Ever since my PhD, much of my work has been concerned with exploring new ways of knowing tourism through a relational ontology and a concern with the non-human and its agency in tourism. Up until a few decades ago, tourism research has been concerned with defining and delimiting tourism – most often as a business – and around the tourist as a bounded social persona. In parallel to this, materiality and the non-human in tourism analysis have been alarmingly absent. With a few exemptions, the non-human had mostly been seen as a vehicle, background or canvas for human agency and activity. In combination, these two tendencies had often resulted in human-centered accounts of tourism and its actors, such as the singular tourism entrepreneur, often in combination with an over-emphasis on psychological and behavioristic explanations of for instance tourism consumption or innovation.
The consequence of this has been a hegemonic view of tourism as an industry, tourists as consumers and nature and non-humans as props for the purpose of business and consumer-directed actions and activities. Whether promoted in managerial studies or lamented in critical studies, this reductionist tourism ontology curtails our ability to think differently about – for instance – mobility, ethics, interspecies cohabitation and sustainable transitions in tourism. So could we do differently, do better, by working with tourism as a highly entangled, messy and more-than-human affair?
Exploring these questions have been an interest of mine starting with my PhD, which proposed a relation and socio-material understanding of the destination challenging views of it as contained units or discursive constructs. In this pursuit, Actor-Network theory (ANT) and more importantly, its material semiotics and relational ontology offered interesting ways to highlight the composite, distributed and more-than-human enactments of what we understand as ‘tourism’. Tracing controversies or innovations or simply ‘how things come about’ in tourism while tending also to the role of the non-human, provides a view of tourism as something less solitary and less stable than usually thought of, as an ongoing process of what Haraway (2013, 2016) terms ‘becoming with many’. It enables us to pursue narratives of how tourism is not a contained activity or sector but, rather, a highly assembled and collaborative achievement. This type of tourism research is concerned with mapping out new territories of connectivity and entanglement and nurturing new sensitivities to capture the implicatedness of tourism actors, whether human or non-human, whether discursive, technological or performative, whether on a planetary or microbiological scale.
Although often portrayed as a solitary endeavor, research and theoretical work is – much along most other things – a relational and distributed achievement. The writings of relational materialism thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Anne Marie Mol (1999, 2003), Bruno Latour (2005a) and John Law (1999) have helped me to engage with tourism as an ongoing ordering of multiple and highly entangled actors and to challenge categories and boundaries usually deployed to make sense of tourism, the destination and the tourist. As a researcher, I have worked closely together with many great colleagues, such as René van der Duim and Gunnar Thór Jóhannesson, who published PhD dissertations informed by Actor-Network Theory shortly before me (van der Duim 2005, Jóhannesson).
Methodologically, ANT offers an inspiring tool kit to explore how tourism is enabled, negotiated and enacted in often surprising collectives where actors have not been assigned a central prior to the analysis. The edited volume on ANT and Tourism from 2012 (van der Duim et al. 2012) unraveled a broad range of actors until then unaccounted in tourism as well as concepts such as the tourismscape, ordering and multiplicity as ways to make sense of these. By shifting analytical and empirical attention towards the city, the tourist destination, animals, the Earth in new ways, these approaches provided new ways to look at entrepreneurship, sustainability, risk and mobility in tourism.
In my thinking and research, I draw on this relational understanding to challenge a traditional tourism ontology characterized by differences and binary divides, for instance between humans and non-humans, host and guests, business and culture, values and fact, to touch upon the most common. Looking as I do at tourism development in the Arctic, the necessity to include the Earth and the non-human in the empirical tracing and analysis of tourism is abundantly clear as is the need to develop ways of working not only in multiple fields, but to see the field as geographically dispersed, as networked. For instance, discourses and practices of tourism development are closely connected to climate changes, post-colonial politics and geo-political concerns, to iconic polar mammals and to mining activities as well as Arctic everyday lives and futures (Ren & Bjørst 2016). This work has entailed continuously de-centering tourism, posing the question of what it means that something is ‘about tourism’? Rather than reducing tourism as a purely economic or technical or socio-cultural or environmental activity, resources from ANT can help researchers, practitioners and activists to insist on the social, the environmental and the economic as fully entangled and non-detachable.
