Are contemporary tourists consuming distance?

Gunvor Riber Larsen

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Representation and Consumption of Distance - Research Outline

The following is an outline of my current Ph.D. research, stating the research background, aims and research questions, main theoretical context and methodology. The research is in its third year, with expected completion in September 2012.

The background for this research, which explores how tourists represent distance and whether or not distance can be said to be consumed by contemporary tourists, is the increasing leisure mobility of people. Travelling for the purpose of visiting friends and relatives is increasing, and is being seen as an important activity for 'social life conducted at-a-distance' (Larsen et al, 2007: 244), and holidaying away from home has become an integral part of contemporary life (cf: Krippendorf, 1987; Hall, 2008; Urry, 1995; 2002a). Distances to other places are obviously a fundamental part of understanding mobility at a conceptual level, and distance matters to people's manifest mobility: how they travel and how far they travel are central elements of their
movements. Therefore leisure mobility (indeed all mobility) is the activity of relating across distance, either through actual corporeal movement or through virtual media or in daydreams or desires. Distance becomes a signifier of 'not here', and it is given that no amount of human ingenuity can do away distance. Whenever there is a need or desire to go somewhere else, distance has to be encountered and overcome. But distances are not equal, because mobilities are not equal (Manderscheid, 2009; Kaufmann 2002; Gogia 2006). A hundred miles ceases to be 'just' a hundred miles when the questions of why and how this distance is to be overcome is being asked, making the social context of the individual important for the impact of having to
overcome distance. Without the social contexts of those 'performing mobility' distance is indeed just distance, a hundred miles is a hundred miles where-ever it is, but for meaningful social inquiries into mobilities, the social contexts cannot be omitted. It is the distance that is embedded in the social contexts of the mobile individuals that is under scrutiny in this research, asking that question of what distance becomes
when it ceases to be 'just' distance in metric terms. Through the lens of the social context of the individual distance is being 'translated' into and made relevant in other forms than only its metric representation. These representations are the focus for this research.

Research Aim and Questions
The aim of this research is thus to explore how distance is being represented within the context of leisure mobility. Further the aim is to explore how or whether distance is being consumed by tourists in an increasingly mobile contemporary society. The research questions guiding this inquiry into distance's status in contemporary leisure mobility reflects the aims of the research:
• How is distance being represented in the literature? (guiding the literature review)
• How is distance being represented by tourists? (guiding the empirical inquiry)
• Does contemporary tourists consume distance? (guiding discussion merging theory and analysis)

Together, these questions seeks to guide a theoretical (first question) and an empirical (second question) discussion of distance set in a leisure mobility context. The third question brings the theoretical and empirical discussions together by exploring how distance might (or might not) be understood as a symbol for mobility, and thereby becoming an 'object' for consumption in a society, that is seemingly obsessed with
being on the move. Conceptualisations of distance within the theoretical context of leisure mobility (question one) will be explored through the reading and discussion of literature concerned with concepts and theories that are using distance in their premises or as part of their argumentation. This will primarily be literature on mobility, space and time, but also include reflections from other disciplines, such as tourism and transport geography. Representations of distance (question two) will be explored through the analysis of in-depth interviews with Danish tourists: people that, in their leisure time, are relatively free to relate themselves to and across
distance through their choices of holiday destinations and ways of getting there. Many (most, indeed) people relate themselves across distance on a daily basis through their everyday mobility, but what makes tourists interesting in the context of this research is, that it is when one is a tourist that one has the most freedom to choose where to go and how to do it. Therefore it becomes interesting to explore how people, when they at their leisure can relate to distance, represent this distance. Does distance matter to them, and if so, in what form? How do they think about distance when they ponder or decide where next to go on holiday? These representations of distance will say something valuable about how distance becomes relevant in a mobility context above and beyond the fact that it is something that will need to be transcended in order to get from home to a given destination.

