"Interacting with children in Tanzania" Copyright © Hostel Hoff, All Rights Reserved
Study and Research
THE VOLUNTOURIST GAZE: FRAMING VOLUNTEER TOURISM EXPERIENCES AS PORTRAYED IN FACEBOOK
Lisa A. Sink, M.S., Group Leader, Outdoor Education Group
Nancy Gard McGehee, PhD, Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For this issue of the research forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we are pleased to share highlights from Ms. Lisa Sink’s recently completed thesis. The purpose of her study was to explore three components of the volunteer tourism system: the messages being communicated by volunteer tourism organizations, the voluntourist’s interpretation and consumption of the messages, and in turn the re-distribution of the messages via the social media Facebook using photographs and comments. For the purposes of The VolunTourist Newsletter, and in an attempt at brevity, the focus will be on the re-distribution of the messages on Facebook. Lisa was once a talented – but bored – Certified Public Accountant who decided to leave corporate life and follow her heart. She completed her Master’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management at Virginia Tech, then obtained a work visa and is currently employed as a group leader with Outdoor Education Group, in the town of Eildon Weir in Victoria, Australia. If you “friend” her on Facebook, you’ll see that she is having the time of her life!
Schmallegger et al. (2010) argued that photographs make a substantial contribution to word-of-mouth marketing and that there is a need for a method of interpreting the photographic images. The evolution of Facebook has placed greater importance on photographs with the ease of uploading albums onto Facebook, captioning/commenting on photographs, and the vast reach that online albums have to participant’s social networks.
The tourist gaze has been widely utilized, and may be defined as a gaze that is focused on the landscape and icons of a destination. As tourists, we seek out the images and compositions of a destination based on the photographs we have been exposed to all our lives. It becomes important for us to recreate those landscapes in a very similar way to what we have seen leading up to a visit. We want to take for ourselves that photo of the Sydney Opera House, or the vista of Grand Canyon. The idea of the tourist gaze argues that we seek out recreations of the images we have seen rather than looking for the unique realities of that specific time and place.
Each of the three components of the study were analyzed using a variety of qualitative techniques, including participant observation, interviews, content analysis, and semiotic analysis. The overall approach was grounded in the theoretical frameworks of Urry’s (1990) tourist gaze, Haldrup and Larsen’s (2003) family gaze, and Barthes (1977) theory of anchorage and relay. The tourist gaze has been widely utilized, and may be defined as a gaze that is focused on the landscape and icons of a destination. As tourists, we seek out the images and compositions of a destination based on the photographs we have been exposed to all our lives. It becomes important for us to recreate those landscapes in a very similar way to what we have seen leading up to a visit. We want to take for ourselves that photo of the Sydney Opera House, or the vista of Grand Canyon. The idea of the tourist gaze argues that we seek out recreations of the images we have seen rather than looking for the unique realities of that specific time and place. Urry’s work focused on landscapes and icons, but later work began to take into consideration the placement of local residents when they were depicted as part of the image of the destination. More recently, Haldrup and Larsen (2003) expanded the concept of the tourist gaze to also include what they named “the family gaze.” This is when we place value on images that include the members of the travel party within the focus of the gaze. This does not include a strict definition of “family” but rather refers to the travel party in general.
In the context of volunteer tourism, the tourist gaze would include the landscapes and icons of the community in which the volunteer experience takes place. The family gaze would include the other volunteers participating in the experience. By examining volunteer tourists images and descriptions posted on Facebook, we hope to uncover how the tourist gaze and family gaze are depicted, and equally importantly where the residents of the community fall in that gaze. Will they be depicted as part of the landscape or image of the destination, or will they be included as part of the family gaze? Or is there some new categorization of gaze that will emerge from the study?
Methods: A Multidimensional Study
In order to analyze the first component of the study (the volunteer tourism organization), the photos and language used on a website as well as supplemental mailings from a specific sending organization were reviewed using Urry’s (1990) work in order to determine how this organization portrayed the voluntourist gaze to the general public.
For the second and third components of the study, analysis of participant’s consumption and reinterpretation of the volunteer tourism experience was conducted of trip-based photographs and captions posted on Facebook using Barthes (1977) theory of anchorage and relay. Additionally, this study incorporated White’s (2010) methods of analyzing the tourist gaze along with Schmallegger et al.’s (2010) methods of analyzing the characterizations of images captured by participants and uploaded onto Facebook. The participants and the researchers were all young Americans between the ages of 18-29, and all part of the same volunteer tourism experience to Ecuador that took place in the summer of 2010. The themes and patterns emerging from the analysis were then incorporated into semi-structured interviews of the participants whose photos were analyzed. Underlying patterns that emerged from the photo analysis included: the tourist gaze (Urry, 1990) vs. family gaze (Haldrup and Larsen, 2003), the characterizations of hosts (Caton & Santos, 2008), and the characterizations of other images (Schmallegger et al., 2010). In addition, participants were interviewed and asked about the motivations for uploading photographs onto Facebook; what they chose to highlight and leave out and why; the process of organizing Facebook albums; how much time they spent viewing Facebook albums once they were loaded; and if uploading photographs onto Facebook serves a motivator for participating in other volunteer tourism vacations or vacations in general. These photo-analysis results were triangulated with the interview responses as well as with the researchers own participation in the same trip in order to more robustly interpret the story shared on Facebook.
|"Voluntouring in China" Copyright © Ken Budd, All Rights Reserved
Results: Focusing on "The Gaze"
For the purposes of this paper, the results from the study overall focus primarily on two components: the organization’s depiction of the voluntourism experience and the participant’s gaze, with greater focus on the latter. In the first component, coding and analysis of the photographs located on the organization’s website and materials revealed that they attempted to direct the participant’s gaze of the upcoming experience, and in doing so, also attempted to shape the participant’s expectations. The coding of the photographs utilized in the voluntourism organization’s website and other promotional materials revealed an interesting mix of the family and tourist gaze. For example, of the fifty photos located on the organization’s website, nine photographs were categorized as the classic tourist gaze and five photos portrayed the hosts as part of the landscape or image of the destination and therefore were included in the category of tourist gaze. The remaining thirty-six images fell into the category of family gaze. Of the family gaze photos, the majority depicted participants either in happy group shots (16), interacting with the host community (13), or with just one volunteer depicted at the work site (7).
