Value, social conflict, and tourism

One of the underlying questions that I am looking at in my research at is how conflicts in tourism development can be understood by using “value” as a theoretical diving board.  Yes, I mean value in the economic sense.  But I also mean value in the sense that Clyde Kluckhohn sought to explore.  This is value in the moral, political, and/or cultural sense, which is of course somewhat different from the monetary-based understanding of value that might spring to mind when you hear the word.  Value can be about currency, yes, but there’s more to it.

Value, ultimately, refers to the ways in which we choose to represent the importance or meaning of a particular idea, object, action, or place.  Something can be valuable because of its relative standing within a massive global financial system, but it can also be valuable in many other senses as well.  Both David Graeber (in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value) and Julia Elyachar (Markets of Dispossession) explored these different forms of valuation, and made it clear that it’s important to see how the relate with one another.

Another issue that I am looking at is how this question of value relates to geographic space.  This sounds all very abstract and all, but it’s not as abstract as it seems.  The allure, prestige, or value of tourism is fundamentally geographic and spatial in many ways.  As Michael Clancy pointed out in his 2001 book “Exporting Paradise,” exclusive resorts are predicated on the idea of allowing some people in and keeping others out.  These separated or segregated spaces are maintained through a variety of measures, some more explicit than others.  Some resorts have massive walls and guarded entrances, while others are surrounded by miles of barbed wire fences.  Others choose more subtle measures.

So these are a couple of issues that I am looking into during my fieldwork.  Although right now I am just in the beginning of all of this, and there are interesting leads in all directions.  Miles and miles of fences.  Disputes over land.  Completely different ideas about what an ideal tourism destination should look like.  For some, a place is more and more valuable as it gets “developed” with hotels, paved roads, golf courses, and so on.  For others, it is the complete opposite–a place loses its intrinsic, unique value as it becomes a part of a wider, commodifiied tourism network.

Anyway, these are just a few of the starting points, and I thought it might be a good idea to share some of where I am coming from, since I will be writing about little bits and pieces of this over the upcoming year.  Here’s a short selection about value from a working paper that I wrote for the Open Anthropology Cooperative (click here to read the whole thing).  Let me know what you think (for all references and footnotes, check out the paper on the OAC page).  Since I am in the early stages of fieldwork, and looking into these issues about tourism, social conflict, value, space, and so on, I know that things will inevitably lead in some pretty unpredictable directions.  That’s what empirical research is all about.  But it’s good to take account of starting points and see where they end up.  Anyway, enough of the small talk.  Here’s the selection that explores some of my readings of the value question:


Before going any further, it makes sense to establish a few foundations. My analysis focuses on the concept of value as it relates to the construction of meaning and place in Baja California Sur. I draw from the work of anthropologists, urban sociologists, and geographers in exploring what is admittedly an unwieldy concept. Theoretical discussions about value—the attribution of import or meaning to ideas, ways of life, goods, and/or actions—have a deep history in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology (see Kluckhohn 1958; Appadurai 1986; Eiss and Pedersen 2002; Graeber 2001, 2011; West 2005; Hart 2011; Elyachar 2005). The term “value” is tremendously loaded and complex. It sounds fairly simple to talk about the value of a place or an idea…but the more you dig into the concept the more difficult things become. That is because, as Graeber argues, while there are plenty of discussions about value, there is no clear theory of value per se. Part of the reason for this is that the term itself refers to a wide array of different—yet interrelated—understandings of what “value” is all about.

