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.