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Networks provide a powerful lens to understand the complex relations that are transforming social, economic and political life. Through a discussion of the various streams of network research in tourism, this paper argues that policy matters run across and throughout these strands. Rather than arguing for increased interest in tourism policy network research as a separate subfield, the paper argues for deeper theoretical engagement with the policy dimensions in tourism network research. Researchers adopting a network ontology could gain considerable insights and open up new lines of inquiry into what is really going on if they engage with, unpack and critique policy and political science theories, tools, frameworks and concepts.

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1Networks provide a powerful lens to understand the relations transforming social, economic and political life (Eriksson, 2005; Roelofs, 2009). In tourism studies, the network metaphor has been adopted, adapted and hybridised to reflect diverse disciplinary influences such as business or sociology, and contributions have ranged from descriptive, exploratory and explanatory investigations of tourism networks to prescriptive and normative recommendations about “good” network governance (Peterson, 2003). In the process, tourism network research has diversified and new to approaches have emerged including Actor Network Theory (ANT) (e.g. Johannesson, 2005; van der Duim, Ren, Johannesson, 2013), policy networks (e.g. Pavlovich, 2003, 2014; Dredge, 2006a, 2006b; Duffy, 2006), inter-organisational governance networks (e.g. Beaumont, Dredge, 2010; Volgger, Pechlaner, 2015) and business networks (e.g. Thomas, 2012).

2This paper examines the current state of the art in tourism network research. It seeks to consolidate the relatively fragmented literature on tourism policy networks drawing from my own contributions and other literature. The paper argues that the problem is not that policy is missing, but that network research has become so concerned with describing relational matters that the deeper effects and consequences of networks on policymaking, and the steering of tourism, have become less important. My early contributions to tourism network research, along with Pavlovich (2003), sought to use networks as an ontological lens to explore what was really going on in tourism policymaking. However, a decade of research reveals that description has dominated tourism network research, and understanding the effects of networks, their operation, flows, and consequences in terms of what happens in tourism have been backgrounded. In the process, theoretical insights into power, politics, influence and knowledge dynamics are minimised. Rather than arguing for increased interest in tourism policy network research as a separate subfield, the paper argues for deeper theoretical engagement with policy dimensions in tourism network research. Researchers adopting a network perspective could gain considerable insights and open up new lines of inquiry into what is really going on if they engage with, unpack and critique tourism policy through a network lens. The aim of this paper then is to explore the origin, evolution and possibilities for future research relating to policy matters within tourism network research. The paper builds upon a small body of tourism policy network research, including my own contributions over a 10 year period (see Dredge 2006a, 2006b; Dredge, Pforr, 2008; Dredge, Thomas, 2009; Beaumont, Dredge, 2010) and which provides the foundation for more recent work in policy complementarities (Dredge, 2015a) and network governance (Dredge, 2015b) and knowledge dynamics in tourism networks (Dredge 2015c).

Defining the realm of tourism policy networks

3Given the fuzzy nature of key concepts including tourism, policy and networks, the focus here is on networks conceived as constellations of social relations that contribute to tourism policymaking. Importantly, these relational ecologies often extend beyond tourism and policy, so any attempt at defining tourism policy networks in any rigid manner is futile. Tourism policy itself is also difficult to define but is broadly conceived as the processes, decisions, actions and outcomes of collaborations aimed at steering tourism (Hall, Jenkins, 1995). These networks can also extend to allied policy fields including land use planning, transport, economic and community development where they overlap or implicate tourism (Dredge, 2015a).

4In this framing, it is important not to assume who is responsible for policy, or to draw conceptual boundaries around networks that inadvertently include and exclude actors. Policy was once considered top-down and a responsibility of the public sector (Powell, 1990; Hall, Jenkins, 1995). However, the current neoliberal-inspired view of policy suggests that tourism policy is the result of collaboration between government, business and civil society and responsibility is dispersed (Dredge, Jenkins, 2006). As a result, network researchers interested in tourism policymaking should follow the flow of ideas, influence, power and knowledge in policymaking, and how these factors shape the steering of tourism.

