Kristin LaHatte



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As Southern as a Sweetgrass Basket: Commodification and Cultural Heritage among the Gullah

Kristin LaHatte

The salience of tourism research within the discipline of anthropology has increased dramatically since the late 1970’s. As the line between the global and local blurs, anthropologists are uniquely poised to study the complex changes associated with tourism from both an emic (inside) and etic (outside) perspective. Anthropologists have the ability to serve as facilitators between the different constituents involved in tourism activities as well as to explore the impact of tourism, particularly on local populations. Over the past decade a marked shift in tourism research occurred as research in cultural anthropology began focusing on cultural heritage and its production and commodification.

As a result of this shift in research, new challenges and topics arose in the anthropology of tourism. Current literature addresses issues of authenticity that develop in response to the portrayal of “traditional” or historical productions. Research also stresses the determination of rights and ownership with regard to cultural heritage and economic advancement. One particular area of significance with regard to ownership explores local groups’ efforts to “reclaim” their cultural heritage, often from dominant groups or institutions who utilize local groups’ culture without their expressed permission or consent. Exploring “traditional” cultural depictions in terms of host and guest relationships is another area of inquiry. Current research on the interaction between hosts and guests is significantly one-sided, providing the host viewpoint only. Thus, it lacks a holistic perspective regarding the relationship between hosts and guests as well as a thorough investigation into guest perceptions and beliefs regarding their interaction with hosts.

The Gullah people of the South Carolina Sea Islands offer a focus for research on cultural heritage and commodification. Following the Civil War, the Gullah relocated to the Sea Islands, isolating themselves from the mainland and largely preserving their cultural traditions, language, and beliefs. Rapid land development on the Sea Islands since the 1950’s, and the ensuing cultural changes, challenges the Gullah to reinterpret their conceptions of tradition and to determine how it is to be maintained. The commodification of Gullah cultural items, such as the sweetgrass basket, also encourages questions of authenticity, ownership, and host/guest interactions. Presently, no research explores the relationship between the Gullah and tourists in the Charleston area. Additionally, research on the Gullah in Charleston fails to view commodification among the Gullah as a mediated activity. The role of the city of Charleston as a third party that structures and arguably constricts the Gullah’s agency in choices regarding commodification of their cultural heritage needs to be investigated within the larger framework of tourism, commodification, and cultural heritage. This perspective will allow for a holistic view of how the Gullah attempt to preserve their cultural heritage while working with the larger bureaucratic institutions that all local groups must confront in their search for recognition and identity.

As more local populations embrace tourism as a viable economic option, the increasing “risks” many groups face in terms of relinquishing control as definers, controllers, and owners of their cultural heritage are often overlooked. As tourism replaces “traditional” economic activities and entire populations become dependent on outside sources for income, a new “hot spot” for tourist activity, or a shift in governmental tourism policy, can prove disastrous for reliant indigenous groups. Anthropologists need to study why groups embrace tourism and facilitate a better understanding of how groups successfully incorporate tourism into their traditional practices while maintaining ownership and control of their cultural heritage. Anthropologists should continue to assist local groups in challenging hegemonic structures and in their attempts to reassert control over their identity and cultural heritage.
Annotated Bibliography
Brown, Michael. 2003

Who Owns Native Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

In this text, Brown examines indigenous rights as they are framed within the context of identity and cultural heritage. Brown reviews cases from several indigenous groups worldwide to illustrate the mechanisms that groups employ to redefine the concept of cultural ownership. Brown suggests specific mechanisms groups can use to navigate the uncertain terrain of cultural heritage as a commodity.
Comparative

Cultural heritage

Cultural rights

Indigenous people’s rights

Cultural policy

Applied anthropology

Bruner, Edward M. and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. 1994

Maasai on the Lawn: Tourist Realism in East Africa. Cultural Anthropology 9(4):435-470.

