81 IDENTITY THEORY – Contributions by Carol Xiaoyue Zhang

When reflecting on my contribution to the field, the question always centres around who I am as a researcher and whether the work I have carried out give me a clear academic identity. I hope my name can always be associated with the subject of tourism through my exploration of identity theories in international tourism. To help myself reflect on who I am as a researcher, I have drawn a reflexive contribution tree that identifies my key research contributions in which my theoretical assumptions and values are embedded. As shown in Figure 1, identity theory is fundamental for my contribution tree, which continuously nurtures my research.

In general, “identity” is fundamentally about who one is and what one believes; and the process of self-identification is always linked to the sense of belonging to a certain group (Schelesinger, 1987). Therefore, it has become an important term to understand social behaviours and practices. Indeed, the concept of identity provides the platform through which many tourism phenomena can be understood, such as cultural tourism, destination marketing, socio-cultural sustainability, group-based tourist behaviour, etc. For me, it is the diverse social categories or group-based identities that fascinates me to embark on research. As shown in Figure 1, my identity research is largely established on my research in two other disciplines, nationalism studies in political science and social identity theory in social psychology. These studies have later prompted me to extend my approach to include other group-based identities, including gender.


To help myself reflect on who I am as a researcher, I have drawn a reflexive contribution tree that identifies my key research contributions in which my theoretical assumptions and values are embedded. As shown in the image, identity theory is fundamental for my contribution tree, which continuously nurtures my research. Specifically, I have primarily focused on understanding national identity and social identity in the context of international tourism.
Figure 1. Carol’s contribution tree (authored by Carol X ZHANG).

The first branch of the tree shows that my research is most strongly evidenced by my efforts in bridging nationalism studies with tourism. This is indeed a growing but niche area in tourism as tourism is traditionally perceived as purely leisure activities, therefore devoid from politics. However, with the increase in populism and growing global debates on national identity, understanding nationalism in the international tourism context has become urgent and important. At first glance, tourism and nationalism seem an odd juxtaposition. However, there is growing acknowledgement that as tourism contributes to the building of distinct identities and destination competitiveness, it can be used to depict the sense of a nation. National identity-making in tourism, usually done through the (re)producing and maintaining of meanings associated with cultural heritage resources, inevitably involves power struggles, conflict and negotiations. To understand this politics behind tourism, I have shown how recent socio-political changes impact people and place. Specifically, my research has focused on the ongoing identity crisis in postcolonial Chinese destinations: Hong Kong and Macau.

My first investigation of nationalism and tourism was developed from my master’s thesis at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. By recognising the increasing identity conflicts in Hong Kong in early 2011, the study linked national myth concepts with tourism promotion. Through the semiotic analysis of promotional materials, the study demonstrated how post-colonial Hong Kong relies on myths that are grounded in its complex, centuries-old socio-cultural political heritage to convey through tourism an identity different and separate from that of China (Zhang et al., 2015).

I later extended this link between nationalism, identity and tourism to all postcolonial Chinese destinations (Hong Kong and Macau) in my PhD at University of Surrey. My PhD journey provided me with time and resources to fathom various schools of thoughts within nationalism studies to build a clear foundation for my study. Specifically, my research was rooted in enthnosymbolist nationalism (e.g., Hutchinson, 2005; Smith, 2009) and postmodernist nationalism (e.g., Calhoun, 1997; Özkırımli, 2010). I wrote some critical pieces to further discover the complex and discursive process of identity (re)construction and its potential impacts. For example, in Zhang et al. (2018), collective memory theory was adopted to reveal the processes through which heritage tourism stakeholders (re)construct contested national identity in the recognition of the increasing identity conflicts in both Macau and Hong Kong. Through a critical discourse analysis of interviews and discursive exhibition and museum texts, the article revealed that museum managers formulate heritage imaginings and a sense of belonging(s) through defining the collective memory for “Self” and “Other”.

Later, on the same track of exploring identity debates in Hong Kong and Macau, little understanding had been achieved on the role of national identity played in cultural festivals as they have become significant occasions to celebrate and promote community values, ideologies, identity and continuity.  In Zhang et al., (2019a), the mixed method paper focused on the Macao International Parade, a cultural festival organised by the Macao government to celebrate its postcolonial multiculturalism and handover to China. With the intensified identity conflicts in Hong Kong, exploration on this context is my continuous research topic as I hope to constantly offer a critical view on politics of tourism in the region.

My interests in nationalism have also generated some “fun” projects. In developing a small but growing cadre of work seeking to reveal how humour is used in tourism, two of my works disclosed how national identity is embedded in humorous guided tours in the UK. The specific conclusive concept here is that laughing at others enhances a sense of superiority (see, Zhang & Pearce, 2016; 2020).