As Graeber (2001:1-2) explains, theories of value tend to fall into three overlapping categories: 1) values in the sociological sense (i.e. what is good or desirable for society); 2) the economic sense (how objects/goods are desired and measured according to a particular system of accounting, such as money); and 3) the linguistic sense (which Graeber glosses as “meaningful difference” within a larger structured system). Value in these various, interrelated senses is ultimately about how and why people rank, order, and organize their social worlds according to particular ideals, whether moral, cultural, or political. A truly exhaustive account of value should, as some argue, probably extend at least as far back as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and especially Karl Marx (Hart 2011), whose theories of value focused heavily on the critical importance of labor. Such a project, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. For the sake of conceptual clarity, I am going to limit my use of value to a few lines of thought derived mostly from relatively recent anthropological theories of value (although Marx does play a key role for many of these theorists). I draw primarily on Kluckhohn (1958), Graeber (2001), Elyachar (2005), and Appadurai (1986). Kluckhohn’s comparative project on value is a good place to start.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Clyde Kluckhohn launched an ambitious initiative aiming to make the scientific study of values the key concern of anthropology (Graeber 2001:2). Kluckhohn’s work focused mostly on a sociological sense of value, and attempted to analyze how and why different societies came to develop particular value orientations (Kluckhohn 1958). As Graeber explains, this early effort to analyze and cogently theorize value “ran most definitely aground” (2001:5). But it was not without merit. Foremost was Kluckhohn’s drive to find a way to push anthropology toward a study of social life that paid close attention to moral desires—or what individuals “ought to want” out of their lives (Kluckhohn 1958: 469; Graeber 2001:3). Kluckhohn advocated a study of values that sought to move beyond mechanistic assumptions about human choices and behavior:

We want to live in particular ways and toward selected ends. When the gap between actuality and aspiration is too great, individuals and indeed whole groups choose death rather than survival. For we human beings are not just pushed by our biological needs and psychological drives; we are also pulled by conceptions of the right, the good, the desirable (1958:469).

He argued that since there are patterned “habits of thinking which individuals consciously learn and unconsciously absorb in their daily social experience” (1958:469), an empirically grounded and systematic study of values was possible. He was in search of the “codes which unite individuals in adherence to shared goals that transcend immediate and egocentric interest” (1958:470). Values for Kluckhohn “are cultural and psychological facts of a certain type which can be described as objectively as other types of cultural and psychological facts” (1958: 472). The only problem was that Kluckhohn’s value project was never able to actually achieve these ambitious goals, despite much effort from Kluckhohn and his research team. The key issue, as Graeber (2001:4) points out, was the difficulty of finding a way to relate this comparative project to specific choices, behaviors, and actions within a coherent framework. What was ultimately missing was “an adequate theory of structure” (Graeber 2001:5).

Although Kluckhohn’s project hit a dead end, and has had no intellectual legacy, maybe something worthwhile may be salvaged from his efforts. As Graeber explains, Kluckhohn’s key idea was that cultures differ not simply in what they believe about the world, but also in “what they feel one can justifiably demand from it” (2001:5). This is at heart a moral project. Kluckhohn tried to move beyond studies of belief and perception toward a comparative analysis of morally-based ideals and desires. While most anthropologists may consider Kluckhohn’s project passé or irrelevant today, maybe he was onto something after all. In Graeber’s words: “However primitive the models Kluckhohn actually produced, he did at least open up the possibility of looking at cultures as not just different ways of perceiving the world, but as different ways of imagining what life ought to be like—as moral projects, one might say” (2001:22). This takes us further than many of the approaches to value that followed his.

Kluckhohn provides the first key component, then, of how I want to approach value. Value is not just about market forces, and it is not intrinsically embedded in commodities, places, or other material things. Kluckhohn’s value project went beyond questions of supply, demand, and taste to embrace what people feel is socially and morally just. As one foundation for thinking about value, this requires us to think about how such conceptions are linked to actions and to larger cultural contexts.

David Graeber’s book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, offers perhaps the most thorough anthropological investigation of value to date. I want to highlight two key components from Graeber’s discussions of value here. The first is a focus on action. The second is an emphasis on how these actions translate into wider systems of meaning. Graeber seeks to construct a theory of value that moves away from Saussurean structuralism on the one hand and from what he calls “economism” on the other. The problem with the former is that value is reduced to little more than “meaningful difference” (2001:46). With the latter, value is framed as a factor of individual choice and little more. Both frameworks are also hopelessly static; Graeber, following the lead of Nancy Munn, moves toward an understanding of value that is dramatically more dynamic (2001:46).