This article raises questions of ownership and authenticity as “mass tourism” establishes itself as a way of life for the Maasai moran, male youths, on Mayers Ranch, Kenya. The authors further discuss how staging of events and advertising practices as “traditional” appeals to certain tourist groups in search of authenticity. The article examines this experience as mediated from the tourists’ perspective, thus bridging the gap between hosts and guests.
Kenya

Maasai


Cultural authenticity

Tourist-host interaction

Cultural anthropology

Chambers, Erve. 2005

Can the Anthropology of Tourism Make Us Better Travelers? National Association for Anthropology Bulletin. 23(1):27-44.

This article argues that the work of anthropologists has led to the ability to make generalizations on how tourists can travel more responsibly, bridging the gap between theory and practice. Chambers promotes these ideas as “Traveler’s Tips.” He also discusses the “tourism of denial,” travelers belief that they are able to travel and interact without impact on local communities, and the need for travelers to recognize themselves as outsiders.


International

Responsible tourism

Tourist cultural sensitivity

Applied anthropology

Chambers, Erve, ed. 1997

Tourism and Culture: An Applied Perspective. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

This volume provides case studies on the interaction of culture and tourism. Chambers argues for the importance of this research but points to a lack of discussion on the interactions between the host and guest. Specific studies include the impact of tourism on the Kalahari Bushmen, the promotion of authenticity among the Eastern Cherokee, and urban tourism and revitalization in Boston, Massachusetts.
International

Tourist-host interaction

Culture brokers

Anthropology of tourism

Cultural anthropology

Doron, Assa. 2005

Encountering the “Other”: Pilgrims, Tourists, and Boatmen in the City of Varanasi. Australian Journal of Anthropology 16(2):157-178.

Doron examines the relationship between host and guest and how these relationships are structured to conform to what is marketed, using the example of the city of Varanasi, north India. Doron discusses how the Varanasi people in the tourist sector use agency, specifically their ability to influence decisions of tourists and to educate tourists as culture brokers. Furthermore, Doron maintains that the relationship in the “contact zone” is not as tourist-dominated as typically portrayed.


North India

Agency


International tourism

Culture brokers

Cultural anthropology

Gable, Eric and Richard Handler. 1996

After Authenticity at an American Heritage Site. American Anthropologist 98(3):568-579.

This article examines the techniques of cultural heritage sites whose main objective is to present authenticity. Exploring Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the authors demonstrate how using “authenticity-as-impression-management” helps to protect the site from tourist’s questions regarding its true authenticity.


Virginia

Williamsburg

Cultural authenticity

Anthropology of tourism

Cultural anthropology

Jarrett, Charles W. 2003

Connecting with the Soul of a Community: An Interactive Study of Gullah Culture. Paper presented at the Conference on the Africa Diaspora in the Americas: Current Research, Athens, Ohio, April 12.

This paper discusses the Gullah people of South Carolina and the impact of current economic changes facilitated by land development on the Carolina Sea Islands. Jarrett advocates for the importance of involving indigenous groups in research and for using several methods for data collection such as archival research, interviews, and auto-ethnographic observations. The paper discusses the negative impacts of development from an economic as well as ecological perspective, highlighting issues such as land value and the loss of environmentally dependent traditions.


South Carolina

Sea Islands

Gullah culture

Negative effects of development

Sociology

Jarrett, Charles W. and David M. Lucas. 2002

Introducing Folknography: A Study of Gullah Culture. Paper presented at the 65thAnnual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Chicago, August 14-18.

Providing a comprehensive discussion of the Gullah, this papers examines Gullah cultural history and change in South Carolina. The researchers employ, and put forth, the idea of folknography, a technique for rapid rural appraisal centered on the use of ethnography. Employing this method, the researches address how Gullah culture has changed, specifically in the later half of the twentieth century, and how the Gullah people view these changes.