5Studies of policy networks seek to excavate the characteristics, impacts and the consequences of these relational ecologies (c.f. Hajer, 2003; Rochelaeu, 2008). Policy network research draws theoretical inspiration from a broad range of models, frameworks and theories from politics and policy analysis, and it extends from normative prescriptions of ‘good’ or effective networks to critical explorations of power, ideas, resources and authority (Dredge, Pforr, 2008). Actor Network Theory (ANT)-inspired research can also seek to disrupt ways of understanding policy, excavating for example, new types of non-human actors such as risk, impact, innovation and public good, concepts which become so entangled in socio-material meanings that they can take on a life of their own in policy discussions (Am, 2015). Accordingly, it is important to be open to different ontological and epistemological approaches to tourism network research and the contributions of these diverse developments in understanding, explaining and performing tourism policy.

Origin and evolution of network thinking

6The network metaphor has various historical antecedents in the social sciences ( graph theory, see Baggio, Scott, Cooper, 2010); in infrastructure systems, (see Borgatti, Mehra, Brass, Labianca, 2009); in sociology (Mitchell, 1974); and in political science (see Heclo, 1978). In organisational studies, networks can be traced back to systems thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where ‘hierarchy’ provided a metaphor for depicting the structured, multi-level and multi-sectoral organisation of governments. Under Frederick Winslow Taylor’s influential work Principles of Scientific Management (1919), hierarchical forms of public and private sector organisation, which were based on the specialisation of both workforce and tasks, were argued to be highly efficient and more productive. This metaphor of hierarchy dominated for most of the twentieth century, but in 1981 the term ‘network society’ was coined as a metaphor capturing the complex social, economic, spatial, cultural, environmental and political organisation of modern societies (van Dijk, 1991/2012).

7Against this background, a number of ontological turns have taken place in the social sciences over the last century contributing to more reflexive, complex and dynamic conceptualisations of policymaking. Among these are the post-structural turn, the relational turn, the deliberative turn, the communicative turn, the new institutionalism turn, and the systems turn (see Dryzek, Niemeyer, 2010). Together, these turns have contributed insights into the nature of power, politics, government, and relationships between government and business, where key contributions for understanding policy include:

8Changes in conceptualising policy spaces. Policy spaces have become more fluid, temporal and dynamic. The role and power vested in small-p informal politics and informal networking has become increasingly recognised alongside the traditional role of large-P formal politics in policymaking (Flint, 2003). In tourism, Dredge and Thomas (2009) noted that the relational processes of policymaking transcend different for a including formal policy arenas to informal spaces such as ski resorts and bars.

9Complex organisation and co-ordination. Policymaking is less structured, coordinated and hierarchical than previously conceived (Fischer, et al. 2015). Policy action is not always top down, nor does it conform to the formal structures and practices of government. Actors enact different agendas based on self- and mutual interests, sometimes similtaneously (Beaumont, Dredge, 2010).

10Distributed responsibilities. Responsibilities are differentiated, distributed and negotiated (Rhodes, 1990; van Buren, Klijn, Koppenjan, 2003). There has been a shift away from a top-down government-centred view of responsibility towards a view that interdependent public-private actors share, negotiate, co-create and perform responsibilities, which may be formally acknowledged or informal (Dredge, Jenkins, 2012).

11Compression of time and space. Networks are fluid overtime and space (Eriksson, 2005). Time and space are two organising logics underpinning traditional understandings of policymaking. For example, policy has traditionally been discussed and analysed using tools, theories or concepts with an inherent time dimension (i.e., policy cycles, processes and timelines) and a spatial dimension (e.g. national, regional and local policymaking). However, network research concludes that policymaking is rarely linear or sequential (Jann, Wegrich, 2007) and, often, there is no beginning and no end (Pavlovich, 2014). The fluidity of actors and issues from global to local mean that policymaking is better described as non-scalar and liquid (Dredge, Jamal, 2013).

12Knowledge co-production. Knowledge (co)creation in policymaking is a socio-cultural exercise (Sabatier, Jenkins-Smith, 1993). Knowledge in the policy process was historically conceptualized as a rational technical exercise and a fixed input. However, it has come to be seen as dynamically co-produced in the problematisation of issues, in the negotiation of responsibilities, and in the co-creation of actions.

13The consequence of these shifts in the way governments govern is that rational scientific and top-down theories of tourism policymaking have been cast aside in favour of negotiated relational forms of public-private policymaking. Notions of policymaking as a rational scientific process comprising clear stages have been rejected (e.g. Hogwood, Gunn, 1984), and the messy reality of policy development has contributed to explanations of dynamic, complex and unordered policy processes (Rhodes, 1990; Hall, 2011; Pierce, Martin, Murphy, 2011). Not surprisingly, networks and its language (e.g. nodes, webs, strong/weak ties, links, clusters, etc.) have become increasingly useful in understanding the relational ecologies that produce policy and steer tourism.

