June 25, 2012

Thinking Sociologically on Vacation

clip_image002By Sally Raskoff

Don’t forget to keep using your sociological imagination and skills when you are on vacation! When you travel, using a sociological perspective can help enrich the experience and deepen your understanding of the places in which you have been visiting.

I recently came back from a trip to Hawai’i. I used to live in the islands and return often so I’ve not felt much like a tourist there. However, it’s hard to escape the tourism industry as luaus, surfing, snorkeling, diving, ziplines, and many other activities are advertised just about everywhere.

Tourism is a major part of the economy for the state of Hawai’i. Are the luaus and other activities part of what Hawaiian culture is all about? While surfing and certain forms of boating may have roots and an accurate historical base in the culture, I would guess that ziplines do not.

Luaus as they are sold to tourists and luaus as the locals experience them are two different activities although they do have food and family gatherings in File:Hawaii people dance in the hotel lobby.jpgcommon. The difference parallels the relationship between Disneyland’s French Quarter and New Orleans’ French Quarter. One is a commercial experience meant to mimic a cultural experience while the other grew out of a potent cultural history.

Hawaiian music is played in the background of most venues, including the music of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (“Iz”). His version of “Over the Rainbow” has been used in a variety of movies and may be familiar to you.

The older forms of touristy Hawaiian music, e.g., Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles,” are not often heard in favor of more contemporary fare. Again, the difference lies in music made for consumption by tourists and music made for and by the local population for their own cultural expression. There is a tension between the two types and how they are used in public venues.

File:Kokee.jpgIn tourist venues, an entire range of songs are played and unless one pays close attention, one might miss the meaning of the music to the locals working in the shops. For example, I heard Iz’s “Hawai’I 78” played in one venue. This is a very powerful song about Hawaiian sovereignty, rights, and independence.

Hawai’i isn’t just a beautiful tropical island filled with sandy beaches and nice people. It was a kingdom that was traded away to be part of the United States. In 1993, the U.S. government actually apologized for its role in the overthrow of the lawful Hawaiian government. In 2003, the Supreme Court (Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs) decided that the apology did not change any land ownership claims.

I found it fascinating that a song about Hawaiian sovereignty was played in the background of a tourist venue. Only those familiar with the song knew it was really a protest song about the presence of tourism and cultural imperialism.

Besides tourism, the Hawaiian economy is also intricately linked to the U.S. military land to the legacy of the Missionary trusts. The strategic importance of the islands to U.S. military interests is clear in its location in the Pacific Ocean.

Much of the land, if not owned by the military, is owned by the Missionary Trusts. Many Hawaiian homeowners may have purchased their houses, but rarely do they own the land underneath them – it is typically leased from the trusts. (The movie, The Descendants, portrays a touching family portrait in the context of a family descended from missionaries in Hawai’i.)

Knowing that a large portion of the economy and economic opportunities are tightly bonded with tourism, the military, and the missionary trusts, can help explain some encounters with local people in public venues. Not everyone one might meet is equally thrilled to interact with outsiders.

As you travel, learn more about the history and biography of those who live and lived in the area you encounter. It can enrich your understanding of the experience and it will hone your sociological skills! Thinking of where you have been lately, what might be enhanced by applying a sociological lens?


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Sociology can bring so many changes in life. Developing and using your sociological imagination is perhaps one of the most foundational necessities in sociology.

^ That's right - we need to expand and develop our sociological imagination :)

I recently returned from a trip to New York. I used to live there and often returned there, so I didn't feel like a tourist there. However, it is hard to avoid the tourism industry and many other activities are advertised almost everywhere. I rented a car and drove around the city and went out of town to my friends.

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