The discussion of 'consumption of distance' (question three) will draw on supplementing theoretical reflections, particularly on consumption, to summarise and bring together the theoretical and empirical analysis, and to discuss whether it is possible and indeed reasonable to understand distance as an object for consumption through mobility.

Theoretical context
This research is framed by three research fields: mobility, distance and tourism. These are the main theoretical entities that underpin the inquiry into how tourists represent distance within the context of their leisure mobility.

What numerous reflections by mobility-theorists have highlighted over the past decade or so, is the strong academic interest in mobility as phenomenon, which appears to increase at a rate similar to the mobility they seek to scrutinise. Mobility-research is a diverse field, that has links to a range of longer-established research
areas, such as 'anthropology, cultural studies, geography, migration studies, science and technology studies, tourism and transport studies, and sociology' (Sheller and Urry, 2006: 208). All these research fields contribute to mobility research in a number of ways (and are regularly criticised for not capturing the essence of mobility (Cresswell, 2010), because mobility cannot be divided into discipline boxes, but should be approached in a post-disciplinary manner). Of relevance to this present research of tourists' representations and potential consumption of distance, contemporary mobility research appears to have two things in common, despite the range and diversity of the body of work: first, mobility research is concerned with how
people seek and manage to transcend distance, on the ground, in the air or through virtual spaces. All mobility research is in one way or another concerned with how human activity try to minimize the friction of the distance, which is an inevitable given. The second thing most mobility research have in common is that, in spite of all mobility research being concerned with how, when and why people overcome distance, explicit discussions of distance appears rare guests in mobility research.
That is not to say that distance has not been researched at all. Distance has been the focus of a variety of theoretical and empirical studies through time, particularly within geography, being identified by Nystuen (1996) as one of the fundamental spatial concepts in geography. Friction of distance (Nystuen, 1996), distance decay (Taylor, 1971), time-space convergence (Janelle, 1969), time-space compression (Harvey,
1989), time-geography (Hägerstrand, 1973) and time-space distanciation (Giddens, 1984), to mention but a few concepts, have all contributed to the explorations of how distance has an impact on society. The various ways on which distance can be understood includes:
- Distance as time: rather than relating to a given distance in miles, it is often related to as a stretch of time.
- Distance as barrier: distance becomes a barrier if the incentive is there to overcome it, in order to be present in another place, but the means of overcoming the distance are not available.
- Distance as the signifier of otherness/difference: because that, what is at a distance is often (regarded as) unknown, distance can become a signifier of difference. The further away, the more unknown and thus the more different, although this cannot be regarded as a categorical assumption. Social distance has elements of an understanding of distance as signifier of otherness.
- Distance as a temptation: the distance that lures and is made of dreams and imaginations of other places. The difference in (time)space between here and there gives rise to elaborate constructions of other places; imaginations where distance is a fundamental factor differentiating between places in space.
This is, however, by no means a complete list, and following this, a single definition of distance seems a futile exercise, where the benefit would be primarily analytical through a simplified reduction, but it would be at risk of being blind to the elements of distance which are determined by socially complex mechanisms that lead to different perceptions of distance. In spite of the apparently numerous types of distance, euclidean distance will, however, stand as the baseline for this further research into other distances. Euclidean distance is the distance that is unchanged by any other contexts, and therefore it will be the natural starting point for any analysis into how tourists 'translate' this euclidean distance whereby it morphs into other types of distance. Hall (2005) and Cooper and Hall (2008) have scrutinised distance in the light of tourism, and have identified eight types of distance that 'influence the distribution of travel behaviour in time and space' (Hall 2005: 69). These eight types of distance are: euclidean distance, time distance, economic distance, gravity distance, network distance, cognitive distance, social distance and cultural distance (Cooper and Hall, 2008: 60). All these are different ways in which distance can be conceptualised, and it is on the basis of these this research explores empirically how tourists represent