When I started my PhD studies in sociology at Lund University in Sweden in the late ‘90s, I had never heard about tourism studies as an academic field or discipline. My insights into tourism as a specific field came later, in parallel with the growth and consolidation of the field. In Sweden, and I presume in many other countries, the development of tourism as an academic discipline came with incentives from higher education programs, underpinned by industrial and political initiatives for economic and regional development. Hence, my own development as an academic can be viewed considering the establishment of a disciplinary field.
After completing my doctoral thesis, I was employed as an associate professor and became responsible for an educational program in Tourism Management. This interdisciplinary academic environment has influenced me as a researcher, and here, I will give an overview of my research on small-scale businesses in tourism. But first, I will briefly mention some of the intriguing ambiguities I encountered as a new academic. These ambiguities have contributed to shaping my academic values and the lens I look through to view the world as a researcher.
My point of departure to tourism was pure sociological curiosity. At that time, I had, and I continue to have, an interest in social phenomena that harbour tensions and contradictions. Tourism is an industry as well as a social and cultural phenomenon; this specific combination makes it a suitable context for analyzing ambiguities, social tensions, and complex problems. My doctoral thesis was on backpackers´ travel experiences, with a specific focus on the social constructions and commoditization of the concepts of ‘extraordinary’ and ‘authentic’. After defending my thesis in 1999, I found myself, a bit reluctantly in the beginning, becoming increasingly involved in the industrial and management side of tourism.
At our newly established department in Lund University, we were quite proud of our close collaboration between the university and the ‘rest’ of society. However, this collaboration was not free of tensions. I was a bit uncomfortable with my newly ascribed role as an ‘expert’ in tourism. My knowledge of the more practical managerial and economic matters of tourism was quite limited, and I had the impression that ‘useful’ research was expected to produce hands-on solutions to organizational issues or product development. Generally, as a tourism researcher, I have often found a gap between my own research interests and the expectations held by industrial partners or government representatives regarding what tourism research is and what it should contribute. The type of research I am interested in has seldom generated the type of knowledge that is directly and simply translated into practical solutions.
Eventually, I became comfortable with the gap, and I even started to think that it was interesting in its own right, because it reveals different ways of thinking about and practicing knowledge. I am convinced that different forms of knowledge are complementary, as long as they are respected, and it is understood that they are different, based on different premises, and have different aims.
A conceptual tool that has been useful for building my own understanding of the tension between academic and industrial knowledge is the construct described by Alexander Nicolai and David Seidl (2010), which defines a distinction between conceptual and instrumental knowledge. Conceptual knowledge acknowledges and problematizes complexities; in contrast, instrumental knowledge reduces complexities and finds applicable solutions. This distinction is reflected in professional identities inside and outside the realm of academia; indeed, business consultancies are often oriented towards instrumental relevance, and academic knowledge highlights and problematizes complexities. However, in my experience, in everyday academic practice, it is seldom openly acknowledged that conceptual and instrumental knowledge are different forms of knowledge, with different types of relevance, and that are based on different premises. In academia, particularly in scholarly fields with an applied orientation, the constituents often assume that knowledge is simultaneously conceptual and instrumental, or something in-between, rather than openly acknowledging these different – and thus complementary – viewpoints. This assumption causes tension, and it has bothered me, because it can create miscommunication between industry practitioners and university practitioners. However, this tension has also intrigued me.
The tension is not solely due to the usual academic disputes over disciplinary boundaries. Nor is it solely about the complexities of tourism, both as an industry and as a social phenomenon. The very division between, on one hand, the economy and the world of business and marketing, and on the other hand, the ‘social’ and ‘societal’ humanistic dimensions, seems to reflect a wider social phenomenon. For example, ‘economic reality’ is often juxtaposed with ‘social reality’, and the commercial sphere is often juxtaposed with the intimate and personal social spheres, often with clear cultural and emotional boundaries. What caught my analytical interest was that these juxtapositions seem to be a way of ordering the social reality that permeates our whole society and our way of thinking.