South Carolina

Sea Islands

Gullah culture

Rapid research methods

Cultural change

Sociology

Jones-Jackson, Patricia. 1987

When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

This text provides a vivid portrayal of Gullah beliefs and practices as seen on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, discussing both cultural and linguistic aspects that define the Gullah people. It highlights issues that are most endangered by current development of the Sea Islands such as storytelling, traditional religious practices, medicinal knowledge, and land practices.
South Carolina

Gullah culture

Cultural heritage

Economic development and cultural endangerment

Cultural anthropology

Leatherman, Thomas L. and Alan Goodman. 2005

Coca-colonization of Diets in the Yucatan. Social Science & Medicine 61(4):833-846.

Discussing in detail the impact of tourism in globalizing a local economy, this article specifically investigates tourism with regard to food consumption in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Increasing Mayan tourism has resulted in the commoditization of food, a process the authors refer to as “coca-colonization,” where residents rely on nutrient poor snack foods for a large percentage of their caloric intake. Explores the trickle down effects tourism can have on local interests beyond those areas deemed tourist domains, specifically addressing how these impacts are inequitably experienced.


Mexico

Yucatan Peninsula

Negative effects of international tourism

Dietary change

Medical anthropology

Little, Walter E. 2004

Performing Tourism: Maya Women’s Strategies. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 29(2):527-533.

This article examines Mayan women and their “performance” in the market places of Guatemala. Little argues that women attempt to camouflage their overt economic intentions by building rapport with tourists, creating an authentic experience and thus authentic “traditional” Guatemalan items for purchase. These “performances” are altered for each customer. Their promotion of “traditional” customs and items also legitimize the women’s position in the marketplace, deterring repercussions such as harassment, fines, and possibly arrest from shop owners and local law enforcement.


Guatemala

Mayan marketplace women

Cultural authenticity

Tourist-host interaction

Culture brokers

Cultural anthropology

Nash, Dennison. 1996

Anthropology of Tourism. Tarrytown, NY: Elsevier Science Ltd.

Dennison discusses three orientations of tourism research: personal transition, acculturation, and superstructure, giving examples within each section to support his argument. Personal transition investigates tourists’ perspectives on the personal changes they undergo as a result of their travels as well as why they chose to travel and to where. Acculturation examines the agency available to hosts concerning tourism decisions and subsequent impacts while the superstructure approach investigates the cause of tourism and looks for the underlying societal and worldwide structures that promote tourism. Dennison also explores the role of anthropologists and their ability to use an integrated approach for the study of tourism, thus providing a broad, people-centered perspective.
Theoretical

Tourism research

Anthropology and tourism

Applied anthropology

National Park Service. 2005

Low Country Gullah Culture: Special Resource Study and Final Evaluation Impact Statement. Atlanta, GA: NPS Southeast Regional Office.

Commissioned by the National Park Service, this study investigates if and how the NPS should be involved in the preservation of the Gullah culture in South Carolina. Researchers incorporated local voices of the Gullah people as well as historical studies of their culture and the Sea Islands where the Gullah live. The report includes sections on why the study was necessary, the Gullah people and their history and current situation, the criteria used by the NPS to determine critical areas of concern, and options for preserving the Gullah culture and educating the public on their rich history.
South Carolina

Georgia


Gullah culture

Cultural heritage preservation

National Park Service

Impact assessment

Social science

Ryan, Chris and Michelle Aicken, eds. 2005

Indigenous Tourism: The Commodification and Management of Culture. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.

This text explores tourism as an income generating venture for indigenous people. It includes specific cases and analysis demonstrating the inherent changes associated with the commodification of cultural heritage and examines how indigenous groups maintain control of their identity and cultural practices. Examples include Australian indigenous tourist activities, the relationship between hosts and guests in Christchurch, New Zealand, community tourism in Lijiang, China, and the winter festival in Jokkmokk, Sweden.


Cross-cultural

Indigenous tourism management

Cultural heritage

Commodification of culture

Tourism studies

Schutte, Gerhard. 2003

Tourists and Tribes in the “New” South Africa. Ethnohistory 50(3):473-487.