distance. Following from the above, distance is not solely understood and represented by euclidean units such as meters or miles, and distance will have varying degrees of impact on individuals according to their social and economic contexts. Tourism mobility and distance are linked through a spatial necessity that is an inherent part of manifest mobility. Numerous definitions and conceptualisations of tourism have been discussed over the years, with MacCannell (1976) pioneering studies of tourism and leisure travel through to Lash and Urry's (1994) post tourist and Jansson's (2002) hyper-tourist. These definitions and attempts to frame tourism and its ever growing number of niches (such as food tourism, eco-tourism, golf tourism, culture tourism, volunteer tourism, urban tourism and rural tourism), are increasingly diverse in their defining attributes, but what they all have in common is the spatiality; that is, regardless of what other factors might be referred to as defining an activity as tourism, there has to somehow be a movement in space. But not only is this movement a central feature of operational and analytical frameworks and reductions for the convenience of scholars and tourism professionals, it is also an important element for the tourism experience, because tourists dwell in mobilities (Urry 2000), in a compulsion to move towards otherness and to seek the places where that, which
is different from everyday life, is represented. Therefore it does not appear unreasonable to claim that distance is a premise for tourism mobility, both in terms of differentiating the places of everyday life and tourism in space, and in terms of distance being a physically tangible condition that for the purpose of tourism must be overcome through manifest mobility. Another theoretical concept framing this research will be contemporary consumption. The literature has shown that distance is an elusive social construct with a variety of possible representations and associations,
and the above discussions have argued that distance and tourism mobility are linked through spatial necessity in definitions and through a more structural relationship. By bringing in an understanding of tourism as performance it has been shown that the elements of the tourism travel (at least for some) plays a role in a larger lifestyle narrative that is communicated through actions for the surrounding world to interpret. The focus of this research is, then, the question of whether and how distance is actually part of this staging, and, in positive cases, if this can be understood through the logic of tourism consumption. Following Urry (1995, 2002a), consuming places is part of this staging, so with an increasingly mobile world the coupling of mobility and consumption is not an unreasonable one. And this is where understanding contemporary consumption becomes important for this study. With a background in reflections on consumer culture and the role of commodities in a society that no longer consumes primarily for survival and development, but uses consumption as a social marker, where anything can take on a commodity statues, reflections on tourism consumption have also gone beyond emphasising the use-value of things, and are now also engaged with signs and symbols for consumption Appadurai 1986, Baudrillard 1975, Baudrillard 1981, Baudrillard 1998, Campbell 1995, Douglas and Isherwood 1980, Featherstone 2007, Lash and Urry 1994, Leiss 1978, Miller 1995). The interaction between tourists and the places they visit can be understood as the tourists consuming the place they visit (Urry 1995), and Urry (2002a) discusses visual consumption through the tourist gaze. The understanding of consumption that will
guide the analysis of tourists’ potentially consuming distance is one that emphasises the symbolic nature of consumption and where consumption for the individual becomes a way of social distinction. There will be physical elements to a consumption of distance; mobility relies on an increasing amount of infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, rail and train stations, not to mention the mobility machines: the cars, trains, planes, bikes, boats etc. (Adey et al 2007, Bauman 2000, Castells 2010, Larsen et al 2007, Urry 2000, Urry 2007). This infrastructure plays an important part in the production of distance along with the mechanisms that create the desire and need to travel (Urry 2002b) among these being the tourism industry, while the consumption will be more closely linked to the role travelling has for the tourist in a wider social context and the relationship and understanding the tourist has to distance itself. The distinction between production and consumption of distance is not clear, as some of the mechanisms that underline consumption of distance might lead to the production of distance and vice versa. To forge an understanding of the consumption of distance being primarily symbolic in nature relates back to the notion that distance can be represented in a number of ways, and the consumption of distance is likely to be the symbolic consumption of distance representations, where these representations partly becomes signs and symbols in the tourist act.