I started to realize that the seemingly constant tension between the economic and social spheres is a fascinating topic in its own right, and tourism is a context perfectly suited for analyzing this topic. To embark on this endeavor, I turned to economic sociology, as well as the old classics: sociology and anthropology. Economic practices – broadly and simply defined as practices that sustain and organize activities of economic relevance – harbor social, cultural, and moral complexities worthy of investigation. Although my perspective is oriented towards the conceptual side of these complexities, I am quite convinced that knowledge about this economic vs. social tension is useful and relevant outside academia. Perhaps it will not provide clear, hands-on advice on how a business should be run, but it can provide useful, relevant conceptual tools.
Maintaining ambiguous boundaries between lifestyle and business
The main theoretical perspectives and paradigms that guide my research are sociological interactionism and social constructionism. My focus is on social practices, and the issues I address concern how social reality is ‘made’, ‘enacted’, and ‘talked into being’, in a specific social context. Although my research primarily has a micro-oriented focus, my aim is to analyze the social actors’ construction of a reality, and my theoretical ambition is to capture the dynamic interrelationship between the structural dimensions of society and the corresponding situational interactions.
Since 2006, I have worked on several research projects that involved rural-based enterprises in tourism and hospitality. Many of the tourism businesses that I encountered in my research were small businesses, often micro businesses. These businesses were often family-based, and some of them formed part of a personal lifestyle change inspired by a geographical migration. Some of the businesses I have studied were run by former urbanites that left a city lifestyle and a profession to start a new business in tourism. The business owners were typically wholeheartedly engaged in their businesses. Work was their passion, and the business was their life. Many were engaged in their local community, with friends and village neighbors involved in their business. This type of business operator is often described as a ‘lifestyle entrepreneur’. The growing literature in this field has demonstrated how these operators often emphasize the non-pecuniary or non-growth-oriented intentions of their businesses (see for instance Ateljevic & Doorne, 2000; de Wit Sandström, 2018; Di Domenico, 2005; Getz, Carlsen, & Morrison, 2004; Helgadóttir & Sigurdardóttir, 2008; Ioannides & Petersen, 2003; Marcketti, Niehm, & Fuloria, 2006; Sweeney, Docherty-Hughes, & Lynch, 2018).
In taking a closer look into the everyday practices and narratives of these business operators, there is one pattern that I have found particularly interesting. Despite this boundary-less type of enterprising, with blurred lines between work and life, structural and normative distinctions are being reproduced and also questioned. Boundaries were marked, although in subtle and contextual ways, between business relationships and friendships and between family life and professional life. These business owners often referred to a normative image of a ‘proper’ business. They often said, with self-reflective laughter, that they were not ‘real’ business operators. They emphasized that they were not interested in profit, or even money; instead, they wanted to enjoy their (working) life, do something meaningful to them, or preserve a family heritage. In these narratives, they seemed to refer to a common image of a typical (often male) entrepreneur, who was typified as rational, in a calculating manner, innovative, and growth-oriented.
This type of account was particularly salient in one of my projects that focused on small-scale horse-based enterprises. Nearly all the operators in that study were women (the large majority of small-scale horse business owners in Sweden are women), and they had started their business as a hobby, motivated by a personal interest in horses. Some wanted to combine family and work, and having a business at home enabled them to combine work with parenting pre-school children. These business owners seemed to simultaneously embrace and resist the ideas and assumptions of running a ‘proper’ business. This tension was reinforced by consultant advice that they encountered on how to run a business-like business or how to have a ‘good’ balance between life and work.
In the article, Lifestyle enterprising: the ‘ambiguity work’ of Swedish horse-farmers (Andersson Cederholm, 2015), I theorized on this phenomenon by introducing the notion of ‘ambiguity work’. I drew on Robert Merton´s (1976) notion of sociological ambivalence and Victor Turner´s (1970) discussion of liminality. Combining those classic studies in sociology and anthropology was useful in analyzing how these female entrepreneurs seemed to maintain a balance between socially defined spheres. I proposed the concept of ‘ambiguity work’ to highlight the in-between character of this balance and to emphasize the agency involved in maintaining fuzzy boundaries. Although structurally encouraged, and even reinforced, the common boundaries between categories, such as work and life or business and personal relationships, seem to be situationally negotiated in everyday life – sometimes boundaries must be confirmed, and sometimes they must be resisted. Thus, ambiguity work persistently, but quietly, calls into question overly simplified normative distinctions on how to run a good business or how to lead a balanced working life.
