Positioning Oneself in a National Anthropology

Thanks for the kind introduction, Nancy …

During a recent interview, I was asked where I thought the anthropology that I do fits within “Canadian anthropology.” It was a provocative question and one I was unprepared to receive. At times in my graduate student career, I have fancied myself familiar with the history of anthropology in Canada, but I have never spent time positioning myself in the traditions of academic anthropology in Canada. I have never felt ‘far enough along’ to do so.

In a short series of posts, I want to attempt an answer to this question and graciously accept reaction in hopes of fairing better the next time such a question is posed. But guessing that most of you do not want my biography to be the centre of this guest spot, I will try to organize my thoughts on this question around the idea of encouraging you to position yourself in your own national tradition (if one or many exist). And, perhaps more generally, I’d like to throw around interesting interview questions job seekers should be prepared to answer.

The question of whether or not there is a Canadian anthropology, distinct theoretically or methodologically, from American cultural anthropology or British social anthropology has been debated earnestly (in Canada anyway) since the 1970s. American Louise Sweet initiated some of the soul searching when she proposed that there was no Canadian anthropology and that Canadian social science research was simply anti-American and elitist (Sweet 1976:844); Sweet was working at a Canadian university at the time.

The debate, as it continues, includes questions like ‘is there an autonomous tradition’ of anthropology in Canada (Darnell 1998)? Questions are asked about the origins of the scholars themselves: what kind of anthropology are Canadians doing?; are the anthropologists of Canada scholars born and trained elsewhere (Darnell 1998; McFeat 1980). Are we talking about an anthropology of Canada or a Canadian anthropology? Is a Canadian anthropologist necessarily American or British in outlook … or is there a blending of American (Boasian) and British social traditions?

(My question, in broader terms is this: if you work in Papua New Guinea, how do you position yourself intellectually between the extensive traditions of anthropology in PNG and the anthropological traditions of your institution and your country?)

The Canadian debate has me asking, at times, if this is simply another reflection of the insecurity Canadians feel when faced with questions about our identity. As a younger, smaller, colonized(?) player in the intellectual world, perhaps Canadian anthropologists simply struggle to be seen against more established traditions. I don’t truly believe that, of course, preferring instead that anthropology in Canada combines, as Darnell and Ames suggest, “features of disciplinary organization and [a] historical context that are unique” (Darnell 1998:155). Still, I wonder if we make too much of trying to be different from Americans.

Anthropology in Canada is distinctive in notable ways. There is a long tradition of applied anthropology, for example, dating back certainly to Boas and James Teit. Canadian anthropology departments have a history of hiring faculty from many different parts of the world – which goes some way to explaining the mixture of academic traditions that are apparent in the research and instruction. Darnell suggests that institutionally, Canadian anthropology differentiated itself from American counterparts by emphasizing undergraduate teaching over professionalism (Darnell 1998:158); exams at the University of Toronto included questions on ethnology in 1855 (Levin et al 1984). I expect readers will weigh in with other examples.

All of this still leaves me wondering about my own place in a Canadian anthropology, noting particularly that while my Master’s level training and my fieldwork occurred in Canada, my doctoral training continues at an American university. I will follow up with that up in a subsequent post.

Until then, let me pose to you: what is the importance of ‘knowing your intellectual place’? For the Americans in the audience, is the question more about understanding the anthropological traditions in the places that you work rather than questioning your place in an Americanist tradition? If so, how do you situate yourself in those histories?


Darnell, Regna. 1998. Toward a History of Canadian Departments of Anthropology: Retrospect, Prospect, and Common Cause. Anthropologica. 40(1):153-168.

Levin, Michael, Gail Avrith, and Wanda Barrett. 1984. An Historical Sketch Showing the Contribution of Sir Daniel Wilson and Many Others to the Teaching of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Toronto: Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.

McFeat, Tom. 1980. Three Hundred Years of Anthropology in Canada. Occasional Papers in Anthropology, Saint Mary’s University. 7

Sweet, Louise. 1976. What is Canadian Anthropology? American Anthropologist. 78(4):844-850.