The aim of collecting and analysing data in this research is the exploration of how tourists represent distance in the context of their leisure mobility and to use this exploration to develop an enhanced understanding of representations and consumption of distance at a conceptual level. Little is known about how tourists view distance, and therefore this research has adopted a grounded theory approach. The data collection methods are focus group interviews and in-depth interviews conducted within an abductive research strategy aiming for theoretical saturation. The approach to collection and analysis of data has been dependent on what information is needed and wanted from the field in order to facilitate the analysis, and how this information is to be analysed. By using the nature of the desired data and the proposed analysis strategy as guideline for the choice of methods, it has been ensured that the collected data will be appropriate for the further analysis. The information and knowledge this research is seeking must ultimately enable a discussion of and answer to the empirical research question: How is distance being represented by tourists? The empirical inquiry thus needs to produce:
– Knowledge about how tourists reflect on their leisure mobility
– Knowledge about why tourists travel on holiday and how they choose their holiday destinations
– Knowledge about how tourists perceive distance in relation to their holiday mobility
– Knowledge about the relationship between choice of destination and the distance to it.
The exploration of distance in this research is based on both theoretical and empirical investigations, and while the theoretical investigations focuses on previous academic reflections and elaborations on distance in a tourism mobility and consumption context, the empirical investigations seek a solid foundation in what tourists think about distance. The empirical subjects in this research are indeed the tourists, who, to perform the tourist act, must cover distance in one way or another. It is these tourists' reflections upon and perception of distance that will be analysed alongside the theoretical conceptualisations in order to show how distance can be understood in contemporary society. The methodological approach is an abductive research strategy that aims for theoretical saturation through the application of a two-staged empirical investigation. The use of the abductive research strategy in this research is preferred because it allows a constant dialogue between data and theory (Blaikie 2007, Denzin and Lincoln 2008), with the aim of developing an enhanced understanding of distance itself and the role it plays for tourists in relation to their travels. Theoretical sampling was used as data collection strategy, which is the process of allowing analysis of data to guide the subsequent data collection through identification of interesting and relevant themes in the data, which would then become the focus for the further data collection (Corbin and Strauss, 2008). The aim of the data collection and analysis was theoretical saturation, where no new themes or properties of themes of interest emerges from new interviews (Corbin and Strauss, 2008; Stern 2007). The theoretical sampling and saturation approach has been found relevant for this research on the grounds that distance and certainly consumption of distance is an un(der)explored field within geography, sociology and particularly within tourism research. By using theoretical sampling and saturation, the empirical investigations are not restricted prior to the fieldwork by set numbers and interviewee characteristics, but are free to explore interesting paths as and when they appear (criteria being that they will reveal something of relevance to the research analysis), which is important when exploring a new field, in order to cover as many aspects as possible. It is anticipated that travel behaviour and understandings of and representations used for distance will vary significantly in relation to demographics, cultural background, travel experience etc. Hence two interviewee criteria have been set up for this research for the purpose of making the empirical investigations and the subsequent analysis more targeted. Thus, the interviewees are well-travelled and Danish. The criterion that they must be well travelled is based on the assumption that these people will have developed an opinion or understanding of distance that is interesting for this research. The definition of when somebody is well travelled will however mainly rest on a subjective assessment. The second criterion is that all the interviewees must be Danish, partly because research shows that Danes generally are well travelled, but mainly because it would be possible to communicate with them in their native language. For the empirical inquiry of this research, two qualitative methods where used: focus group interviews and in-depth interviews. The data collection process started with four focus group interviews with Danish tourists (research stage one). These interviews were subsequently analysed with the purpose of identifying topics and questions interesting and relevant for further inquiry, and in order to scrutinise properties of potential participants to include in the further research. Thus theoretical sampling was started, and the same process of interviewing and analysing