Overview of network research in tourism

14Tourism networks have received varied research attention over the last 20 years. van der Zee and Vanneste (2015) undertake a systematic literature review and relational citation analysis of tourism business and tourism policy network research. Their research reveals thematic (based on keywords) clusters of research with a policy emphasis, a business emphasis, a relational “co-opeting” emphasis, and a network configuration emphasis. They observe, firstly, that a holistic emphasis is lacking and that there is little cross-fertilisation between these clusters of research. Secondly, they argue that explicit attention to methods is lacking and that papers often fail to provide firm evidence of the claims made (van der Zee, Vanneste, 2015). While the literature review of van der Zee and Vanneste (2015) is extensive, they don’t explicate the different ontological, epistemological or axiological foundations underpinning network research. However, such excavations could reveal differences and similarities in the way various streams of networks are framed; they could highlight the values and assumptions that underpin different research approaches; and they could help to illuminate the different types of knowledge produced about tourism networks.

15In another analysis of the field, Volgger and Pechlaner (2015) undertake a “selective and critical state of the art review” of tourism governance networks. They provide a thematic reflection on the use of networks as a management tool, but fail to clearly articulate the ontological and epistemological features and differences of the tourism network research. They assume tourism networks are for the purpose of organising and steering destinations towards greater competitiveness, innovation and efficiency, and they do not engage critically or theoretically with the consequences, impacts or end goals of networks as socio-political constructions.

16In another review of literature, Baggio, Scott and Cooper (2010) sketch out an epistemic position for tourism social network research. These authors are influenced by network science, drawing inspiration from mathematical modelling associated with graph theory and social network analysis (SNA). They acknowledge the complex, dynamic and scalar characteristics of networks although their methods tend to favour a regional and relatively place-bound level of analysis. Their adoption of positivist methodologies that employ statistical physics to analyse the network structure and relationships leads towards tightly structured quantitative-led methodologies and knowledge outputs such as network topologies. Interpretation of these topologies then requires the collection of qualitative interview data in order to elicit deeper explanation. Their work is broadly aimed at capturing insights into destination network characteristics. Their scientific perspective and methodological choices reveal snapshot descriptions of networks bounded by time and space. Interviews are used to reveal dynamic relational connections. Moreover, these approaches are less sensitive to indirect or invisible spatial, physical and temporal interconnections that might be missed as a result of the selection of scale, respondents and data collection processes. This research tends to focus on the present structure of relational constellations of human actors, and does not directly address issues of policy, flows of power, resources, and influence. As a result, this line of tourism network research reveals little about how broader socio-economic-political network relations constitute policy action, and how, in an iterative process, policy actions constitute relational networks.

17ANT explorations of tourism can interrogate the constitution of tourism policy and, conversely, how tourism policymaking contributes to the constitution of relations (e.g. Johannesson, 2005; Ren, Bjørst, Dredge, 2016). ANT certainly has its critics. It focuses on ethnographic translations that follow human or non-human actors (van der Duim, Ren, Jóhannesson, 2017). It tends to be theory-light, and in my own reading of this work, tends to borrow, at times superficially, from deeper theoretical and disciplinary constructs present in policy without taking responsibility for where those ideas have come from. ANT can therefore fail to fulfil policy researchers’ need for concrete understanding and theorization of policy making, role of government, power, and so on. Moreover, ANT has its own language, utilizes metaphors like nodes, knots, links, mesh, and fixity/fluidity, and is criticized as being dense and specialized (Law, Callon, 1988; van der Duim, et al., 2017). It also disengages with theoretical terms and concepts including those commonly used in the study of politics and policymaking (e.g. public/private, government/non-government, power/knowledge, materiality/sociality, structure/agency) (Law, 1999), and in doing so, can reproduce similar understandings to those already produced in policy but using a different language game. ANT can offer, however, highly contextualised understandings of policy settings interrogating “…the way in which [actors in particular contexts] define and distribute roles, and mobilize or invent others to play these roles” (Law, Callon, 1988, p.285). As a result, ANT explorations offer creative and highly specific (and potentially fragmented) insights on aspects like risk, actor interests, impacts, or strategy - dimensions on which an analysis of policymaking could hang (Am, 2015).

