6 Steps to Everyday Anthropological Research

Many Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) are allocating funds toward research to inform decisions on strategy. Studies often seek to understand the motivations, behaviors, interests, and perspectives of the great range of people with whom a DMO interacts. Formal studies are often expensive and time consuming, but this research-based approach to tourism management is important to the planning process, as data allows DMOs and destination stakeholders to proceed with a certain level of confidence. Supplementally, DMOs can also incorporate an anthropological perspective into every aspect of their work for a better understanding of the human experience in their community.

Alastar Morrison, Distinguished Professor Emeritus and international tourism consultant, suggests that the following are the main reasons for a DMO to conduct research:

Customers: Helps destinations develop a detailed knowledge of visitors, as well as their destination images and satisfaction levels.

Competitors: Assists with identifying and assessing the relative strengths of competitive destinations.

Confidence: Reduces the perceived risk for the destination in its decision-making.

Credibility: Increases the credibility of the DMO as well as the claims the DMO and tourism stakeholders make in marketing and promotional programs.

Change: Keeps the DMO and all tourism stakeholders up-to-date with the constant changes in tourism and travel.

Community: Increases the understanding of community residents’ perceptions and attitudes about tourism and its impact on their lives.

In addition to typical destination research studies, an anthropological perspective can expand data collection to better inform the variety of roles a DMO plays within the community.

The most prominent anthropological research methodology, the ethnography, involves years of study within a community (called fieldwork) and immersion within a culture group. It is labor intensive and time consuming. However, if a DMO takes on the persona of an anthropologist in their every day, their destination can be their fieldwork location and stakeholder interactions can contribute to data collection. A DMO can conduct quasi-ethnographic fieldwork everyday to better inform strategy and increase engagement.


Step 1: Formulate a Research Objective

Unlike the scientific method which dictates that research is conducted to test a hypothesis, anthropological research asks a broad question and then the researcher builds upon the data collected to formulate a theory. What is it the question you are asking? And whom within the community can answer that question?

Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority recently conducted a series of “informal interviews” where a sample of highly engaged hospitality partners were interviewed by staff based on a series of open-ended questions. The goal was to gain a better understanding of how they utilize the partner newsletter and other partner service tools. This simple, yet highly effective, method of determining user behavior was done over a few hours by three staff members and resulted in documented data that was used to make modifications to the partner newsletter.

Step 2: Research Prior Research

Anthropological research articles almost always include comprehensive literature reviews. Your research objective is likely based on a situation another DMO has faced. Many organizations provide easily accessible case studies and reports that may help answer your research question. Destinations International, Tourism Economics, Destination Analysts, Longwood International, and many more can contribute additional evidence-based solutions to the question at hand.

Step 3: Select Research Design

Ethnographic research incorporates a multitude of data collection techniques, including surveys, quantitative data and statistics, focus groups, interviews, and more. Anthropologists approach research holistically, which means that they consider all aspects of the human experience in exploring research themes. Utilizing multiple data collection techniques can validate data. In addition, a decent sample size and well-rounded representation of informants is crucial to data validity.

The most distinctive aspect to ethnographic fieldwork is the participant observation technique. An anthropologist focuses on observation, like most scientific investigations, but also participates in the cultural activities of the group to gain an understanding of the “insider” perspective. By taking the role of an anthropologist with your informants (stakeholders, visitors, partners, etc.), DMOs can collect and document data while participating in community and stakeholder meetings, events, and conversations.

Step 4: Collect Data

The first thing that an anthropologist must do when they begin research is to establish rapport with the people of study. It is essential that your informants trust you for honest dialogue and data legitimacy. Approaching conversations with authenticity will be vital to the validity of data obtained through interviews, whether formal or informal.

It is essential to document the information collected. Observe your surroundings and the body language of the informant. This data may be subjective but might also be valuable information to data analysis. Note not only what people say, but also the words people use when responding to your inquiries. Upon review, this might highlight what is most important to your informants. The key is not only to document for the data record, but to also record situational observations.

It is important to identify within yourself, as the researcher, possible data biases. The way data is gathered, presented, and contextualized is influenced by the researcher in one way or another. An anthropologist’s gender, race, sexuality, culture, background, etc. impacts the type of data collected and the interpretation of that data. And informants respond to a researcher’s presence based on behaviors, status, and relationships. These issues should be identified in research notes if recognizable to the researcher.

Step 5: Analyze and Interpret Data

Because ethnography uses inductive research methodology, the process for understanding should stem from data analysis without preconceived notions. Review of the data can be put against the initial research question, considering the situational analysis and interpretation of data validity. Words and subjects can be grouped into meaningful categories to visual patterns. This may bring to the surface “outliers”, findings that do not fit into the rest of the results. For example, did the informant steer the conversation to a theme not initially presented for discussion? This may be important to note, as it could present another issue that will require further investigation.

Step 6: Prepare a Report

With full-blown research studies, reports are the culmination of data collection and analysis. With everyday anthropology, unless necessary for stakeholder review, it is likely not necessary to produce a formal report. However, it is important to compile at least a memo of the findings and the recommended direction gleaned from the data. This will provide substance to the decision-making process and allow for better insight from everyone involved.


By examining a destination’s partners, stakeholders, visitors, and residents as a scientist examining cultural phenomena, a DMO can essentially take on that mindset of performing an ethnography in order to gain a better understanding from the perspective of the destination participants. Taking into account the diverse roles a DMO plays within their destination and the variety of culture sub-groups with whom a DMO interacts, data can help in a better understanding of destination stakeholders.

Meagan McGuire, CDME<br>Vice President, Sales and Services – Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority
Meagan McGuire, CDME
Vice President, Sales and Services – Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority

Meagan is the Vice President of Sales and Services for Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority, the official regional destination marketing organization for the cities of Des Moines, SeaTac and Tukwila in Washington State.

With a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology from Washington State University and 15 years’ experience in the tourism industry, Meagan approaches her work through a social science lens. From psychographics to storytelling, tourism marketing is best delivered by studying people and culture. She leads an exceptional team to ensure business growth and expand the organization’s long-term growth strategy through group sales and marketing activities.

In 2019, Meagan was accredited with a CDME (Certified Destination Management Executive) from Destinations International.


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Morrison, A. (2019). Marketing and managing tourism destinations. London: Routledge.

Sangasubana, N. (2011). How to Conduct Ethnographic Research. The Qualitative Report, 16(2), 567-573. Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol16/iss2/14