Interestingly, none of the participants interviewed reported that they were actively seeking out a volunteer tourism trip. Additionally, all participants reported learning about the organization from either a class presentation given by a representative of the sending organization at their university, or from a friend who already signed up for the trip rather than the organization’s website. Therefore, the sending organization website was not the original source of the gaze for these participants. The participants reported varying amounts of usage of the website, ranging from only accessing the site briefly to sign up for the program to spending a great deal of time reading all information the website offered.
The analysis of the second component involved examining the voluntourist’s consumption of the sending organizations gaze. Interestingly, none of the participants interviewed reported that they were actively seeking out a volunteer tourism trip. Additionally, all participants reported learning about the organization from either a class presentation given by a representative of the sending organization at their university, or from a friend who already signed up for the trip rather than the organization’s website. Therefore, the sending organization website was not the original source of the gaze for these participants. The participants reported varying amounts of usage of the website, ranging from only accessing the site briefly to sign up for the program to spending a great deal of time reading all information the website offered. This was also the case in reviewing mailings sent to each participant once they signed up for the trip. Overwhelmingly, the documents specifically required for their project were found to be the most utilized for the participants; the remaining documents were often discarded and not reviewed.
Results of the analysis of the volunteer participant’s photographs and interviews revealed a broad spectrum of the voluntourist gaze and in fact did result in the creation of a third category of tourist gaze. Based on these results, three types of voluntourist gazes emerged: a dominant tourist gaze, a gaze evenly comprised of both the tourist and family gaze, and a dominant family gaze. This paper will include illustrative quotes from interviews each category of participant, but photos will not be included in order to protect the confidentiality of both the voluntourists and the host community.
The dominant tourist gaze was named “the Drifter Gaze.” For these volunteer tourists, it was more important to showcase the images related to the destination and host culture; something they could not consume at home. This carried more weight than the participant’s desire to capture images including themselves, the relationships made with other participants or their hosts. Participant “P1” fits the description of a voluntourist in search of the Drifter Gaze. The majority of P1’s gaze was comprised of scenic and wildlife photographs and was further reinforced by her interview comments. P1 explained that she was initially motivated to participate in a volunteer vacation for conservation efforts rather than community development efforts:
The gaze evenly comprised tourist/family gaze was named “the Zen Gaze.” This volunteer tourist wished to provide a complete picture of their experience: to not only showcase the foreign destination, but also to portray the relationships formed while on the project and images of the participant consuming the foreign destination. Participant “P9” was a classic example of a Zen Gazer:
"Making desks at the Bibi Jann School in Tanzania" Copyright © Steve & Joanie Wynn, All Rights Reserved
It was important for P9 and the other Zen Gaze participants to showcase the different themes of the volunteer experience; this was evident when viewing the composition of the photographs taken.
The dominant family gaze was titled “the Narcissistic Gaze.” For this volunteer tourist, capturing the uniqueness of the foreign destination was not as important as capturing the relationships made with others sharing the experience, particularly fellow voluntourists. Additionally, it was more important for this participant to exhibit their power by including themselves in the destination iconic sites, scenic views, and members of the host community rather than capturing these images on their own. Participant “P8” expressed it with the following quote:
This study is not without its limitations: The majority of these limitations center upon the focus of the study being delimited by one volunteer tourism experience within one organization. However, this small laboratory enabled the study to delve deeply and triangulate both methodologically and theoretically to more completely analyze the discourse of one volunteer tourism experience. Over 1,000 photographs were evaluated and analyzed. Future research could evaluate a group of volunteer tourism providers in order to broaden our knowledge about the voluntourist gaze.
While the focus of this particular VolunTourism article has been the analysis of the tourist gaze of a single voluntourism organization and one group of voluntourist’s facebook photo postings, the overall study included a number of other elements that cannot be included due to space limitations. For example, the study included work on the voluntourist’s motivation to participate in a volunteer tourism experience, the voluntourist’s characterizations of the host community, and discussion of host-guest interactions. The social media experience, including the motivations to post photos and commentary about the trip, as well as rationale for their organization of the photos of the voluntourist experience onto Facebook were also analyzed. Findings from these components of the study will be included in research manuscripts in the near future.
Barthes, R. (1977). Image-music-text. London: Flamingo.
Caton, K., & Santos, C. (2009). Images of the other: Selling study abroad in a postcolonial world. Journal of Travel Research 48(2), 191-204.
Haldrup, M., & Larsen, J. (2003). The family gaze. Tourist Studies, 3, 23–45.
Schmallegger, D., Carson, D., & Jacobsen, D. (2010). The use of photographs on consumer generated content websites: Practical implications for destination image analysis. In N. Sharda (Eds.), Tourism Informatics (pp. 243-260). Hershey New York: IGI Global.
Urry, J. (1990). The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage.
White, L. (2010). Facebook, friends and photos: A snapshot into social networking for generating travel ideas. In N. Sharda (Eds.), Tourism Informatics (pp. 115-129). Hershey New York: IGI Global.
We hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to The Voluntourist Newsletter or or e-mail Lisa at email@example.com
See you next issue!
Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>
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