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The production of tourism concepts

Jean-Michel Decroly et Anya Diekmann
Traduction de Valérie Lacroix
Cet article est une traduction de :
La fabrique des concepts touristiques [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
La fábrica de los conceptos turísticos [es]
La fabbricazione dei concetti turistici [it]
A fabricação dos conceitos turísticos [pt]
La fàbrica de conceptes turístics [ca]
Die Entstehung von touristischen Konzepten [de]

Texte intégral


1Since the end of the 1960s, the field of tourism studies has been lulled by a long and painful lament that underlines the lack of theoretical ambition and the disciplinary dispersion of the field of study, which contributes to its lack of scientific visibility and, as J. Tribe (1997) puts it, to its indiscipline. In the introductory article of the first issue of the journal Tourism Studies, A. Franklin and M. Crang (2001, p.5) draw a clear conclusion in this respect. While stressing the stimulating and relevant nature of the analysis of tourism practices and activities, especially in providing a better understanding of the processes of transnationalization, they note that, for lack of theorization, "tourist studies are outdated, worn out, repetitive and lifeless". In the eyes of both authors, this sad situation originates from the combination of several factors. Tourism studies suffer from an overly operational orientation and, as a result, a strong reliance on the short-term priorities and interests of public or private donors. This drift has been accentuated by the growing influence of management sciences and management on the field of research. In fact, more than 70% of tourism programs (and therefore research) are located in business schools (Ateljevic, 2014). This influence has led in the same movement to a fetishization of tourism as a product and economic activity, an obsession with rankings and taxonomies and a pronounced tropism for positivism, perceived as a condition for scientific recognition to the detriment of alternative concepts of the intellectual approach. Finally, the diminished theorization that characterizes tourism studies results from a too slow percolation of social theory within them, especially as regards the critical aspects of this theory.

2Recurrent in the Anglo-Saxon literature, this lament is also used by colleagues from other scientific and linguistic cultures, especially in publications with an epistemological scope (see for example Ethier, Morisset and Sarrasin, 2012). The observation therefore appears to be widely shared. However, on closer inspection, it turns out that tourism research is not a theoretical desert and that it has seen the emergence of new concepts, specific to the object studied. The "tourist system" by J. Jafari (1985), the "Tourist Gaze" of J. Urry (1990) or the "polytopic lifestyles" of M. Stock (2006), demonstrate, among many other concepts, the theoretical vitality of tourism research. In line with these contributions and hoping to participate in the development of theorization in tourism studies, we have set up this issue of Via Tourism Review. To this end, we approached about twenty colleagues of varied origins, at the linguistic as well as at the disciplinary level, who in the course of their work have forged a new concept or adapted a preexisting concept to tourism.

A reflexive approach to conceptualization

  • 1 The authors would like to thank Tim Freytag, member of the editorial board of Via Tourism Review, w (...)

3In order to select the concepts that we wanted to incorporate in this issue1, we were attentive to two criteria.

4Firstly, we searched in contemporary scientific works on tourism for terms or expressions (derived from common lament vocabulary, neologisms or combinations of words) that concur with the two main attributes identified by Ogden and Richards (1923) defining a concept: they must aim for a comprehension of the studied phenomena (rather than labels attached to facts) and have an empirical domain of validity. In other words, we chose terms or expressions which play the role of intellectual tools that may contribute to the interpretation of observations or experiences. As an example, and though we did not have the opportunity to use it given the recent death of J. Urry, the "Tourist Gaze" fully meets these criteria since it contributed, on the basis of many empirical examples, to the understanding not only of the emergence of a new relationship of individuals to the world, based on visualization, but also of the growing influence of the tourist gaze on the shaping of material and immaterial spaces.

5Secondly, in the course of our research, we took care in identifying concepts that take tourism seriously, either by bringing a better understanding of the influence of tourism on values, norms and social behaviours, social interactions, economic or political relations, or by providing keys to interpretation of the ways of being and doing specific to tourism or its actors.