To study the nexus between structure and agency, in the messy everyday world of lifestyle-oriented tourism enterprising, I have found theoretical inspiration in the work of Viviana Zelizer (2005; 2012; 2013). As a forerunner in the field of interactionist economic sociology, Zelizer problematized the popularized, common division between the economic and social‑life spheres. This distinction, according to Zelizer, is a social and moral marker, a way of ordering social reality. The boundaries are often morally charged, and they are sometimes popularized in sayings, such as ‘business is business, and friendship is friendship’. The boundaries become particularly visible, when services that are morally and culturally expected to be ‘free’ and ‘pure’ from the logic of the market, are brought into a commercial relationship (see also Hochschild, 2011; Mears, 2015).
Everyday economic practices – in the private sphere and in the overall economy – include boundary making, and the accompanying taboo or moral resentment that arises when borders are crossed. When are monetary transactions between friends or lovers appropriate, and when are they inappropriate? Some forms of exchange are characterized by a gift exchange (i.e., bartering), rather than a market exchange. When is returning a favor more appropriate than asking for payment? Boundaries may be somewhat permeable in some social contexts, particularly where boundaries are less structured or enforced (cf. Bandelj, 2012).
Zelizer´s main point was that the spheres of ‘economy’ and ‘social life’ are always connected, in their more fundamental meanings. However, we mark boundaries between these spheres in various ways. Zelizer called this work in forming boundaries ‘relational work’, because the boundaries between different value spheres comprise different types of relationships. One indication of the categorization and form of the value ascribed to a relationship is the choice of repayment, or what Zelizer (2012) termed ´media´. Media can be quantifiable, such as money or working hours, or less quantifiable, such as favors, knowledge, or emotional support. The media used (or not used) and how the boundaries are negotiated in different categories of relationships are instructive in understanding the social and economic organization of the work, and how the different value spheres are intertwined.
My research has focused on the types of tourism enterprises that have boundaries that seem particularly negotiable, probably due to the character of these businesses. I often hear self-reflective questions, such as ‘Should I pay my neighbor for helping me with the horses, or do I repay them with favors?’ and ‘Is it appropriate to accept a personal invitation from a paying guest that wants to give me something in return?’
The value of intimacy
Intimacy is not unique to tourism businesses. However, the phenomenon of lifestyle-oriented enterprises in tourism and hospitality provides a good case in point. The negotiated character of relational work, and the boundaries made between intimate and personal life spheres are analytically visible in the contexts of tourism and hospitality. Furthermore, the specific dimension of lifestyle in these businesses points to another phenomenon: the experience of intimacy as a core value, both for the business owners and for their visitors.
In the article, The Value of Intimacy – Negotiating Commercial Relationships in Lifestyle Entrepreneurship (Andersson Cederholm & Hultman, 2010), that I co-authored with Johan Hultman, we proposed the idea that a lifestyle business is not merely a personal project that involves balancing between lifestyle, family life, and work. A lifestyle business is also embedded in a process of marketization, where a personal service is provided, including the business owners’ own lifestyle, and it is valorized as a product on an experience market. In this mode, the notions of intimacy and emotional value are transformed into economic value; however, it cannot be achieved without intense boundary work. This topic was followed up in the article, Relational work in lifestyle enterprising: sustaining the tension between the personal and the commercial (Andersson Cederholm, 2018), where I drew more specifically on the concept of relational work.
Another path in my research on the intersection between commercial and non-commercial spheres was illustrated in the article, With a little help from my friends – relational work in leisure-related enterprises (Andersson Cederholm & Åkerström, 2016), which I co-authored with Malin Åkerström. In this article, we departed from the specific characteristics of the leisure-based enterprise. Considering the fact that leisure-based enterprises attract many voluntary workers, we discussed how a gift economy, consisting of favor exchanges, could work in a business that balances between market relations, leisure networks, and friendships. We demonstrated how formal relationships – such as the relationships between an employer and an employee and between a service provider and a customer – could exist, both in-parallel and intertwined with friendship and friendship-like relationships. Our argument was theoretical. We aimed to advance the understanding of relational work by proposing nuances to the argument that relational work always aims to make distinctions between different forms of social-economic exchange. We demonstrated that relational work may also include practices intended to maintain indistinct, fuzzy boundaries between different types of relationships involving business transactions. This relational work, we argued, seemed to sustain the intersection between a formal and informal service economy, and it illustrated how market relationships are constantly intertwined with gift economy exchanges.