But how do we pursue and study all of these relations? Admittedly, it can be quite the mouthful to navigate in a landscape, where distinctions between micro and macro or nature and culture are seen not as facts, but as outcomes of relational work. Turning the challenge around, I would contend that conducting fieldwork in a tourist destination as through the abstraction of a Euclidean space also requires some taxing work of detachment. Perhaps cutting networks, to paraphrase Strathern (1996), requires not necessarily more, but other things from the researcher, such as an increased sensitivity towards how specific cuts are being made into the social, how we contribute to world-making through our research and what implications and effects these activities might have. As opposed to seeing myself as detached, objectively ‘unveiling’ or critiquing from a distance I am committed to critical proximity and a sensitivity towards our own performativity in research. Such reflections increase awareness of how our choices as researchers contribute to enacting certain realities over others. In insisting that we do not only describe but also enact versions of reality, the ability – and willingness, to make grand claims wither. Instead, we find ourselves in a situated position, which is not a downside, but rather a privileged position to engage with what Law terms as ‘modest sociology’.
Such modest accounts do not resort to quick or forceful critique of global forces – or similarly radical and simple solutions. Here, I have been inspired by Haraway’s proposition to staying with the trouble, which reacts to two responses to the state of alert of the Anthropocene: resignation and a turn to technofixes. To me, this line of thinking resonates very well with some of the recurrent fault lines in tourism, where we find smooth and bright often technology-driven future visions juxtaposed with dystopian accounts of mindless or devastating touristic practices. In most cases, none of these truly engages with mess and friction, but often tends to what Latour has termed as ‘grand panoramas’. Instead, staying with the trouble “requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful and endemic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meaning (Haraway, 2016: 2).
Thinkers such as Latour and Haraway inspire us to defy temptations of too hastily deploying too simple frameworks of the dominated and the dominating, or of the exploited and the exploiting. In tourism studies, this tendency translates into a reflex to assign roles quite hastily to actors. An example is how overtourism is most often understood as a problem of ‘too many tourists’ and capitalism, while experiences and instances of overtourism remain unaccounted for as effects of distributed political, legal amd economic activity. While critical accounts confront us with abstract concepts of global forces, unjust power relations and disempowered communities they often leave us with very little hope and possibilities for doing or thinking things differently. A contrast to strong and distance critique is the move closer to the empirical into what Bruno Latour (2005b) has coined critical proximity. To start with detailed descriptions, careful investigations of what there is in the world. Using ANT as a device for close descriptions to unravel complexity, messiness and ambiguity allows us to discern fine-grained ruptures and to carve out ways in which, perhaps, things could be different (van der Duim et al., 2017).
So how would such a take enable us to unravel pandemic consequences, mass tourism, climate change, gentrification? Firstly, it would mean not taking these phenomena as facts prior to their investigation, but to explore how they ‘come to life’, perhaps in multiple versions and in specific settings, through the practices and discourse of specific actors. Such accounts abstain from quick solutions to paradoxes or controversies and help unlocks our opportunities for response-ability. Rather than disregarding or fixing mess, they seek to work with it (Ren et al., 2021). Ultimately, I believe that they make us not less, but more actionable, more prone to resistance or more able to sidestep inequality than grand but much less response-able claims about neo-liberalism and revolution.
Haraway, D. J. (2013). When species meet (Vol. 3). U of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Duke University Press.
Jóhannesson, G. T. (2007). Emergent tourism: an actor-network approach to tourism economies. PhD dissertation, Roskilde University
Latour, B. (2005a). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press.
Latour, B. (2005b). Critical distance or critical proximity. Unpublished manuscript. Available at http://www. bruno-latour. fr/sites/default/files/P-113-HARAWAY. pdf. Accessed March, 31, 2014.
Law, J. (1999). After ANT: complexity, naming and topology. The Sociological Review, 47(S1), 1-14.
Mol, A. (1999). Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The sociological review, 47(1_suppl), 74-89.
Mol, A. (2003). The body multiple. Duke University Press.
Ren, C., & Bjørst, L. R. (2016). Composing Greenlandic tourism futures: An integrated political ecology and actor-network theory approach. In Political Ecology of Tourism (pp. 302-319). Routledge.
Ren, C., van der Duim, R., & Jóhannesson, G. T. (2021). Messy realities and collaborative knowledge production in tourism. Tourist Studies, 21(2), 143-155.
Strathern, M. (1996). Cutting the network. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 517-535.
van der Duim, V. R. (2005). Tourismscapes; An actor-network perspective on sustainable tourism development. PhD dissertation, Wageningen University.
Van der Duim, R., Ren, C., & Jóhannesson, G. T. (Eds.). (2012). Actor-Network Theory and Tourism: Ordering, materiality and multiplicity. London & New York: Routledge.
van der Duim, R., Ren, C., & Jóhannesson, G. T. (2017). ANT: A decade of interfering with tourism. Annals of Tourism research, 64, 139-149.