Anthropologists, tourists, and a quest for culture

Anthropology in the 19th century faced many critiques, of which one was on the “crisis of representation” where the anthropologists have been critiqued for their misrepresentations of “others”, using the theory of structural functionalism. These structural-functional anthropologists have been likened to a tourist who is searching for the ‘authentic’ culture which then ignores the constantly evolving culture and its manifestations. And this is also reflected in the past anthropology films and books which explains what is, for example, an ‘authentic’ Chinese wedding. This is evident from the film ‘Sight Unseen’ which is a critique of the 19th century anthropology. The contrasting two views between the tourist and the Balinese gave an insight into the conflict of representation of culture.

This film reminded me a lot of another film which I have viewed in the sociology of tourism course. The film, Cannibal Tours, talked about a group of American and European tourists who travelled up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea to visit the cannibal tribes of the past. Just like the anthropologists, they too went there in search of the ancient culture of cannibalism, revelling in the thrill of being able to come into contact with “cannibals”. The irony here is that, these tourists, who are seeking the culture of cannibalism, will only dare to do so knowing that the villagers no longer practice cannibalism and that it is safe for them, and yet claim to have met the ‘authentic cannibals’.

Even in modern day today, many of these American and European tourists visit other countries, hoping to experience the culture of that country, often buying items which they deem as culturally ‘authentic’ or is locally produced. Often, they are satisfied with just knowing the culture on a superficial level, thinking that this actually represents the whole country’s culture. This bears some form of similarity to structural-functional anthropologists who are in search of a certain group’s authentic culture, from which they go on to teach other members of society about this specific culture that in turn derive their knowledge about this certain group’s culture from the anthropologists’ works. Then, when these members of society goes and visit this group (as tourists), they too will be searching for that specific authentic culture which they have learnt from their home country from the anthropologists. However, this culture as perceived by the locals is totally different from the anthropologists and tourists. To the structural-functional anthropologist, it is a product, but to the locals, it is a process that is constantly enacted in their everyday lives. This process of culture is side-lined in the anthropologists’ representation of their culture which overlooks certain aspects of their culture and this may bring about certain repercussions as the anthropologists’ publications are will be read by other members of society.

Modern anthropology today has shifted away from the structural-functional approach of studying one specific group’s culture towards a more globalized view, focusing on the issues of the group in relation to the political and economic issues and the power relations inherent in that society. At the end of the day, all representations are biased being written from someone’s perspective, however there are not right or wrong to this matter and this merely is a reflection to ponder upon how we all came to see the world as we do today.

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