At the very tail end of my dissertation data collection period in the townships around Cape Town, South Africa, I had the opportunity, thanks to having been generously awarded a Thomas and Ruth Rivers Scholarhip, to attend the World Leisure Organization Conference in Durban. Having undertaken a PhotoVoice methodology in an effort to learn about township residents’ perceptions of the tourism taking place in their communities, I was eager for this first opportunity to share the photographs I had collected and get some feedback on my early analysis. At the conference, I presented my findings about how tourism provided township residents with an opportunity to share their stories, that it was helping to ‘heal the wounds of the past,’ in the words of one research participant, and how it created joyful moments to celebrate in one another’s humanity. At the end of my presentation, peppered with photographs of Black hosts and white tourists dancing and laughing together, two young Black South African students stood up at the back of the room and in no uncertain terms told me that the findings that I had shared in no way represented their feelings towards the presence of the white tourists in the townships, and that this tourism was not welcome in their community.
In that moment I became crushingly aware of my error. Throughout my five months in South Africa I had worked with virtually no younger people as research partners. Known as the ‘born-frees,’ the children born around the 1994 dissolution of the apartheid system and the election of Nelson Mandela are literally and discursively distinct from the generations of South Africans that had preceded them (Nyamnjoh, 2016). At the time of my dissertation study in 2016, thousands of younger South Africans had organized massive protests on university campuses across the country to protest unequal access to education and a national government that had failed to provide them with the equality that they had been promised since birth. Issues of poverty, injustice, land ownership, and education, all embedded within the insidious cloak of racism, persist in every strata of South African society, and the born-frees are done with it (Nyamnjoh, 2016).
As a white settler Canadian, despite having learned as much as I could prior to my arrival in South Africa, I had no framework for understanding how a society could be so deeply cleaved between one generation and the next. With less than a week to go in South Africa, I had no time to attempt to correct my error and do more to include the perspectives of the younger generation. I simply had to acknowledge this failure in my research and move on.
It may seem disingenuous to begin my chapter on women’s contributions to tourism research with a mistake that was made in my research, but I promise that I do not do so out of any false humility. Rather, this experience provided me with a very stark (and very painful) lesson that my role as a tourist/researcher is to be receptive and welcoming of ideas that make me uncomfortable, that challenge my own world view, that go against what I have determined to be ‘true.’ Obvious, you say, but it actually one of the most difficult and one of the most important tasks before us as tourism researchers. There is a tendency to become so embedded in and wedded to our own ideas that we become incapable of hearing what is being told to us by our partners in research. This, I believe, is especially true in cross-cultural research. My desire to study the practice of slum tourism was borne out of my feeling that this was nothing more than exploitive voyeurism on the part of the tourists. It took me a long time to begin to hear that tourism in the township could be valued for its positive impacts, such as the role it is perceived (by some) as playing in bringing white and Black people closer together in South Africa (Muldoon & Mair, 2021). And upon my realization that township tourism could be perceived by residents in a positive light, I had to contend with the dual complications of my own embodied complicity in residents’ positive portrayals of tourism as well as the more negative sentiments of younger people who had not wished to speak with me over the course of my data collection.
To that end, reflexivity and transparency are essential tools of the tourist/researcher in cross-cultural contexts. To that end I have blogged, I have spoken, and I have written about my questions, my uncertainties, and my mistakes in order to articulate these misgivings and put them out to the world, and hope that they may one day be returned to me in the form of insight or opportunity.
The fear of getting it wrong can be debilitating, but leaning into getting it wrong, treating uncertainty as opportunity, can become a powerful catalyst for change. That does not mean that you’re getting it right. In fact, there is an expression in South Africa – ‘If you’re white you’ll never get it right.’ It is an expression and a sentiment that I largely agree with. But that cannot prevent me from trying, and from openly reflecting on what I have learned through not getting it right.
