Anthropological Identities

I was hoping that a discussion of my first post would push me to think harder about Canadian anthropology in light of American and European traditions and the comments have done that. Jesse pointed me to a fascinating article in the Canadian Journal of Sociology which sets up such intellectual disarray among Canadian sociologists (McLaughlin 2005) that I see the anthropology discussion more clearly as a debate. As Jesse notes, however, some of what McLaughlin says about Canadian sociology does resonate with discussions of Canadian anthropology; the impact of anti-Americanism, the small population in a geographically large country, are relevant to discussions of the distinctiveness of Canadian anthropology.

The question of a distinctively national anthropology in Canada can be addressed on a number of levels. Institutional links to sociology are common. A large amount of research has been conducted by scholars trained elsewhere. Anthropological support for aboriginal rights goes back to the early 1900s. These characteristics are not unique to Canada but they are emphasized here.

Given the size of the country and the number of ‘cultural areas’ within it, it also seems wise to consider Canadian anthropology in light of regions like the west, Ontario, the Maritimes, the eastern Subarctic, or the Arctic. Nancy’s comments about Franophone and Anglophone anthropology in Canada are mindful of this regionalism. Coming to Shore, a recent book of collected essays on Northwest Coast (NWC) anthropology in honour of Lévi-Strauss, exemplifies the value of such an approach. In their introduction, Mauzé, Harkin, and Kan review the academic traditions that inform NWC scholarship (2004). They argue that it is impossible to separate Canadian and American traditions of anthropology and that successful cross-pollination of ideas has occurred. In the same volume, Darnell demonstrates the relationship between Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism and Boasian anthropology – and by doing so, draws European scholarly traditions into the mix with Canadian and American traditions. Does this, then, leave us still with the notion that Canadian anthropology is a blending of traditions? Probably … and maybe that is what is truly distinctive about a Canadian anthropology.

I still find myself uncertain about how to position myself. I know something of the pedigree of my teachers and about the traditions of research in the western Subarctic where I do my fieldwork. My methods highlight textual analysis and I rely on the sociology of people like Goffman. Without an extensive publication record to cite as evidence, is that what a hiring committee wants to hear?

This post has gotten away from an effort to offer inclusive discussions of anthropology, of interest to the wider and multi-national audience of Savage Minds … I appreciate Jesse’s efforts to extend the discussion too. Let’s continue pondering these topics in the comments here.

In my next post, however, I’ll turn away from my own identity troubles to questions related to Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in aboriginal communities.


Mauze, Marie, Michael Harkin, and Sergei Kan. 2004. Coming To Shore: Northwest Coast Ethnology, Traditions, and Visions. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

McLaughlin, Neil. 2005. Canada’s Impossible Science: Historical and Institutional Origins of the Coming Crisis in Anglo-Canadian Sociology. Canadian Journal of Sociology. 30(1):1-40.


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.

12 thoughts on “Anthropological Identities

  1. You are pointing to the model of a pluralistic society. Regarding Canada`s process of nationbuilding and for clarification for example comparing it with Germany`s process of nationbuilding, we generally can state the former is an immigrant nation and the latter is not.
    Although also Canada is dealing with issues of hegemonial culture(s), specific conservatism in Quebeq, right-wingerdom, racial downgrading of canadians of asian origin and so on–its easy to find examples like this for each nation– you can fix Canada`s engagement towards realizing the pluralistic society model variously. From the very beginning ‘diversity’ has been a founding element of self-understanding of the Canadian nation – this is a significance that characterizes an ‘immigrant nation’.

    Jumping to something different but related: I think ‘antiamericanism’ is a term that is important to be specified, for in Canada`s case this is something quite different than what is in german contexts.

    Talking about Canadian anthropology, I don`t consciously know of much canadian anthropologists, but socio-cultural approaches to explicitly the diversity of canadian society and of the canadian nation as such are [surprised anyone? *smile] successfully made by historians, this can be fixed for example on the rise of regional histories being written. Successfully, because the current paradigmatical change in german anthropology [which is instead of locating ‘the other’ exclusively far away in exotic landscapes, to cut too short, focussing the own culture] has been essentially triggered by these approaches. 🙂

    For those who just have begun to think about these things, Alan F.J. Artibise [ed.], Interdisciplinary Approaches to Canadian Society. A Guide to the Literature will be a good introductory compilation.

