I recently read The Tourist Gaze by John Urry, a British sociologist. I was drawn to the book as it had been cited in some study abroad presentations I had attended. The premise is that when we travel, our attention (gaze) is that of a tourist or temporary visitor, an outsider. Many resist being called tourists, feeling that their way of traveling is more authentic and therefore somehow different. Yet, in most cases, those arguments are futile, because others can usually recognize the touristy nature of our activities, observations or encounters. In my case, I might claim that when I travel to Germany, I am entering a country that I have visited often, to which I have citizenship and family. Yet, I don’t live in Germany, I speak the language well, but imperfectly, and I view my encounters through the lens of my Canadian upbringing. Hence, I must admit that I am a tourist to some extent.
An important aspect of the tourist gaze is the performance of it. This refers to actions which belong to that of the discoverer or adventurer, rather than everyday life. While I might take pictures of my food when I am home, I am much more likely to do so in Germany, posting and tagging on Instagram as I check of my list of “must eats” during my stay. Similarly, I have seen my study abroad students post and boast of how many countries they were able to visit while “living” in a placement in Europe during which they spend more days some weeks away from their placement than present. This performance is especially problematic when it revolves around stereotypical representations of culture, often objects, rather than the normal, especially people. Do we portray our travels in sanitized, idealized ways? Is it only politeness that keeps us from photographing dirty street scenes? Has the introduction of the selfie exacerbated the tourist gaze by compelling us to pose in front of every landscape, thereby reducing the new country into a beautiful backdrop for our own self image?
These are questions we should continually be asking ourselves as travelers, but also as study abroad program designers and researchers. We have an ethical responsibility to question our actions and prepare our students to think critically about their plans and actions. Perhaps the most important trait we can pass on is cultural humility – to expect that things will be different when we travel and reserve judgment about the rightness or wrongness about how things are done elsewhere. We have opportunities to ask “why?” and to genuinely get to know people. A focus on people, rather than things or backdrops, should be central to those discussions.