18This brief review of various approaches to analysing tourism networks reveals considerable divergence and distinct emphases on howpolicy – defined as public-private actions directed towards the steering of tourism –is operationalized (or not) in network research. For example, how space is dealt with; how material and non-material flows are acknowledged; how human and nonhuman actors are accounted for; how the notion of boundaries and infiniteness of relations are dealt with; and how scale is dealt with, are all points of difference (see Pierce et al., 2011; Wittle, Spicer, 2008). These differences result in the adoption of different methods, and they produce different insights and knowledge claims. As a result, network researchers often spend a considerable amount of time focused on defining the network concept and their empirical applications (Petersen, 2003; Beard, Scarles, Tribe, 2016). Policy issues are woven through these discussions, but rarely do authors contemplate what this thing called policy really is, and how theoretical discussions of power, influence, knowledge and politics can help to explain what they observe. They prefer instead not to problematize policy, and in doing so, deeper insights about political action and the “who”, “how” and “why” of steering of tourism remain unexplored.

Rescuing policy in network research

19So why does policy remain obscured in network research despite that there is growing consensus around a networked view of the world? Truth be told, many researchers and students alike think politics is alienating and policy is uninteresting (Wittenberg, 2013). Such attitudes bring the relevance and contribution of much tourism research to a grinding halt if researchers and students cannot interpret their research within the policy context and identify politically astute insights into the public-private actions necessary to steer tourism. Clearly, we need to rescue policy from such unhelpful assumptions, and to rehabilitate both an interest in, and the potential of, tourism policy network research as a means of revealing what is really going on, and what we, as actors in a relational world, can do about it.

20This paper has conceptualised policy as a messy, dynamic, non-scalar and value-laden set of relations, issues, agendas and actions in which actors engage, directly and indirectly, in the steering of tourism. Understanding how this steering works, the distribution of benefits, who wins and who loses are important questions for research. So how then can we rescue policy from old-fashioned misunderstandings and the outdated status of it being modernist, technical and a responsibility of the state? How do we rescue policy and make it relevant again? Can we revitalize policy issues and concerns in tourism network research? How can we release policy from being a tangential or peripheral issue in tourism network research?

21As explored above, a number of broad rationales underpin tourism network research. These perspectives can provide us with the tools to rescue policy in tourism network research. A managerial emphasis focuses on producing recommendations such as good network configurations and practices. A technical emphasis applies criteria, often derived from neoliberal values such as effective governance, accountability, competitiveness, and efficiency, to identify actions and strategies to improve governance. Some network research focuses on epistemological questions and the development methods and approaches to understand relational aspects of tourism development. This is indeed a broad church of research that can take inspiration from, for example, critical policy studies, evolutionary economic geography and political sociology. These perspectives have been used to better understand who wins and loses, the relationality of actors, flows of knowledge and ideas, path dependence and path plasticity of policy, which actors are central, peripheral and/or marginalized, and what are the consequences of their actions, behaviours and practices in policymaking. Other research, such as ANT, focus on ontological disruptions, by adopting radical ways of understanding networks (e.g. human and non-human actors, socio-materiality, etc.).

22In my own contributions, I have consistently attempted to add value to the tourism networks research by adopting different theoretical tools and thematics, and to explore the nature and influence of government, private sector, and community relations in the steering of tourism. The following themes continue to represent potential lifelines for rescuing policy, for revitalizing, and for making policy matter in network research:

23Power, knowledge and influence. Traditional roots of policy studies are found in understanding how power, interests and knowledge influence decisions and have an overall effect on the steering of societies (Hill, Varone, 2016). Studying power, knowledge and influence in tourism networks can reveal important insights into how, why and where tourism is being steered (Dredge, 2006b).

24Policy and values. Policy is value-laden but has often been disguised as value-free and objective under rational scientific modernist notions of policy. The study of tourism networks can reveal insights into how values dynamically emerge in policy, how they are translated, given meaning, and progressed in social relations to influence what actions are taken. Comparative analyses of networks formed under different value systems can reveal strengths and weaknesses of different policy outcomes (Dredge, Thomas, 2009; Beaumont, Dredge, 2010).

25Role of government, non-government actors and the public interest. Despite that governments have been de-centred in policy, they still have a central role at least theoretically, in the protection of public interest and management of the commons. Revitalising policy concerns in tourism network research can reveal important insights into the changing role of government, and in the protection of public interest and common resources (Dredge, Thomas, 2009).

26The dynamic constitution of place, meaning and action. Tourism policy network studies have significant potential to reveal the interplay between the structural characteristics of tourism and the relational dynamics of place. Adopting a policy lens in tourism network research can prompt us to think beyond the traits of individual actors or groups of actors (e.g. advocacy coalitions) by taking into account the technologies, dynamics and practices of policymaking, the influence of embedded knowledge and shifting ideologies such as neoliberalism and public management (Dredge, Jamal, 2013).