As shown in the second branch of the tree, the focus of my research has shifted from the nationalist view to a more tourist-based focus. In this light, I have adopted social identity theory to understand tourists’ reflective identities in response to social, cultural, and political changes. Social identity takes social psychological perspectives to understand intergroup relations and behaviour. As Taifel (1982) explains that individuals often categorise themselves into different social groups to acquire self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Here, social identity theory focuses more on the psychological aspects of a sense of belonging to social groups and the associated behaviours. While we have many social categories within tourism phenomenon, adopting social identity to understand tourist behaviour is still in in its infancy. In arguing the interactive nature of social identity theory, I have started to employ the theory to understand how social meanings are attached to the catergorisation of Chinese outbound tourists as ‘uncivilised tourists’ and how Chinese reflected on those meanings (See Zhang et al., 2019b). Another contribution of this paper lies in the contextualisation of the concept of face and identity in the Confucianism tradition. The work was also adapted and published in the South China Morning Post to generate public attention to the research findings (Zhang, 2020).

Recently, I recognised that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the fundamental desire for social interaction in international tourism. As the pandemic first reported in Wuhan, capital city of Hubei province in central China, I embarked on a qualitative study (Zhang et al., 2021) focusing on Chinese tourists’ reflections on social identity change and its associated non-interaction during the time of the unexpected crisis. Here, social identity is not only an interactive concept, but also unstable and certainly not fixed. The contextualisation of identity change in the pandemic allows the paper to conceptualise non-social interaction when travelling during crises. Also, as national identity is a special type of social identity, currently, I am exploring the adoption of social identity theory to understand Chinese tourists’ reflections on travelling to Hong Kong in the context of two crises, the pandemic and the 2019 protesting.

The third branch of my contribution tree shows that my passion and solid foundations of identities enabled me to explore other identities within tourism, including gender, place and the idea of in locale (or in host communities). In Zhang et al., (2020), through the lens of a Confucian understanding of guanxi, a theoretical framework is critically explored for understanding guanxi influences on women’s intrapreneurship in the Chinese hospitality and tourism industry. The qualitative study provides evidence of guanxi being socially embedded personal relationships for the exchange of favours, which enable women managers to initiate specific types of women intrapreneurship initiatives in their organisations. Later, in my study with Pino and Wang (Pino et al., 2020), the experimental design paper investigates whether and how gender cues promoted on P2P accommodation platforms affect users’ expectations and booking intentions.

Furthermore, my primary interest in cultural tourisms motivates me to explore place attachment in cultural festival context. Zhang et al., (2019c) focuses on the role of place attachment and festival satisfaction as mediators in the relationship between festival visitors’ satisfaction with the co-creation experience and their behavioural intention to attend the festival. Finally, to comprehend host perceptions of tourism, the collaborative study (Chen et al., 2020) draws heavily on Heidegger’s post tun thinking of dwelling to conceptualises the host community and destination site as a oneness where host perceptions are formed, and tourism created consequences occur. Here, guanxi as the manner of dwelling fundamentally frames the perception of a local destination community towards tourism.

Of course, the above-mentioned research map is far from what I consider the end of the story, as I believe my identity-based contribution tree will continue to flourish. My passion for research methodology facilitates the growth of the tree and allows me to approach tourism realities from different angles. Irrespective of whether it is a discursive approach or a quantified approach, my primary goal is to prompt macro-level discussions on how socio-political changes its impact on national, social and self-identities in the context of international tourism.


Written by Carol X. Zhang, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom


Calhoun, C. J. (1997). Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chen, X., Zhang, C.X, Stone, T., & Lamb, J. (2020) Existentially understanding tourism in locale, Annals of Tourism Research, 80, 1-12

Hutchinson, J. (2005). Nations as Zones of Conflict. London: Sage.

Özkirimli, U. (2010). Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pino, G., Zhang, C.X., & Wang, Z. (2020) “(S) he so hearty” gender cues, stereotypes, and expectations of warmth in peer-to-peer accommodation services. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 91, 1-15

Schlesinger, P. (1987). On national identity: Some conceptions and misconceptions criticized. Social Science Information26(2), 219-264.

Smith, A. D. (2009). Ethno-symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach. London: Routledge.

Zhang, C.X., Wang, L., & Rickly J.M. (2021). Non-interaction and identity change in covid-19 tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, 89.

Zhang, C.X. & Pearce, P. (2020). Feeling superior? National identity and humour in British castles. Tourism Recreation Research, 45(1), 30-41

Zhang, C.X., (2020). How the fear of losing ‘face’ can help more Chinese tourists behave better abroad. South China Morning Post, 14th February, 2019

Zhang, C.X., Fong, L. Li, S & Ly, T. (2019a). National identity and cultural festivals in postcolonial destinations. Tourism Management, 73, 94-104.

Zhang, C.X, Pearce, P. & Chen, G. (2019b). Protecting our mutual face: social identity and Chinese tourists’ reflections on uncivilised behaviours. Tourism Management, 73, 71-82

Zhang, C.X., Fong, L. & Li, S. (2019c). The role of co-creation and place attachment in festival evaluation. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 81,193-204

Zhang, C.X., Xiao, H., Morgan, N. & Ly, T. (2018). Politics of Memories: identity construction in museums. Annals of Tourism Research, 73, 116-130

Zhang, C.X. & Pearce, P (2016). Experiencing Englishness: humour and guided tour. Tourism Recreation Research, May, 1-13

Zhang, C.X.,L’Espoir Decosta, P. and McKercher, B (2015). Politics and Tourism Promotion: Hong Kong’s myth-making, Annals of Tourism Research, 54(September), 156-171


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Women’s voices in tourism research by Antonia Correia and Sara Dolnicar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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