How a DMO Can Use Anthropological Concepts for Community Engagement

Destinations International’s 2019 DestinationNext Futures Study stresses the importance of Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) adopting “community-driven destination development” that aligns economic, social, and environmental sustainability. This shift in strategic focus from transactional sales and marketing to destination stewardship involves strong collaboration with the community. For some DMOs, refocusing on stakeholder engagement for better community alignment is easier said than done.

David Peacock of The Future of Tourism podcast has suggested that the difficulty might stem from an approach-avoidance conflict. This psychological term refers to an internal struggle that arises when a goal has both appealing and unappealing components. For a DMO, the concept of community and stakeholder engagement has obvious appeal, with the anticipated benefit of a better informed, more aligned destination. But in actuality, some may find that they do not know where or how to start toward this goal.

A DMO could benefit from approaching community engagement as an anthropologist would conduct ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropology is distinct from other social sciences because of its emphasis on immersive fieldwork. Ethnographic research methodology involves several key concepts (discussed below) that build upon one another for a unique perspective on studying human populations. These techniques are ideally suited to better understand one’s community, what their values are, and how to best engage with them. This type of research also demands an all-encompassing approach, which is particularly useful when unequal power structures are in play within a community. Better engagement with diverse community members may unearth underlying dynamics that affect tourism in the destination.

A person dealing with an approach-avoidance conflict must find a way to solve the internal dispute. By reducing the power of the unappealing side of the conflict, it becomes easier to move toward the goal. Some DMO professionals might find that approaching interactions as a pseudo-anthropologist may relieve some of the hesitation. There is something to be said for removing one’s own persona and taking on the mindset of a scientist observing a community. Stripping away preconceived notions may bring new and fresh insights into view.

Grounded Theory

An instruction manual for community engagement is impractical because of the inherent differences that exist between societies of people, the differing positions a DMO holds within the society, and the diverse factors that align or divide stakeholders in each community. By putting all of this aside and approaching interactions with community members from a place of neutrality, a DMO may find that they can learn from the community themselves on how to best approach engagement. 

Unlike other scientific investigations where researchers aim to test hypotheses through scientific methods, most anthropologists approach fieldwork through grounded theory where research is conducted on broad themes and the investigator builds upon the data collected to formulate theories.

Perhaps developing a strategy of community engagement should include dropping the premise of what has been done historically and start conversations from a position of neutrality. By acknowledging the past position of the DMO and moving beyond those presuppositions, a DMO could instead learn more about how their community experiences the destination’s tourism arena.

Cultural Relativism

The way that a DMO perceives the tourism setting is often different than the way the community understands the destination. Recognizing this can aid in better communication with stakeholders. Elected officials, small business owners, and even many hospitality businesses do not live and breathe tourism like the DMO. The economic impact of tourism marketing, the influence of brand management, and the nuances of sustainable tourism practices are foreign concepts to many. And while it is important to discuss these topics with the community, it is equally important to understand the community’s worldview; their pain points, their wants and needs, and how they experience tourism within the destination.

Cultural relativism, developed by Franz Boas in the mid-1880s, seeks to understand another person’s beliefs and practices from their own perspective, from their own cultural worldview. A fundamental base theory for all anthropological research, this concept contradicts ethnocentric biases that assert that one’s own culture is better than everyone else’s. Throughout history, ethnocentrism has been used to justify domination over other cultures that were thought to be inferior. After living amongst Inuit people on Baffin Island, Boas argued against the notion that differences among racial and ethnic groups are shaped by biology but are instead a result of environmental and social conditions. These ideas were groundbreaking at the time and established modern anthropological approaches.

It is very difficult to fully remove oneself from ethnocentric ways of thinking. Everyone comes from a place of ethnocentrism to some extent because everyone sees the world through their own cultural lens. What we see as normal is based on our own culture. While it may not be possible to completely detach from our own perspectives, the goal is to contextualize others’ viewpoints, to step into the shoes of another to better understand their worldview.

Participant Observation

Early anthropologists were ‘armchair anthropologists’ who researched cultural phenomena from their reading chair instead of amid human populations. Many of these early analyses supported the notion that cultures evolved from savage to civilized. However, this way of viewing the diversity of culture was challenged in the nineteenth century by such anthropologists as Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and Franz Boas (1858-1942), who spent extensive time immersed within the cultures they studied. Anthropologists today emphasize the importance of immersive fieldwork to better understand the human experience. Therefore, ethnographic research has its roots in travel.

Participant observation methodology is a data collection technique developed by Bronislaw Malinowski in the early twentieth century. Malinowski, who stayed amongst the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific for two years, argued that only by living with a population, observing daily life, and actually participating in cultural practices, can one learn and understand the human experience of the community members of study. The aim is to obtain an understanding of the cultural insider’s perspective, otherwise known as the emic perspective, instead of the outsiders (or etic) perspective.

Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders
Anthropologist B. Malinowski with a group of Trobriand Islanders

Malinowski, a Pole from Austria-Hungary, did not intend to spend two years amongst the islanders. He was essentially exiled in British-controlled Melanesia upon the outbreak of WWI. He came to understand through this immersion that the islanders were not ‘savage’ but that instead their cultural beliefs and practices were well-suited to fulfill the biological and psychological needs of the people.

For a DMO, participant observation methodology means being a constant presence in the community, participating in events, attending club and association meetings, and partaking in other community activities of everyday life. As Malinowski observed, the continual company of the anthropologist normalizes their presence, which lowers barriers and familiarizes them within the community. 

Dr. Kathleen Adams, an anthropologist specializing in tourism, conducted field research in San Juan Capistrano in 2010. She began attending a weekly ‘coffee chat’ that began as a means for journalists to gather local news stories. These open café gatherings often became a forum for discussion on “constructive tourism problem resolution” and became an “arena for bringing together diverse stakeholders in dialogue and ultimately resolving potentially explosive tourism-related conflicts.” This avenue for discussion would not have been easily uncovered without Adams’ focus on ethnographic fieldwork, as the subject matter of the get-togethers was not directly related to tourism. Adams became a recognized feature of an open community meeting.

Long-term participant observation … enables researchers to gain the trust of the community members whose lives, perceptions, and attitude they aspire to understand

Dr. Kathleen Adams

Holistic Approach

Anthropologists examine the human experience holistically, meaning that all aspects are considered important to fully appreciate what it means to be human. For an anthropologist, this can include histories, language, gender norms, family structure, kinship, biology, and more. For a DMO, this might mean paying attention to multiple sources of community expression such as local blogs, newspapers, or other sources of civic manifestation.

In addition to participant observation techniques, the collection and analysis of diverse cultural materials contribute to anthropologists’ ethnographic research. Formal and informal interviews, surveys, focus groups, and other forms of documentation contribute to a better understanding of the community. One reason for this exhaustive attention to a variety of resources is that each method of data collection carries with it intrinsic challenges. For example, people often respond to survey data or formal interviews the way they think they should or are reluctant to speak honestly or critically. Power imbalances, language barriers, or literacy issues can also compromise the validity of data. By confirming information from many angles, a more comprehensive and holistic conclusion can be formed.


It is necessary for any anthropological researcher to first establish trust within the population of study. By approaching community interactions from a place of neutrality, participating in everyday community activities, and displaying interest primarily in the emic perspective, one can build rapport with stakeholders.

Anthropologists aim to understand the human experience. Engaging with a community is not simply the community learning more about the DMO, it is also the DMO learning from the community. These fundamental anthropological concepts, essential components to ethnographic research, may provide crucial insights into how to approach community engagement.

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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