6Once the concepts were identified, we chose to encourage reflexive work from their authors. With this in mind, we invited each of them to conduct a detailed examination of the scientific process which had been implemented to forge the adopted concept. We thereby wanted to highlight certain aspects of the knowledge production process by examining how the intellectual tools that allow a better understanding of tourism phenomena are elaborated. Each author thus received precise specifications in which they were asked to explain, in a concise form (maximum 5,000 words), the genesis of the concept, its reception within the scientific community and its subsequent evolution following new empirical observations or feedback from colleagues. In fact, we believe that a concept is as much an outcome as a starting point for intellectual activity: if it crystallizes prior interpretations of a phenomenon into a term or an expression, it opens the way to new developments, through confrontation with the field or with the views of other researchers.

A challenge

7At a time when scientific research is governed by the neoliberal principles of maximizing productivity, generalized interpersonal and inter-university competition, and the use of bibliometrics as the sole tool of evaluation, our approach was a challenge. Indeed, Via Tourism Review is far from appearing amongst the "top journals" in tourism studies, is not published by a large private publishing house, and rests on the goodwill of colleagues who strive towards progress in the understanding of tourism through a multilingual, interdisciplinary and free access journal. While addressing the authors, we had fear of receiving many polite refusals or, more prosaically, no response at all. If some invitations remained a dead letter, most of the contacted authors expressed interest in our approach. Of course, we recorded some withdrawals due to reasons of timing, but several colleagues nevertheless accepted, often with enthusiasm, to take part in the project.

8In this issue you will find articles on concepts as diverse as the invention of the tourist site, the tourist themself, heritage-scape, post-tourism, the potential for social justice through tourism or tourism gentrification. At first glance, this set seems to form a theoretical bric-a-brac. Nevertheless, the concepts presented draw from the main questions on tourism emerging from the 1970s, when anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists barged into the field of tourism studies. In line with the work of E. Cohen (1972) and D. Nash (1978), the notion of tourism as a three-dimensional system in constant interaction then emerged: the visitors and their culture, the sites and societies they visit, and the multiple actors who contribute to connect them (Decroly, 2010). The first of these components is discussed here through the article by sociologist Dean MacCannel, in which he explains how, in the late 1960s, he questioned the socio-psychological motives to travel, and how, by mobilizing the tools of cultural studies, he was led to characterize the search for an authentic experience as the central motivation of tourists. As he recalls in his contribution, this search for authenticity is itself guided by a process of symbolic marking that leads to the fact that, among the countless objects that could be visited, only some become touristic. This second aspect of D. MacCannel’s analysis refers to recurring questions about the shaping and transformation of sites and societies by tourism. Three of the articles that we gathered here are part of this tradition. In the first one, anthropologist Michael Di Giovine revisits the genesis of his analysis on World Heritage sites and their symbolic shaping by UNESCO in order to propagate a symbolic story of "unity in diversity". Next, the article by geographer Remy Knafou establishes the genealogy of his concept of the invention of the tourist site, according to which the use of an existing site by tourism results from a new reading, a new regard, on this site, and at the same time leads to the subversion and enlargement of it. Finally, sociologist Kevin Fox-Gotham explains what led him to expand the concept of gentrification, including localized tourism investment processes, particularly in urban centres, which can produce the same effects of eviction of the working class as residential transformations.

9The third component of the tourism system is approached through the contribution of Dianne Dredge, doctor of tourism planning and policy, which relates to the analysis of tourist actors networks, and advocates to take the political dimension of the latter more into consideration. In her article on the potential of social justice through tourism, Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, PhD in International Relations, discusses the interaction between the visitors and the visited and the conditions that must be fulfilled for this interaction to be emancipatory for all parties, even though it takes place in a "bad world" (de Lagasnerie, 2017). Finally, at the crossroads of the different components of the tourism system, geographer Philippe Bourdeau relates the intellectual journey that led him to forge the concept of post-tourism.

10In addition to these reflexive contributions, the authors fed the "Photographs" section, which is dear to the members of the editorial board of Via Tourism Review, each proposing a commented photograph that illustrates their way of working - another way to show research being carried out.

