Commentary RESEARCH

Sociological perspectives essential to tourism studies


2019-11-22 09:10

Sun Jiuxia
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The report to the 19th CPC National Congress pointed out that as socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life. In the era when economic growth is highly valued, tourism has been dubbed a “smokeless industry” for its low resource consumption and light environmental pollution, making important contributions to the transformation of the national economy.

As China has entered the new era with the goal of pursuing a better life, tourism will develop into a comprehensive “happiness industry” and play a fuller role in promoting the healthy development of society. In this context, sociologists should reexamine the nature of travelling and explore its social significance to seek new perspectives and paths for the academic and applied research of tourism.

Arguments on tourism

Travelling is a human activity with a long history. As a famous Chinese saying goes, “It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.” 

Before modern society came into being, both China and the West had the traditions of pilgrimage and touring for learning purposes. The two activities are regarded as embryonic forms of tourism in the modern sense.

A pilgrimage is a journey of great spiritual and religious significance in which the adherents of some religious tradition travel to a holy place. The hardships they go through in the journey highlight the sacredness of the trip.

A tour for learning purposes is more secularized. The aim is to learn about the customs and practices of foreign lands, thereby broadening the travelers’ horizons and helping them realize self-growth.

Hence the geographic flow of humanity is never solely for the sake of making a living. It is also closely related to such factors as enriching spiritual life, developing knowledge and cognition, and enjoying recreation and entertainment.

Modern society spawned mass tourism as travelling was gradually scaled up and industrialized. While the emergence of means of public transportation like the train have reduced travelling costs, the development of media has further fueled people’s yearning for faraway places. By purchasing package tour products, increasing numbers of ordinary people have traveled to other places for sightseeing and recreation, gaining aesthetic and joyful experiences. Thus travelling is no longer the privilege of a few elites or exclusive to religious believers.

In the face of the flourishing of mass tourism, however, cultural elites represented by American historian Daniel Joseph Boorstin have reacted with disgust. They have criticized ordinary tourists for hedonism, as they indulge in “pseudo-events” created by travel agencies or scenic spots. The tourists are considered shallow and vulgar.

Sociologist Dean MacCannell raised an opposite view. In his opinion, modern tourists can be likened to pilgrims in ancient times. The latter were in quest of religious truths, while the former seek authenticity. He noted that modernity has caused mental crises while contributing to the growth of material wealth. These mental crises manifest in the estrangement between people, the alienation they feel at work and the tension between man and nature.

Therefore, underlying modern people’s motives for travelling is the pursuit of freedom, an attempt to escape from the pressure brought by modern industrial life and intense everyday life. It is a revolt against depressing and boring daily living.

Anthropologist Nelson Graburn argued that travelling can be interpreted as a ritual, a special rite that forms a sharp contrast with daily home life and work.

Travelling as a lifestyle

However, with the further development of society, particularly the increasing consumption in Chinese society, travelling has developed from a kind of no-budget consumption into budgeted consumption. People’s understanding of travelling has gradually evolved from a ritual into a lifestyle.

Apart from increasingly frequent travelling, modern people also integrate travelling into their lifestyles and environments. This is most typically seen in the following three types.

The first type is the lifestyle immigrant. In Dali and Lijiang in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, there are a number of sojourners who used to be white collar workers and even entrepreneurs in first- and second-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Longing for a more satisfying and free lifestyle, they left the bustling cities and went to tranquil tourist resorts featuring a moderate climate, plenty of sunshine and fresh air, turning from passing travellers into sojourners.

Seasonal immigrants fall into the second type. Many seniors from northeastern and northwestern parts of China spend their winters in warm cities like Sanya in south China’s Hainan Province and Zhuhai in Guangdong Province.

As the third type, some immigrants own a second home in their travel destinations. For example, residents from plateau regions like Tibet and Qinghai go on holiday in such low-altitude cities as Chengdu and Chongqing regularly. In other cases, some urban groups have bought houses in neighboring areas as venues for their leisure time.

In the contemporary age, travelling has both a sacred rituality and the nature of daily life, linking increasingly closely with every aspect of social development. It has become a lifestyle and a secular ritual for modern people.

As a social form

German sociologist Georg Simmel said that sociological studies should focus not only on content, but also on form, and social forms are fundamental forms abstracted from the interaction between numerous individuals to distinguish various behaviors.

As tourism becomes a symbol for a mobile society, we can further regard it as an ideal social form. This requires researchers to stop thinking of tourism as only an economic phenomenon and re-understand it from the perspective of society as a whole.

Regarding research content, we should view tourism as a window to make sense of contemporary society, thus analyzing tourists’ behaviors and the social significance they generate. For example, in the flow of tourists, there are lifestyle immigrants from the city to the countryside, as well as new residents from rural to urban areas.

The Bai ethnic group in Heqing County of Yunnan is well known for making silver ornaments. Driven by reform and opening up in the 1980s and 1990s, some handicraftsmen in the county left for Lhasa in Tibet to seek better personal development. The advent of the internet era and the booming of tourism in Lhasa have dramatically changed their life.

Due to the rapid growth of tourism and commerce in Lhasa in the recent decade, souvenirs and ornaments of the Tibetan style are in great demand. Handicraftsmen from Heqing have not only flocked to Lhasa, but also taken root in Lhasa, creating a hub for the ethnic economy.

Be it white collars moving from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Dali and Lijiang, or rural handicraftsmen migrating from Heqing to Lhasa, it is an indisputable fact that the flow of people under the influence of tourism has reshaped lives and reconstructed local economic cultures. This forms the basis of tourism as a subject for the study of social forms.

When it comes to research methodology, interpreting tourism as a social form also lays a foundation for cross-disciplinary cooperation. In the broad context of mobile society, each discipline has started from its own perspective to investigate the diverse phenomena of population flow.

For instance, geography probes the impact of spatial flow on individuals or society through the lens of changes in the structure of time and space, while sociology has begun to pay attention to the relationship between the vertical mobility of classes and the flow in geographical space. Anthropologists focus on subject-object interaction amid and after the flow of groups.

As a social form, tourist flow can break down the barriers of these disciplines and set the stage for effective cooperation addressing common social issues and science-related problems.

In the new era characterized by the goal of pursuing a better life, travelling has developed from a simple sacred ritual of cognition and practice into a modern lifestyle, thus becoming a symbol of mobile society and entering the center stage of Chinese people’s social life.

The establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism by the Chinese government not only signifies structural changes in tourism supply, but also indicates the growing importance of tourism to society. Tourism studies thus needs new theoretical perspectives and methodologies.

Regarding tourism as a social form is conducive to exploring how the flow of tourists has reorganized social life, making cross-disciplinary cooperation possible. Tourism studies in the new era should strive to tap the potential of the industry in developing local economies, protecting local cultures and improving people’s living standards, so as to provide backing for the construction of a better life.

Sun Jiuxia is a professor from the School of Tourism at Sun Yat-Sen University.



2019-11-22 05:09
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