Munn argues that value emerges in action or through the process of creation itself. Value is not just an intrinsic property of objects, goods, services, or places. It has to be produced—within the context of surrounding cultural systems. This argument, which emphasizes both process and action, comes full circle back to Marx’s theoretical discussions of value (which were, after all, very much about measuring value based upon human action—labor). Money, Graeber explains, is key to Marx’s theory of value: “What money measures and mediates…is ultimately the importance of certain forms of human action (Graeber 2001:66-67). Money, which is an abstract yet ubiquitous representation of value, comes to signify the meaning and importance of human labor or what Graeber sometimes calls “creative energies” (ibid). While Marxists tend to focus on a fairly restricted understanding of human labor, Graeber argues that it might be fruitful to broaden our thinking and consider some other possibilities when it comes to labor and human action.

He writes, “One invests one’s energies in those things one considers most important or most meaningful” (2001:45). Value, he argues, “is the way people represent the importance of their own actions to themselves” (2001:45). This takes certain socially recognizable forms, whether kula valuables, currency, or credit cards. The important point is that these forms are not the actual source of value—they are just the medium through which value is created and passed around. Human actions produce value….and these actions take on meaning when they are understood within larger social and cultural systems. This brings us to the second point: these human actions and creative energies attain meaning when they are placed within expanded symbolic and social systems.

Graeber argues that value may be understood as how “actions become meaningful” within a larger social system, “real or imagined” (2001:254; see also Elyachar 2006:8)3. In order to understand the importance or meaning of a particular action, there has to be some reference to a surrounding totality. There must be some sort of comparison going on: “Parts take on meaning in relation to each other, and that process always involved references to some sort of whole: whether it be a matter of words in a language, episodes in a story, or ‘goods and services’ on the market” (Graeber 2001:86-87). The “real or imagined” aspect of all this is also important here. Graeber says that the process of creating value requires comparison, which necessitates some kind of audience. This audience may be real (e.g. direct social relationships) or imagined. “Society” is basically an imagined, totalized audience that people use to assess tastes, choices, desires, and values. This is akin to the “imagined communities” that Benedict Anderson (2006) wrote about, which are connected through shared ideals, ideologies, and meanings.

So we have to take account of action in value creation, and we need to pay attention to how those actions are linked to surrounding social, cultural, and political systems of meaning. This is where politics and power come into the equation. Graeber writes, “In any real social situation, there are likely to be any number of such imaginary totalities at play, organized around different conceptions of value” (2001:88). There is not just one system of meaning that people engage with or contest—there are multiple interwoven, contested, overlapping systems. The confluence of these systems leads to what might be called a “politics of value” (Graeber 2001:88; Appadurai 1986). For Graeber, competing or conflicting claims about value are always inherently political in nature (2001:115). Terry Turner, according to him, claims that the struggle to define value is “the ultimate stakes of politics” (2001:88). It would be ideal if value (i.e. what matters, or what is important and how that importance is represented) were determined through democratic, fair, and just decision-making processes. But Graeber and others argue that this is not the case (see also Elyachar 2005). The playing field is not level. This leads to the question of power.

Julia Elyachar writes, “The anthropology of value, which has a strong focus on symbolic meaning, can have politics at its center as well” (2005:7). Elyachar’s monograph, Markets of Dispossession, is a deeply ethnographic work exploring the politics of value through an extended, detailed investigation of workshops in Cairo. She draws from both Munn and Graeber to analyze how workshop masters create what she calls “relational value,” which “expresses the positive value attached to the creation, production, and extension of relationships in communities of Cairo” (2005:7). The power struggles in this case consist of conflicts between these workshop masters, the Egyptian state, international organizations, and NGOs, among others.