Barker, John. 2000. Reply to Darnell’s ‘Toward a History of Canadian Departments of Anthropology.’ Anthropologica. 42(1):95-97.


I am a cultural anthropologist teaching at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario, Canada. My interests are Indigenous peoples, local knowledge, and the relationships between Indigenous communities and the state within resource development contexts.

8 thoughts on “Positioning Oneself in a National Anthropology

  1. If I understand your question correctly, you are asking how one manages to reach a happy medium between making one’s work relevant to the work already done in one’s area of interest within anthro and adhering to some sort of general approach espoused in the location of your training. Is that it? I guess I never really thought about that. I was a bit naive as an M.A. student and thought that things were pretty similar everywhere. It was a “culture shock” for me, in a way, when I looked out into the real world and realised that the anthropological community outside of Concordia University did not unanimously exhibit loving feelings toward my experiential/experimental approach. Oh well.

    As for the existence of a national anthropology and one’s place in it, I guess I never really thought about that either. The only anthro conferences I have attended were in Canada. I was hoping to go to AAA this year to see if it was very different but . . .life has happened again.

    I do remember, though, the last time CASCA was in Montreal, that there was a roundtable on British vs French anthro . . .and I had asked one of my profs who was participating whether she felt that this carried over into Canada (Anglo vs Franco anthro in Canada). She replied that she did see a difference, although it didn’t necessarily reflect the exacte differences between British and French anthros.

    I thought this was interesting in a couple of respects: I was trained in Montreal but in an anglo university . . .but I’m francophone. In fact, I have trouble having anthro conversations with francophone anthropologists. But I do see the difference now too. And this is *within* Canada.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading your further thoughts on the topic!

  2. I would recommend that you read “Canada’s Impossible Science: Historical and Institutional Origins of the Coming Crisis in Anglo-Canadian Sociology” by Neil McLaughlin, Canadian Journal of Sociology 30(1) 2005.

    It’s about almost exactly the same thing, except it’s on Canadian sociology and it’s 40 pages long. It gets kind of whiny at times and views the American academy through rose-coloured glasses vis a vis Canadian sociology. McLaughlin identifies these areas as being the reason for Canadian sociology’s suckiness (very, very debatable, as I’m sure you’re aware of):

    1) Institutional flatness — Canadian universities are generally more equal in terms of educational quality than US ones, are less competitive with each other, and do not rely on standardized exams (yes, he actually thinks they’re things to envy in the US context).

    2) The historical relationship of Canada to Britain and the supposed crappy nature of British sociology, thereby influencing the colonists.

    3) Canada’s political culture and the entrenchment of a left wing, activist-oriented perspective in Canadian sociology, inhibiting the development of a “more scholarly and professional culture that can serve to push the left academy to moderate its rhetoric, examine its assumptions, and evaluate its evidence” (20), especially in its “simplistic critiques of liberalism” (20).

    It has a thing in there about the decline of CASCA, but I don’t really have time to get into it. Anyway, I recommend at least a peek at the article.

  3. Just out of curiousity Tad, are you related to the T. F. McIlwraith who wrote “The Bella Coola Indians?” A really wonderful and monumental ethnography! The question is slightly relevant to the present discussion, because McIlwraith talked in the introduction to that book about having been influenced first by “the older British school” and about how the book would have been different if he had written it later with American aproaches in mind. The contrast were not those that we usualy draw: Americans are characterized as less interested in ritual, holistic description, and as favoring less participatory forms of fieldwork, while being more interested in theory. This was written in the 40s, and the fieldwork was in the 20s. I wonder if this reflects just McIlwraith’s biogrphical perspective or a Canadian Anthropological self understanding at a period in time.

    As an aside, any one interested in a nuanced (rather than polemical) discussion of the distinctiveness of Canadian Anthropology should look at the work of Frances Slaney (formerly at the U of Regina, now at Carlton). There is a good article in one of the recent History of Anthropology Volumes.