  2. Orange’s comments are well taken and I am intrigued by the suggestion of changing the focus from Canadian Anthropology to Canadian Studies. Judging from the Artibise book announcement, I sense that Canadian Studies is a multi-disciplinary arena in which discussions of Canadian scholarship more broadly might be taken on. I’m sure that there is room for anthropology and anthropologists in that endeavor. Is it simply disciplinary protectionism to suggest, however, that anthropology in Canada still needs to define itself? That anthropology as a multidisciplinary approach to human activity and behavior itself is well suited to carry on those investigations in its own ways?

    How is American Studies defined?

  3. “How is American Studies defined?”

    Good question. I could tell they do not focus on regions and regional culture in their very approach to diversity, for example. But I will keep this in mind.

  4. I btw have never heard of ‘American Studies’, instead I know of American Cultural Studies and British Cultural Studies and Australian Cultural Studies and Austrian Cultural Studies.

  5. “American Studies” is a huge field, and a number of institutions have significant American Studies departments. It’s also a big field outside of the US — Germany’s Mainz Universitat, for isntance, has an important American Studies department.

    On the topic of an American anthropological tradition, Regna Darnell’s _Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology_ attempts to delineat the contours of the American tradition, essentially tying it back to the influence of Boas and his students. While I’m very sympathetic to the argument, I have to admit I didn’t make it through the whole book, so I can’t vouch for how convincing her case is.

  6. Incidentally, the phrase “American Studies” gets 29,600,000 hits on Google; the phrase “American Cultural Studies” gets a paltry 98,500. Unscientific, yes, but indicative of pretty wide usage for “American Studies”.

  7. Mr. Wax, I did not claim there are no American Studies, just that I was not aware of the concept in contrast to Canadian Studies.
    [Actually I got aware I had posted the term myself not long ago when I gave some literature in to some of Kerim`s last entries, but the comment was gone. *shewt]
    Good to know you re able to google anyway–still Tads question remains unanswered: How are American Studies defined?

  8. I think ‘American Studies’ is translated to german as ‘Amerikanistik’, which is kin to ‘Anglistik’.
    Anglistik focusses the study of english literature, english language and randomly historical issues.
    Amerikanistik is way the same, just that the focus is narrowed on englishspeaking North America. Therefore a difference between American Studies and American Cultural Studies lies for example in their wider focus that includes the non-englishspeaking spheres of North America, too.

  9. “Does this, then, leave us still with the notion that Canadian anthropology is a blending of traditions?”

    I would agree that this is something that is a large part of Canadian anthro. I would add that it is very much a reflection of Canadian society at large (including all the blending that goes on at the sub-cultural levels).

    My question is: to what extent does the individual anthropologist *need* to identify with their nation’s trends in the discipline? I’ve never felt a particular compulsion to identify with Canadian anthro. I’ve more than likely been influenced by it through my training; however, that does not preclude me from incorporating ideas from other trends. In fact, I rather like being theoretically ecclectic. (My theoretical framework used in my M.A. research was a blend of Pierre Bourdieu, Gary Witherspoon, Jean-Guy Goulet and Johannes Fabian).

    That said, I have, in the past couple of years, resented the fact that some (not all) of my stateside colleagues know very little about the work of Canadian anthropologists, that I get ignored sometimes when trying to highlight the work of some of my Canadian anthro-idols and that my suggestion to some of them to explore Canadian anthro by attending a CASCA meeting is met with (seemingly) skeptical silence.

    On the other hand, work done *in* Canada by already well-known anthros seems to be quite well-known.

    In any case, I think it’s important to put our (Canadian anthros) work on the map, regardless of where we actually do our fieldwork. I’m not a nationalist nor do I think it’s worthwhile to harp on how Canada is distinct from the U.S. (I happen to think that goes without saying and that someone who doesn’t see that hasn’t spent enough time on the “opposite” side) but Canadian anthropologists, with their various influences at the cultural and academic levels, have a lot to offer to anthropological discourse.

  10. Nancy quoted, “Does this, then, leave us still with the notion that Canadian anthropology is a blending of traditions?”

    Well, probably Canadian anthropological approaches represent a mixture and of course are influenced themselves and rooted–as everything is–but the perspective I ve tried to point on is the one on contemporary impacts of namely Canadian Anthropology, which is a different approach than trying textimmanence-based analysis.
    In regards of identification or namely national identification of Canadian anthropologists, I thought it might be useful to add issues of “what it stands for”.

Comments are closed.