Her ethnography outlines a conflict between the intrusion of neoliberal market reforms and ideologies, on the one hand, and the morally-grounded economies of the workshop masters in Cairo on the other. What is being “dispossessed,” she argues, is “the power to decide what matters or, in other words, what is value” (2005:8). Through a focus on neoliberal market reforms, Elyachar shows that “Markets are social and political worlds with their own cosmologies. Each is a cosmos of its own, an intricately functioning field of power” (2005:214). She challenges the utopian notion of neo-classical economists that markets are benign instruments which, if properly unleashed, will serve the interests of “society” at large4 (Elyachar 2005:214). Instead, Elyachar argues forcefully that markets are highly political projects that have real—and often dramatically disparate—material effects. What all of this means is that economic expansion and development is anything but a value-neutral or objective process…no matter what many economists and development experts assert. Elyachar makes a solid case for the need to pay close attention to power relations, and more specifically to how different forms of power work, interact, and clash, in the ongoing politics of value.

Arjun Appadurai has explored the politics of value as well, but in a very different way. His approach, which draws a lot on the work of Georg Simmel, is far more economic in its focus. While Graeber seeks to shift the emphasis from a focus on things to an emphasis on actions, Appadurai explores the question of value by paying close attention to the “lives” of commodities. This is because he sees exchange as they key issue in value creation. What matters, ultimately, is how much someone is willing to give up in order to obtain certain goods and services. For Appadurai, value is ultimately based on individual desire (this is a different conception of desire than Kluckhohn sought to address). His analysis of the politics of value focuses on the struggles to control “flows of commodities” themselves, which is a decidedly market-based approach. Appadurai seeks to trace these commodity flows as they pass through different “regimes of value in space and time” (1986:4). He writes, “We have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, and their trajectories” (1986:5). Although some aspects of Appadurai’s approach are problematic, I find the idea of “regimes of value in space and time” to be particularly intriguing and useful.

This framework, with commodities passing through different systems of meaning and their value related to this overall process, is yet another foundation for my current work on value creation in Baja California Sur. But it needs reworking a bit, mostly because the commodity in question is not a linen coat or a can of Coke—it’s a place. Land, as Polanyi once argued, is a commodity of a special kind. Logan and Molotch, following him, insist that land is 1) immobile, and 2) not originally produced for sale in a market (1987:23). This means that an analysis of how value is created in particular landscapes or places requires different considerations. Yes, there is an argument to be made that places such as Cabo San Lucas or La Paz are most definitely “produced,” but this is not the same as the production of traditional commodities like coats—or iPods for that matter. The “regimes of value” in this case are the ideas, beliefs, and predilections of people, past and present—and these work to shape and define the meaning and value of particular geographic places. These systems of meaning overlap, clash, coalesce, and break apart. In what follows, I seek to trace the historical trajectories of value embedded in specific places…


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

5 thoughts on “Value, social conflict, and tourism

  1. As a caveat, I have only a dilettante’s grasp of anthropology, so apologies in advance for (likely) saying something long discussed or stupid.

    Would it not be interesting (and relevant, especially in an investigation of the value of places) to frame value as a more bottom-up phenomenon? To start with the individual? In other words, the value of something to a particular individual at a particular time depends on the net ‘benefit’ (in the broadest possible sense) that individual perceives that thing as yielding to him or her in the pursuit of his or her present interests under the conditions he or she currently faces. Or to put it (even) more crudely, the value of an object right now, to you, depends on what you presently see yourself getting out of some interaction with that object. In this way a glass of water is differently valuable in a desert and in a lake, a lifesaver is differently valuable to a strong and a weak swimmer 1 km away from shore, a friend’s concern is differently valuable depending on whether you are sad or angry, etc.

