Persistent images of "the other" in cultural tourism: The interplay between Maasai's and tourists' imaginations and their face-to-face interactions


Dr. Vanessa Wijngaarden

Research Area:


Tourism is a fruitful space to observe the interplay between mental images of ‘the other’ and interactions with this ‘other’. In this book, I interrogate the dynamics between image and experience in relation to ‘the other’. Using a reflexive approach and borrowing from narrative theory, I base my conclusions on five years of intense and methodical research, with a focus on extensive fieldwork of cultural tourism encounters between Tanzanian Maasai and Dutch tourists. Comparing the perspectives of hosts and guests, I describe the cross-culturally shared (re)construction processes behind persistent imagery of ‘others’. The new insights in the agency involved in seemingly structural image reproductions are the fruit of a novel methodological triangulation, in which a deeply ethnographic approach is combined with video-assisted observations and the use and adaptation of Q-method, which I introduce as a new methodological tool in the field of anthropology.

In their imagery of ‘the other’, both Maasai and tourists incorporate aspects of typicality and familiarity, difference and sameness, distance and closeness, trust and suspicion. These images are symbolically reflected in narratives; in tourists’ case the story of evolutionist modernity in which ‘the other’ figures as a noble savage, and in the Maasai case the trickster story of ‘self’ and ‘other’ as half-brothers in a polygamous marriage. The structural similarities in the images and narratives in hosts as well as guests, show that in the construction of perceptions of ‘the other’, certain patterns are shared by people from highly divergent cultures and backgrounds, which might be relevant more generally in the construction of images of ‘the other’.

Besides strong consistency, subtle varieties are present, and I identified two Maasai views and three types of tourist perspectives. When compared, they illuminate that images of ‘the other’ are not so much about ‘the other’ at all, but ‘the other’ is constructed to produce a certain reflection of ‘the self’. These images remain stubbornly persistent even in the face of repeated contradicting experiences, because they are not meant to accurately describe ‘the other’, but to make sense of and legitimize the position of ‘the self’, and his or her relationship with ‘the other’. Furthermore, tourists as well as Maasai behave towards each other not so much based on their image of ‘the other’, but based on the way they reflexively imagine ‘the other’ views them. Zooming in on interactions surrounding photography and souvenir trade, I show that both sides have social concerns that prevail over their material interests.

In tourism contexts, generally the positive aspects of the image of ‘the other’ are employed in order to make the interaction function smoothly, and the images of the noble white and noble savage complement each other well. However, the narratives of ‘the other’ incorporate aspects of utopic divinity as well as monstrous inhumanity. The bipolar noble/ignoble approach of ‘the other’ becomes more visible as encounters are extended, because discord between the positive ‘ideal’ image and actual experiences tend to increase in prolonged interactions. As a result, perceptions and interactions can suddenly ‘shift’ from positive to negative. These extreme shifts are temporary and partial, but as a result, ‘the other’ is increasingly perceived as a dubious character.

Acknowledging the research process as an encounter itself, host-guest interactions are approached in their multi-layered, dynamic complexity from multiple perspectives, challenging and deconstructing dichotomies of ´self´ and ´other´, us and them, ethnographer and informant, science and other narratives. I show how the persistence of images is not the result of their passive acceptance, but due to active reconstruction on both sides, which takes place even in the face of encounters that contradict these images. In the process of othering, ‘the self’ remains the focal point, and the same reflexive and narrative processes are present in Southerners and Northerners, and in mundane as well as academic knowledge production. Moreover, the narratives of ´the other´ in all these frameworks are deeply intertwined and partly shared. Acknowledging the agency of all actors present, I illuminate how in cross-cultural encounters meaning is continually (re)produced in a way that is neither completely independent from, nor simply determined by, prior events and ideas, contributing to insights on cultural production.

I thus provide descriptive and theoretical insights in mutual images in host/guest encounters by illuminating the specific details and underlying abstract structure of images of ‘the other’. Strongly grounded in empirical data, it makes several theoretical contributions to the relationship between images and interactions, each pointing to the central position of the reflexive agent. In addition, it furthers methodological developments in anthropology as well as epistemological insights in anthropological research on tourism encounters. This cumulates in a vision for a more symmetrical anthropology which is of increased relevance to science as a global knowledge production system as well as to societal issues, by promoting acceptance, understanding and a reflexive dialogue between people who consider each other ‘other’.