interviews was used for the following three rounds of in-depth interviews (research stage two), and the eight months period during which all the interviews were conducted saw analysis of interview and interviews run in parallel, ensuring the analysis of one interview would inform the choice of participant and questions asked in the next interview. Following each interview and again after each interview round, each interview was analysed and coded in order to identify emerging themes and categories that would be relevant for the conceptualisations of how tourists represent distance. After each interview round the interview questions were revisited, so that the questions for the next interview round would be more inquisitive about emerging themes, and thereby help generate data that could underpin conceptual developments through analysis. Adopting this approach meant that each interview analysis contributed to expanding theoretical categories emerging from the data, and through this constant comparison underlining the data collection, the subsequent interviews were ensured to inform (ground) the emerging categories. Four group interviews were conducted in October 2010 and subsequently 30 in-depth interviews were conducted from November 2010 to May 2011:
October 2010: Focus group interviews (4 interviews)
November 2010: Interview round A (11 interviews)
March 2011: Interview round B (7 interviews)
May 2011: Interview round C (12 interviews)
Throughout the interview rounds interviews have been conducted with individuals in the age group of 26 to 35 years of age, as this group according to theory includes individuals that are well travelled and travels significant distances. In interview rounds A and B this group was supplemented by four interviews with couples (aged from 26/26 to 60/63), and in interview round B and C the younger age group participants were supplemented with four interviews with participants from older age groups (41 to 67). The reason for including four interviews with couples was that it had emerged from previous interviews that if an individual is in a relationship, they will often travel together and mutually decide where and when to go on holiday. The reason for including the older age group in the interviews was that focus group interview 4 had highlighted that older individuals also travel extensively, and thereby would be relevant to include in the empirical inquiry.
This research has adopted a non-dogmatic grounded theory approach, where data collection has been guided by theoretical sampling and the data analysis has been based on themes-coding of interviews. A grounded theory approach to research design and data analysis allows the research to move from description of empirical phenomena to conceptualisation, where the collected data forms the basis for new theory within a field. Hence it is often used when little is known about the research topic and where the aim is to develop new knowledge at a conceptual level based on data analysis (Corbin and Strauss, 2008; Bryant and Charmaz, 2007). Qualitative methods were used in the data collection, in the recognition that the desired knowledge is formed through individual's reflections and interpretations of their own behaviour, and that qualitative methods therefore would be appropriate. Analysis of the interviews were based on coding of themes and subsequent writing memos about the themes, in a process where theoretical conceptualisations based on the data where developed through the researchers continued work with the data (Corbin and Strauss, 2008). Theoretical sampling stopped when theoretical saturation had been reached, when no new themes and categories of interest and relevance for conceptualising tourists' representations of distance emerged from analysis of interviews. The aim is not for the research findings to be generalisable, as this is not particularly relevant for the scope of this research, which rather is to establish qualified understandings of distance and its consumption on a level that might be recognisable elsewhere, but not necessarily directly applicable. The research will be guided by a social constructionist epistemological assumption, relating in particular to the emphasis the research places on the possibility of multiple understandings of distance, which will be the result of varying social interpretations. A social constructionist view will allow for an interpretation and analysis where indeed social constructions of concepts hold validity (Collin 2003). As a social theory structuration theory (Giddens 1984, Sewell 1992, Gregory 1994) will underpin the analysis, with its emphasis on agency and structure as mutually enforcing, thus describing the dynamics of society. This is important for this research because distance bears both structural attributes as well as it (and its representations) act as agency for society and sociality.

Publikationsdato1 okt. 2011
StatusUdgivet - 1 okt. 2011
BegivenhedT2M International Summer School: 'The Passenger: Mobility in Modernity - Centre for Technology and Society, Berlin Institute of Technology (TU Berlin), Berlin, Tyskland
Varighed: 30 sep. 20116 okt. 2011


KonferenceT2M International Summer School: 'The Passenger: Mobility in Modernity
LokationCentre for Technology and Society, Berlin Institute of Technology (TU Berlin)

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