    Social, economic, and linguistic value would then be derived from moves (whether emergent or imposed) to aggregate such individually estimated values within a social group and through time. So a glass of water becomes perceived as generally more moral, more expensive, and more positive than a pile of faeces because, at least at one point, most people, most of the time could see more ways of pursuing their interests with the help of the former than with the help of the latter. This is not to go into utilitarianism and say that which is ‘useful’ (in some absolute and abstract sense) is ‘good’ (again in some absolute and abstract sense). It’s more of an expansion of the tautological “I happen to like what I happen to like”.

    All of which raises the question about the previously reference “interests” and how they are determined. The advantage, I feel, of switching the focus from “value” (also had a discussion along similar lines with someone whose preferred focus was “purpose”) to “interest” is that the former is relative (the value depends on who is doing the valuing and why), while the latter is reflexive and eventually axiomatic (e.g. why is it you like ketchup but not mayonnaise?). Furthermore, values, especially if systematised would have to have some internal consistency, whereas interests are perfectly fine even in conflict (e.g. I like eating and sleeping, but cannot do both at once). Off the top of my head, I see four categories of interests. Practical (“I’m hungry!”, “I’m lonely!”, “I’m not big on the idea of the secret police showing up and torturing me!” – so physical, emotional, political); social (“Everyone else is doing it, so why not me?” – unfortunately, this has an added complexity of a partial loop between value and interest with individual interest determining individual value, which partly determines public value, which partly determines individual interest); intellectual (“I see no good reason to be interested in this!”); and experiential (“I have never been happier than when I was playing on the beach with my dog Thaddeus!”).

    Sorry for the length – it’s just an interesting topic…

  2. aepxc,

    Thanks for your comment.

    “Would it not be interesting (and relevant, especially in an investigation of the value of places) to frame value as a more bottom-up phenomenon? To start with the individual?”

    Exactly, yes. You’re right: focusing on the question of value from individual perspectives is both interesting and relevant. What I have provided here is more of a background for thinking about value–what lies ahead is the ethnographic fieldwork, which will be all about the issues you bring up…like trying to look at value from the bottom up.

    “Or to put it (even) more crudely, the value of an object right now, to you, depends on what you presently see yourself getting out of some interaction with that object. In this way a glass of water is differently valuable in a desert and in a lake…”

    Ya, exactly. Value is relative and depends on a whole range of factors. It’s not some intrinsic quality or measure.

    “The advantage, I feel, of switching the focus from “value” (also had a discussion along similar lines with someone whose preferred focus was “purpose”) to “interest” is that the former is relative (the value depends on who is doing the valuing and why), while the latter is reflexive and eventually axiomatic (e.g. why is it you like ketchup but not mayonnaise?).”

    I think the question of interests (or maybe desires) is also important. I guess I started looking into the whole value question for a pretty basic reason: one of the consistent trends in tourism development is that conflicts start to arise when land and real estate values skyrocket along with speculation, etc. So one kind of systematic form of valuation has certain effects, and I wanted to look at some of the other kinds of ways in which a place, for example, can be valued or given a certain meaning.

    “Furthermore, values, especially if systematised would have to have some internal consistency, whereas interests are perfectly fine even in conflict…”

    But can’t interests clash? And can’t a persons interests also change depending on a situation? Are interests really so stable and fixed? As for the issue of conflict: Maybe that’s another reason why I am trying to chase after this value thing: because there are lots of conflicts in tourism development contexts, and different social groups are not perfectly fine with the intentions, interests, and what might be called values of competing groups. Interests are all about what an individual or group wants to get out of something, or maybe out of a situation. But what happens when there are consistent conflicts in particular situations or processes? Is there something patterned going on? Is there something systematic? Is the idea of “value” useful for looking at what’s going on? Maybe, maybe not. But I am kind of chasing it around for now. We’ll see where things lead.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. This is great stuff Ryan. I’m quite enthusiastic about your notion of articulating a moral praxis for tourism studies and the Graeber quote about different cultures as competing moral projects is really compelling too. In my mind I’m going back to my own research and plugging these ideas in. If I thought about them at all, it was probably in terms of moral arguments for particular touristic futures as a dressing for underlying, historical animosities between competing groups. That is to say the different stake holders would couch their case for a particular kind of tourism in more-or-less moral terms as a kind of alibi for petty vendettas and tribal loyalties which went undiscussed (at least in the open).