Reflecting on one’s own situated position in the world can also lead to a better understanding of how our research partners share their experiences with us, how our being in the world in many ways makes the world around us. As an example from my own work, when I had translated and transcribed the audio recording from an interview with a group of women who host tourists at their women’s center, I found that one of the women had said, ‘Let us do all that we can to help this mother’s daughter.’ To my mind, they perceived me as a young woman in need of their help and they strove to do what they could in their responses to make me ‘happy,’ possibly leading to their not wishing to say anything that might portray tourism in a negative light. For my part, in my dissertation defense it was brought to my attention that despite having undertaken a feminist postcolonial approach to my research, my thesis cited male research participants over 80% of the time. Shattering. Unconsciously, I had sought to highlight voices that were critical of tourism to the townships, which in this instance belonged to the men not working in the tourism industry, rather than those of the women who relied on the economic support of the tourists who looked exactly like me. My dissertation stands, and I am proud of it, but it is not without its flaws.
I reflect on these errors here, not as a form of self flagellation, but because I feel very strongly that we need to speak more openly about mistakes and misunderstandings in qualitative tourism research. My sense is that pioneering qualitative researchers spent so much energy on defending their work from those postpositivist researchers who declared their work ‘female’ (an insult!) and unscholarly – as though those two things are synonymous – that there is a fear that discussing uncertainty will delegitimize our work all over again. I feel that the opposite is true – it is in acknowledging the uncertainty – the humanness – of our research that provides us with the greatest opportunities for growth and understanding. After all, at the core of most international tourism encounters there is a cultural dissonance – a moment of misunderstanding, of misinterpretation, of assumption about the Other. Human encounters are not mechanistic, and qualitative research is central to better understanding the worldmaking power of tourism (Hollinshead, 2007).
My work is heavily influenced by the work of two (among many) incredible female tourism scholars: Hazel Tucker and Heather Mair. Hazel’s 2009 work, Tourism and Shame, explored the productive potentialities of examining one’s feelings of shame in tourism encounters. Shame is often coded as a negative emotion, particularly when one is face-to-face with the Other, often in tourism sites where inequality is present, however in examining the shame that she experienced as a tourist/researcher, Hazel was able to interrogate her feelings underpinning that shame, and therefore begin to disrupt and dismantle them.
Heather’s 2009 work, Leisure on the Backs of Others, implores us to recognize and confront the everyday injustices that are embedded within all of our daily lives. If we are to work toward social and environmental justice, it is imperative that we look to the mundane objects that surround us in our work and leisure lives and question how they came to be there. Who made them? How were they transported here? How many lives were shaped in positive and negative ways through the process of getting these objects to me?
It is with these reflections in mind, so beautifully articulated by Hazel and Heather, that I aspire to do my work with honesty and integrity. It still feels like a privilege to get to do this work and be surrounded by a gifted community of scholars committed to making tourism better for everyone. It is an overwhelming task, but one that will always be worth working towards. As Heather said at the time I completed my dissertation, ‘Welcome to the job that never ends!’
Written by Meghan Muldoon, University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Hollinshead, K. (2007). ‘Worldmaking’ and the transformation of place and culture. In I. Ateljevic, A. Pritchard & N. Morgan (Eds.). The critical turn in tourism studies: Innovative research methods (p. 165 – 193). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Mair, H. (2009). What about the “rest of the story”? Recreation on the backs of “Others.” In D. Dustin, & K. Paisley (Eds.). Speaking up/Speaking out: Working for social and environmental justice (p. 117-124). Urbana, IL: Sagamore Publishing.
Muldoon, M. & Mair, H. (2021). Disrupting structural violence in South Africa through township tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2021/1939359.
Nyamnjoh, F.B. (2016). #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at resilient colonialism in South Africa. Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Research and Publishing Common Initiative Group.
Tucker, H. (2009). Recognizing emotion and its postcolonial potentialities: Discomfort and shame in a tourism encounter in Turkey. Tourism Geographies, 11(4), p. 444-461.