What Can We as Anthropologists Contribute?

Sarah Mund, University of Cologne

In spring 2019, I was invited by the Heiltsuk Nation – whose territory is located on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada – to work on a tourism strategy. Tourism in the region was mostly dominated by non-Indigenous tourism operators. The Heiltsuk Nation’s objective was to increase control and involvement over tourism in their territory.

Therefore, the research focused on current views on tourism – both from local people and tourists – including concerns, conflicts and aspirations for tourism as well as the political dimension of these negotiations. This mediation between the Heiltsuk people and current visitors – mostly sport-fishers – offered a deeper understanding of local conflicts. This was something I was able to contribute from an outsider perspective.

Working with Indigenous Peoples

The question of what I can contribute was crucial throughout my research process. As I wanted to work with Indigenous peoples on environmental issues, it was important to acknowledge that research involving Indigenous peoples in North America has often been shaped by disrespect for Indigenous principles and values and lead to economic, cultural and environmental exploitation.

Thus, the principles of respect, relevance, responsibility, reciprocity and transparency shaped the research project which is based on a partnership with the Heiltsuk Nation. The research project was shaped by the Nation’s objectives to ensure that it was relevant for the people working on the project and enabled a reciprocal relationship in which both parties benefit from the research outcomes. Furthermore, the project was conducted respecting the Heiltsuk research protocols and enabling transparency throughout the process.

Anthropological Contribution to Negotiations on Tourism

While general tourism studies often promote tourism development, anthropology is mostly critical of such activities working on case studies which underline the negative impact of tourism development. There are several explanations for this critical stance: exoticisation and commodification of culture as well as environmental destruction (Douglass and Lacy 2008).

However, I argue for a more holistic view on tourism. The critique is certainly legitimate concerning top-down approaches for tourism development. Yet, tourism cannot be reduced to a Western capitalist enterprise in which privileged Western tourists “consume” and exploit local marginalised groups.

Instead, an increasing number of non-Western tourists as well as Indigenous and marginalised groups taking control over tourism activities challenges this conception. Thus, instead of solely promoting or criticising tourism development, our ethnographic research offers the opportunity to create a more holistic view on tourism and acknowledge local people’s agency and aspirations as well as their concerns and possible conflicts.

What can we contribute?

Coming back to the question of what we as anthropologists can contribute. The crucial contribution from my research was to focus on a topic that was relevant for the people I was working with. When the research findings are relevant and useful for our research partners, this already enables a reciprocal relationship.

Furthermore, respecting research protocols and using letters of consent and intent assured my research partners of the respectful conduct of the project and clarified both party’s rights in the process. Aspects like co-authorship will challenge a researcher’s authority over research interpretations. However, instead of viewing research transparency and proof-reads of our work as censorship, this can also be seen as an opportunity for peer-review.

Eventually, our research publications are a representation of our research partners and as we are calling for self-representations of marginalised and Indigenous peoples in realms like tourism, we should establish the same standards in our own work.


Douglass, William A. and Lacy, Julie 2008: „Anthropological Angst and the Tourist Encounter.” In: napa Bulletin 23: 119-134.

Sarah Mund graduated in 2020 with a Master of Arts in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Cologne. Her Master’s thesis focused on tourism development in an Indigenous community in British Columbia. This included negotiations on environmental, cultural and economic sustainability as well as the political dimension of sovereignty and (self-)representation. Her research interest is on human and environment studies with a focus on Indigenous perspectives.