Gift exchanges and the market
The theoretical topics of a gift economy, favor exchanges, and friendship in work relations were further investigated in the research project, The social and cultural arena of hunting tourism entrepreneurship, which I performed in collaboration with Carina Sjöholm. In this project, we continued studying lifestyle-oriented entrepreneurship and work emanating from leisure interests by studying the emergence of recreational hunting tourism in Sweden. Theoretically, this is an interesting case in point, because it illustrates the tension and intersection between market- and non-market relationships in enterprises based on natural resources, traditions of stewardship, and friendship-oriented networks. Recreational hunting can be depicted as a morally contested space, with intense social negotiations among the actors involved on what should be considered sustainable wildlife management, good animal ethics, and sustainable, ethical business practices. In the article, The tourism business operator as a moral gatekeeper – the relational work of recreational hunting in Sweden (Andersson Cederholm & Sjöholm, 2021), we theorized that hunting tourism in the Swedish context was a complex, morally bound economy, where stewardship hunting and gift economics, in the form of friendship exchanges, were both intertwined with and kept separate from market relations. This complexity makes the hunting event, as a tourism product, a form of ‘peculiar goods’. This term was used by Marion Fourcade (2011) in an analysis of products with an ambiguous status, which appear on the margins of established markets, where commodification may evoke moral doubt and emotional resistance. The analysis demonstrated how moral arguments concerning wildlife management and human well-being were embedded in market relations, and how commodification of recreational hunting has been influenced by a discourse on tourism experiences.
Summing up: the moral economy of tourism
The different studies and examples that I outlined above illustrate, in various ways, the moral economy of tourism. By adding the notion of ‘moral’ to ‘economy’, I wanted to emphasize how tourism – as an industry and a social phenomenon – is deeply embedded in social, cultural, moral, and emotional contexts. Hence, the process of transforming an individual’s lifestyle and services into tourism experiences cannot be fully understood from an economic point of view, when viewed solely as a market; it must also be understood that this type of economic activity is deeply embedded in different forms of social and moral exchanges. When people make their own lifestyles into a product, or wildlife resources into a product, the process is intensely negotiated. Boundaries are negotiated and (re)drawn between commodifications that are considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, between close relationships and business, and between life and work. The economy and our ‘social life’ are, in the words of Zelizer, connected worlds. Hence, there is a constant urge for ordering and boundary making. However, there are instances when these boundaries are particularly indistinct, and tourism offers many such examples. By drawing on, but also theoretically contributing to interactionist economic sociology, my studies have added new perspectives to the phenomenon of lifestyle enterprising. Conceptual tools, such as boundary work, relational work, and gift economics, can make the everyday practices of tourism and hospitality businesses more apprehensible. Furthermore, the notion of a moral economy may advance our understanding of a tourism ‘economy’.
In what way is an analysis of the moral economy of tourism useful? In what way does this analysis have societal relevance? I would argue that it is relevant to understand what people consider relevant practices, and why they consider it relevant. For instance, it is useful to understand economic activities – in the broad meaning of ‘economic’ – and the moral and social dimensions of these activities, because this understanding comprises knowledge about what we do, rather than knowledge about the common assumptions of what we should do. However, this knowledge also reveals what we think and say we should do, and it puts these moral dimensions into social and cultural contexts.
To a social scientist like me, the distinction between conceptual and instrumental knowledge has been useful. By accepting and acknowledging the conceptual relevance of my research, I can more easily articulate the relevance of ambiguities and complexities. Thus, I do not offer practical solutions, but I offer concepts that are ‘good to think with’, which may affect the way people reflect upon their social reality, for those in tourism, those working in the industry, tourists, or those living where tourists visit. These concepts may be thought-provoking, and thus very practical, in nature. They are tools to think with, and they provide new lenses that we can look through to see the world and understand our own actions. These concepts are also tools for critical thinking, which makes us aware of our own assumptions, makes us question those assumptions, and prepares us for studying phenomena that are complex, ambiguous, and sometimes contested.
Written by Erika Andersson Cederholm, Lund University, Sweden
Read Erika’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
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