27Stakeholder practices. Tourism network research with a focus on policy can unpack how tourism policy is constituted via constellations of interdependent heterogeneous scale-free networks made up of government, business and civil society actors. Studies have also sought to understand specific aspects of policymaking including the role and influence of networks on participatory democracy, systems of governance (Dredge, 2006a; Anastasiadou, 2008), gatekeepers and boundary spanners (Presenza, Cipollina, 2010), on access to policymaking, and innovation in tourism policy (Halkier, 2014).

28Characteristics of tourism policyscapes. A policy lens in tourism network research allows us to trace changing views of the social world and to map a fluid decentralised view of tourism. This represents a departure from a state-centred view that often emerges from analyses adopting an organizational (e.g. DMO) lens (Dredge, Jenkins, 2007, 2012; Dredge, Jamal, 2013).

29Tourism policy mobilities. The rise of mobilities studies over the last 10 years has stimulated interest in understanding how policy ideas and approaches are transferred, how they mutate, are assembled, and grafted into different institutional systems and cultures. Studies of tourism policy adopting a mobilities lens have also allowed us to uncover the flow of ideas, knowledge and solutions, but have also raised questions about the efficacy of existing governance frameworks where stakeholders, issues capital and community are highly mobile (Dredge, Jamal, 2013).

30In retrospect, my own contributions to these themes has been fragmented, driven by vibrant collegial conversations (identified by co-authorship), commitment to theoretical engagement in critical management studies, policy and studies of government, and in-situ reflexive observations during policy consulting work. Sufficient and sustained resourcing for tourism policy research is near impossible to secure in a world increasingly driven by project work and issues-based research. Policymakers bound into practice worlds and values sets, and uncomfortable with not having tight control over the outcomes of research, create an additional challenge. That said, an important theme emerging across the social sciences in general, and in network research in particular, is the need to slow down the research process, and to listen and appreciate the values, behaviours, hopes and resourcefulness of actors, and to capture how policy and action are constituted reiteratively. While time consuming and labour intensive, embedded community case studies using policy ethnographies, institutional ethnographies and storytelling allow researchers to engage in and position themselves as actors within the networks they are studying, and through collaborative inquiry, co-create understandings and actions (Scott, Davis 2003; Dredge, Hales, 2012). Quantitative methodologies employing big data provide another means of understanding how, where and why networks are shaping the tourism policy discourses. For example, social media is having a significant impact on the way that collaborative economy issues are framed in tourism (e.g. Dredge et al, 2016). Big data can help policy makers understand how policy issues form by building on traditional concepts such as advocacy coalitions to reveal impact of information bubbles and “info storms” (Wiewiura, Hendriks, 2017). Human-centred design and experimental methodologies employing nudge mechanisms may also provide research opportunities to assess the uptake of action in different tourism networks.


31The aim of this paper was to explore the origin, evolution and possibilities for research in tourism network research and policy. It also provided the opportunity for this author to critically reflect on a decade of tourism policy network research and consider future directions. The paper has revealed that networks are more than a conceptual tool or a means of analysis, they have become “a horizon of thought and action” (Erikkson, 2005a, p.218). Networks have become a precondition for how we think about society; they tell us that there is no closed system, no interior and exterior; the world is not static, nor can we conceive of it as a structured system of pre-formulated rules and relationships. This would suggest that nothing is really governable in a scale-free networked fluid world. Moreover, as processes of globalisation and mobilities of capital, labour, business, tourists and residents accelerate, tourism policymaking will continue to be challenging. In this light, the paper has argued for a reinvigoration of policy within tourism network research. Rather than arguing for increased interest in tourism policy network research as a separate subfield, the paper has argued for deeper theoretical engagement with policy dimensions in tourism network research. Specifically, researchers adopting a network ontology could gain considerable insights and open up new lines of inquiry into what is really going on if they engage with, unpack and critique policy and political science theories, tools, frameworks and concepts. Reviving policy in tourism network research allows us to build a complex, dynamic, multi-actor, relational picture of how policy is formulated and how tourism is steered via the collaborative ecologies of public-private sectors.

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Dianne Dredge, « Rescuing policy in tourism network research », Via [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2018, consulté le 04 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Dianne Dredge

Department of Culture & Global Studies, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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