Reading keys

11Every reader, whether student, doctoral student or experienced researcher, will find food for thought in the articles which have been gathered here. Indeed, discovering the path taken by colleagues to create concepts leads to questioning one’s own ways of producing knowledge and to desacralizing theoretical research. In addition, the conditions of the production of tourist concepts are outlined through the texts presented in this issue. These conditions establish three distinct families, depending on the degree of grip that researchers have on them.

12The first family forms the backdrop for scientific work on tourism. It brings together contextual elements on which the researcher has no - or very little - grip. When developing a concept, what the researcher aims to understand and the way he formalizes it depends on what tourism is at that time, but also, more broadly, what global social relations are. In the same way, conceptualization is influenced by the state of knowledge on tourism and more broadly on the social world. The second family of conditions for scientific work on tourism includes all the aspects on which the researcher is able to leave his mark, in particular the choice of his sources of intellectual inspiration, the time and the space he concedes to empirical and/or to a field approach, or his way of articulating research and teaching. Finally, the third family of conditions brings together contextual elements on which the researcher has a partial grip, namely the temporal, spatial and relational frameworks of his work: the time he can devote to his object of study, the institution to which he is attached, the teams and colleagues with whom he is accustomed to conducting research.

13Oddly, the first family of conditions for research is scantly mentioned by the contributors to this issue. Admittedly, D. MacCannel notes that the very modest development of tourism studies at the end of the 1960s partially conditioned his choice to take the tourist as object of study. At another level, F. Higgins-Desbiolles emphasizes that the narrow view on tourism in force at the time of neo-liberalism was a spur to forge an alternative view, based on the principles of justice and emancipation. Overall, the authors focus on the conditions for research on which they (partially) have a grip.

14On a heuristic level, most of them emphasize the determining influence of certain sources of intellectual inspiration. These sources are sometimes derived from the discipline of origin, as with R. Knafou who was inspired by the works that geographers (for example C. Raffestin, 1987, and B. Debarbieux, 1988) devoted in the 1980s to territory and territoriality. Mostly, they come from other disciplines, with a marked tropism for researchers who cover a broad spectrum in the field of social sciences, like C. Levi-Strauss and E. Goffman, whose teachings constituted the intellectual matrix of D. MacCannel’s research, or like of A. Appaduraï, whose concept of scape strongly inspired M. Di Giovine, or yet like B. Latour, whose theory of the actor-network permeated research on the networks of actors in tourism. The overwhelming majority of authors who contributed to our project are from the Western World or pursued their careers in Western universities. We could add that they are mostly male authors. Openness to intellectual tools forged in other cultural contexts therefore remains rare, except for Di Giovine, who acknowledges his debt to the work of Indian geographer Rana Singh, from whom originated the idea that heritage is by nature in constant change, and for P. Bourdeau, who emphasizes the essential influence of the writings on transmodernity of Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel.

15Not surprisingly, research conducted within the very field of tourism studies is also an important source of inspiration, through the legacies of previous works and the debates triggered by the theoretical advances formulated by the authors themselves. P. Bourdeau notes, for example, that he has been nourished by the critical literature on tourism, in English, with the texts of D. Fennell (2006) and J. Tribe (2009) on the ethics and philosophy of tourism, in German, with the work of J. Krippendorf (1982, 1986, 2010) on the environmental and social impacts of tourism, or in French, with the thesis of G. Cazes on tourism in developing countries. He also alludes to the influence played by non-academic publications, notably those of F. Michel and R. Christin, the controversial character of which is conducive to reflection. F. Higgins-Desbiolles also mentions the impact on his work of critical texts on tourism, in particular those of J. Krippendorf (him again), and D. McLaren (2003). In addition, several authors note that the reactions which were generated in the field of tourism studies by their work have themselves been a source of inspiration, leading to a change in their formulation, their content or the empirical illustrations of the initial concept.