    I’m interested in the overtures towards structural analysis. Value does seem to lend itself to this kind of thinking as it always expresses or weighs the importance/desirability of one thing (or set) in terms of another. After reading your piece maybe I need to reconsider the role of value! I think its a great organizing principle. Instead of “politics of value” I was working more closely with the “politics of meaning”. I’m not sure what the difference is at this point, but I’ll be thinking about it now. I did choose to emphasize labor, but I hadn’t considered value as a key variable. Instead I was looking to experience. Again, interesting similarities.

    I think keeping land (and water) at the center of your research agenda is going to prove to be the critical political move on your part. Good luck!

  4. Hey Matt,

    Thanks for your comment.

    “That is to say the different stake holders would couch their case for a particular kind of tourism in more-or-less moral terms as a kind of alibi for petty vendettas and tribal loyalties which went undiscussed (at least in the open).”

    This whole value question is really interesting but also really dicey territory–and you bring up another reason why. All kinds of things can be explained or rationalized in moral terms…but there might be other underlying meanings that are the true cause. So it’s a problem of differentiating actual moral positions from situational politics–or maybe “interests” as the first commenter brought up. Graeber writes that Clyde Kluckhohn’s attempt at an anthropology of value “ran aground,” and I think that issues like this were part of the problem.

    “I’m interested in the overtures towards structural analysis. Value does seem to lend itself to this kind of thinking as it always expresses or weighs the importance/desirability of one thing (or set) in terms of another.”

    I agree…there is a kind of systemic or comparative thing going on here. Relational. Something like that. Graeber puts it something like this: something is valued when it is placed within wider systems of meaning. He also argues that Kluckhohn’s attempt at this value question may have just missed the theoretical key that it needed to start putting things together: structuralism.

    “After reading your piece maybe I need to reconsider the role of value! I think its a great organizing principle. Instead of “politics of value” I was working more closely with the “politics of meaning”. I’m not sure what the difference is at this point, but I’ll be thinking about it now.”

    Cool–I’ll be interested to hear more about what you think about this. There is something really interesting going on here, and I agree that the boundary between value/meaning is, well, a little fuzzy. Why? Something good to think about. What really fascinates me that is the term value has these sharp connotations–value in the currency/financial sense, and also in the moral sense (i.e. having strong values). And in some ways I think many people really separate those kinds of values almost automatically–but why? Both are talking about how *something* (whether an action, idea, or thing) is ranked or evaluated within a spectrum of possibilities–and within a wider system of meaning (e.g. financial markets and commodities or different moral choices).

    Anyway–thanks again for your comment. And apologies for getting back to you a bit late–I was a bit slammed the past couple of weeks!!!

  5. @Ryan

    When I think about value and interest, I tend to see both as part of what C.Wright Mills called a vocabulary of motives. The vocabulary of motives is a resource on which social actors draw when attempting to establish a definition of the situation in terms of which social action can proceed and be justified. To assert values is to claim assumptions on which the assertor believes everyone should agree. To assert interests is to claim consequences that benefit some subset of the actors in question. Thus a claim that it is “both the right thing to do and good for us” is to claim both value and interest for proceeding in the direction that the assertor of this claim wants the situation to change.

    What makes this framing theoretically hairy is the frequent counterclaim that the values in question are only masks for interests that favor one party, group or class, casting those who accept them either as cynical manipulators or dupes of false consciousness. Speaking from personal experience working in advertising and studying Daoist magicians, I would say that the usual case is, in fact, a mixture of both. The ostensible manipulator may sincerely believe in the values he or she asserts. The dupe may be at least partially aware of the interests at stake. Sorting out what is actually going on may require not only subtlety but delicacy as well.

    I wonder, does this help at all?

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