This article examines the commodification of village life as a representation of an authentic tribal experience in South Africa, though the author maintains that these portrayals are far from accurate. Schutte discusses the historical background of apartheid in terms of tourism, with particular attention to the traditional African cultures. Looking at several villages, Schutte analyzes their interpretation and demonstration of an authentic South African village.


South Africa

Cultural authenticity

Commodification of culture

Tourism and local culture

Cultural anthropology

Smith, Valene, ed. 1989[1979]

Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. 2nd edition. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

A seminal publication which discusses the role of anthropology in the study of tourism. Several authors address the study of tourism as a subject worthy of scientific inquiry, particularly as a mechanism for cultural change. Contributions explore different theoretical approaches to the study of tourism and use specific cases to illustrate these perspectives such as Eskimo tourism and men’s roles, tourism’s impact on the art of Southwestern U.S. Indians, cultural complexity in Bali, and host and guest relations in Costa Brava, Spain.


Cross-cultural

Theoretical approaches to tourism

Cultural change

Anthropology and tourism

Cultural anthropology

Stanton, Cathy. 2005

Serving up Culture: Heritage and Its Discontents at an Industrial History Site. Theme Issue, “Resolving Conflicts in Heritage Tourism: A Public Interest Anthropology Approach.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11(5):425-431.

In this article, Stanton thoroughly examines cultural heritage tourism by specifically addressing the concept of “ownership” in the portrayal of traditional customs. She explicitly demonstrates how “cultural producers” with “expert” knowledge can have more influence over the appropriate use and definition of cultural heritage than actual practioners. Stanton also discusses the potential of anthropologists to act as cultural brokers between citizen groups, government, and heritage professionals.

Massachusetts, Lowell

Cultural heritage

Cultural rights

Anthropologists as cultural brokers

Applied anthropology

Stronza, Amanda. 2001

Anthropology of Tourism: Forging New Ground for Ecotourism and Other Alternatives. Annual Review of Anthropology 30:261–283.

Stronza provides a review article in which she synthesizes recent anthropological works on tourism, analyzed under the topics of anthropology and tourism, origins of tourism, impacts of tourism, and alternative forms of tourism. The article discusses the difficulty in defining tourism and how new developments in the tourist industry provide a frame through which to view other cultural processes and changes. Stronza advocates for anthropologists to view both players in tourist interactions during each stage as previous studies have taken a largely one-sided approach, looking mainly at the impact of tourism or studying only the tourists themselves.


Cross-cultural

Host and guests tourism

New tourism ventures

Anthropology and tourism

Cultural anthropology

Sylvain, Renee. 2005

Disorderly Development: Globalization and the Idea of “Culture” in the Kalahari. American Ethnologist 32(3):354-370.

This article examines how culture can become an instrument of exploitation. It investigates how the concept of indigenous identity gained salience during the past century, specifically by analyzing the use of identity among the San people of Namibia. Sylvain explores the impact of globalization on the San people, discussing how outsiders, mainly media and NGO’s, attempt to portray the Bushmen as highly “primitive” and how the San people strategically embrace this perception as needed. The article demonstrates how ethnotourism in a search for authenticity reshapes cultural local behaviors.


Namibia

San people

Ethnotourism

Cultural identity

Cultural anthropology

Wyllie, Robert W. 1994

Gods, Locals and Strangers: The Effutu Aboakyer as Visitor Attraction. Current Anthropology 35(1):78-82.

Wyllie presents a thorough examination of the Aboakyer festival in Ghana and the ability of participants to incorporate international tourism without losing the meaning or rituals that structure the celebration. Wyllie illustrates how the local community continues to ritually hunt deer, feast, and dance in a historically driven and traditional manner. He also explores the positive attitude taken by most local residents with regard to the increase in international tourism.


Ghana

Cultural commodification

Tourism and identity maintenance

Cultural anthropology


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