  4. Thanks for the comments … and in advance of a follow-up post, let me respond here.

    Nancy’s rephrasing of the questions gets at much of what I am wondering. I think, thought, that the dilemma that scholars of a Canadian anthropology have faced is that there has been more anthropology done in Canada by non-Canadians and, as such, is a distinctive Canadian anthropology best conceived of as an anthropology OF Canada or of one WITHIN Canada? Nancy’s personal insider-outsider dilemma with respect to anglo and francophone anthropology is, perhaps, a microcosm of this – and a very important observation.

    I appreciate Jesse and Comet Jo passing along other resources and expanding the discussion to other fields. I am not familiar with the McLaughlin article, but Jesse’s synopsis indicates that sociologists are talking about these questions too – and in much the same tone as anthropologists. And the Slaney article sounds very useful … I will look at both sources mentioned here with interest. It is worth noting that these discussions continue in newer volumes too. I notice that Regna Darnell and Julia Harrison have a book coming out on the topic from UBC Press (no date as of yet).

    And, to Comet Jo’s comment about TF McIlwraith. He is my grandfather and as Comet Jo points out McIlwraith’s ethnographic work with the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) exemplifies the debate about national anthropologies that I found myself in lately. McIlwraith was British trained, under Haddon and Rivers. But he is often labeled a Boasian because of northwest coast fieldwork and an emphasis on texts. Barker weighs in on this, identifying McIlwraith as much more a British social anthropologist than a Boasian (see Barker’s article referenced in the original post). But the discussion about national labels and traditions of anthropology persist.

  5. “the dilemma that scholars of a Canadian anthropology have faced is that there has been more anthropology done in Canada by non-Canadians and, as such, is a distinctive Canadian anthropology best conceived of as an anthropology OF Canada or of one WITHIN Canada?”

    Interesting question. I guess I would distinguish between Canadian anthropology as in trends among Canadian anthro departments (which may involve the practice of anthropology in various locations) and an anthropology OF Canada which may involve anthropologists from all over the place doing fieldwork in Canada.

    Non-Canadian anthropologists may use approaches that are not quite “Canadian” in their studies of various Canadian cultures and sub-cultures while Canadian-trained anthropologists will not necessarily study Canadian topics.

    That being said, is there a Canadian anthropological approach that is distinct from American, British, French, etc approaches? Perhaps that’s something Tad will shed light on in future posts.

    Is it just me, though, or is there a real tendancy to find at least one faculty member in most Canadian universities that specialises in North American or Canadian Aboriginal issues? Is that part of the Canadian trend, to focus on the “local” (in the broadest sense of within our own country) or is it just that scholars who are interested in Canadian Aboriginal issues flock to live and work in Canada?

  6. Doesn’t Canada have a long tradition of importing its academics? First from the UK, nowadays from the US? My own department has a bunch of Americans in it, plus one Kiwi, and I don’t really think it’s unusual. And wasn’t there an official policy of “Canadians first” put forward by Canadian schools some years (decades?) back, where hiring committees give priority to looking for domestic talent before draining brains from somewhere else?

    And this discussion doesn’t have to be just about Canada, either. I’m really interested in hearing about non-Anglophone, non-Northern anthropologies, which Tad alluded to as well.

  7. Question: Where is the largest body of anthropological research conducted by anthropologists from outside of North America?

    Answer: My best guess is….Japan. Because of the isolating effects of publication in Japanese, this work is largely unknown outside of Japan. I’ve been told, however, that the Japan Ethnological Society is, except for the AAA, the largest association of anthropologists in the world.

  8. Here is some more bibliography of Canadian anthropology (all by Regna Darnbell):

    1975. Towards ad History of the Professionalization of Canadian Anthropology. Proceedings of the Canadian Ethnology Society, 399-416

    1976 The Sapir years at the National Museum. Proceedings of the Plenary Session of the Canadian Ethnology Society, 98-121

    1997 Changing patterns of ethnography in Canadaian anthropology. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 34:269-296

    1998 Toward a History of Canadian Departments of Anthropology: Retrospect, Prospect, and Common Cause. Anthropologica 40:153-168

    2000 The Pivotal Role of the Northwest Coast in the History of Americanist Anthropology. B.C. Studies 125/126:33-52

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