in Iran are given far greater leniency than Iranian women. An Australian with a bad hijab in Iran might get stared at, but will never be chastised. A woman with none might be asked politely to respect local sensibilities. For Iranian women however, the choice can lead to a dressing down from the police at best, and potentially worse.

Wearing the hijab in Iran is complicated

For a significant portion of women, the fact that it is compulsory in public is probably among their chief criticisms and gripes with the state. For other women, it makes no difference – many would wear hijab regardless of whether it was legally required or not, just as many women in the Iranian diaspora continue to wear hijab. The fact that it is compulsory in Iran is likewise part of an ongoing debate in public fora, in the halls of power, and among clerics. It’s just too simple to be compressed into a photo shoot.

None of this means that people should not travel. They should. Travel is an excellent way of introducing people to new frontiers, sparking interest in other societies and intercultural exchange among people who previously had very little. But, as a semi-anthropologist, what I would suggest is this: whenever someone in another country tells you an issue is ‘settled’ or that ‘everyone agrees’, especially if their response is immediate, take it with a grain of salt.*

*Keep in mind, I’m a white, Western male, so you should definitely also take me and what I say with a grain of salt.

[Image by wallyir at]

4 thoughts on “Ethnographers vs ‘Tourists’

  1. Pingback: Expats, Tourists and “Matter out of Place” | The Familiar Strange

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