16However, the main common denominator of the theoretical crystallizations presented in this issue lies in the essential role played by the confrontation to the field, as part of surveys, of applied research carried out for public authorities or private operators, or as tourist operator. F. Higgins-Desbiolles and M. Di Giovine thus highlight the major effect played by the professional experience they had before the beginning of their thesis, as a collaborator or volunteer for Australian non-governmental organizations in one case, as a guide for a US educational tour operator for the other. In both cases, these initial contacts with the field, in a non-academic framework, helped to orientate their research, both through the questions they raised and the empirical illustrations they provided. Moreover, as noted by D. Dredge, P. Bourdeau and R. Knafou, exchanges with the actors and field operators constitute an ideal opportunity to test the intellectual tools which have been developed and to initiate new ideas. Finally, more classically, D. MacCannel and K. Fox-Gotham show that their conceptual work would not have been possible without prior investigation.

17Unlike fieldwork, teaching is rarely mentioned by the authors in this issue. However, P. Bourdeau shows that dialogues with students played a major role in the evolution of his thinking, particularly in the context of seminars and workshops or field trips. Indeed, they provide an opportunity to test one’s ideas, sketch out terminologies or classifications, clarify one’s intuitions or question what one originally thought.

18Finally, the articles gathered in this issue testify to the impact on the conduct of research of temporal, spatial and relational work settings. Certain moments, places or collaborations prove to be more favorable to conceptualization than others. Through their duration, but also through the freedom of thought that they allow, the doctoral thesis or the accreditation to supervise research gave M. Di Giovine, F. Higgins-Desbiolles and P. Bourdeau occasion to allow the emergence of the concepts that they present here. Moreover, as noted by R. Knafou, the objects and ways of doing research in laboratories or university departments which one attends, inevitably fade on the personal intellectual journey. Not to mention dialogues with close colleagues, those whom the researcher frequents regularly, within his team or within the scope of external collaborations, dialogues which, as P. Bourdeau emphasizes, form the foundation of intellectual activity and thus of conceptualization.

19In closing, we wish to highlight that the concepts presented in this issue each result from a long process of intellectual maturation. They have been forged over time, often over several years, through the repeated confrontation of ideas with one another or with the field. Conceptualization requires time - a lot of time. In this sense, this collection of articles confirms the words of Eugene Garfield (1990, p.14), who, while harshly criticizing the popular representation of a scientific progress linked to a succession of strokes of genius and fortuitous discoveries, points out that important breakthroughs often come from researchers "who tenaciously plow a mature field in order to make a discovery, and who are intellectually prepared to recognize and exploit unexpected results". As noted by Olivier Gosselain (2011: 131), "as regards research, slowness and consistency prevail over speed and versatility". The productivist injunction that the laudators of scientific excellence keep repeating is therefore in radical contradiction with the long temporality of the production of concepts. By resisting this injunction, researchers give themselves the means not only to limit the human suffering it creates, but also to pursue at their own pace, with complete peace of mind, the long intellectual journey that makes it possible to forge the tools capable of improving the understanding of tourism ..., or any other social fact.

20Ateljevic I., 2014, « Mapping a history and development of tourism studies field », Turizam: međunarodni znanstveno-stručni časopis, 62(1), 75-101.

21Cohen E., 1972, « Toward a Sociology of International Tourism », Social Research, 39(1), 164–189.

22Debarbieux B., 1988, Territoires de haute montagne : recherches sur le processus de territorialisation et d’appropriation sociale de l’espace de haute montagne dans les Alpes du Nord, Université de Grenoble I, Institut de géographie Alpine, Thèse de doctorat en géographie,

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1 The authors would like to thank Tim Freytag, member of the editorial board of Via Tourism Review, who contributed to the initial selection of the concepts presented in this issue and participated in the proofreading of the submitted texts.

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Jean-Michel Decroly et Anya Diekmann, « The production of tourism concepts », Via [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2018, consulté le 02 juin 2020. URL :

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Jean-Michel Decroly

IGEAT, Université Libre de Bruxelles

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Anya Diekmann

IGEAT, Université Libre de Bruxelles

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Valérie Lacroix

Ma en sciences et gestion du tourisme, ULB

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