Changing Patterns of Ethnography in Canadian Anthropology: A Comparison of Themes

By Darnell, Regna | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Changing Patterns of Ethnography in Canadian Anthropology: A Comparison of Themes


Darnell, Regna, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


This paper will examine what seems to this Americanist researcher to be a bizarre, albeit frequently repeated, piece of the oral tradition of contemporary Canadian anthropology - to wit, that First Nations topics and issues may have been foundational to the professionalization and institutionalization of the discipline but that these concerns have been eclipsed. This purported decline is traced to the 1960s, when Canadian anthropology underwent dramatic expansion in the academy, in museums and in terms of public awareness. Sceptics about the persistence of Americanist work link a perceived increase in ethnographic diversity to the mass importation of non-Canadian anthropologists, mostly Americans, in the boom years. Now that the boom has settled, goes the argument, these new Canadians of yesteryear have obtained Canadian citizenship, acquired tenure, and trained cadres of students who share their commitment to world ethnography as the necessary baseline for a comparative anthropology in which both theory and database are international in scope.

I read our collective history in quite a different way. Unlike colleagues whose personal ethnographic interests are not Americanist,(1) I am inclined to emphasize the continuities in our disciplinary history. I would suggest that the dichotomy between those who envisioned the study of aboriginal peoples in Canada and those who sought the exotic in more remote parts of the postcolonial world substantially predates the institutional expansion of the 1960s. A paradigmatic case is the contrast in mandates between Canada's two largest museums with ethnographic collections. The Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa, whose Anthropological Division was headed by Edward Sapir from 1910 to 1925, indeed followed the research-close-to-home model of its umbrella institution, the Geological Survey of Canada. In Toronto, conversely, the Royal Ontario Museum devoted itself to sampling worldwide cultural diversity (although its paramount ethnologist, Thomas McIlwraith, was himself a distinguished student of Canadian aboriginal peoples). The division of labour between the museum in the national capital and the one in the nation's largest city provided the lay public with a broad range of vicarious educational experience without committing the nascent discipline of Canadian anthropology to an exclusively Americanist or world ethnography orientation.

Whether First Nations research has been eclipsed in contemporary practice is both an empirical and a rhetorical question. In search of an answer to my divergent perceptions as well as those of other colleagues, I sought sources of quantifiable, if not statistically valid, information about the present ethnographic specializations to be found in Canadian anthropology.

The American Anthropological Association's annual guide to departments lists individual areas of specialization. It includes most Canadian institutions that teach and conduct research in anthropology (Concordia University is the most glaring omission). Appendix 1 lists the individuals and their specializations based on 1996-97 data. Appendix 2 summarizes this information by institution and subdiscipline within the Americanist specialization. For comparative purposes, the total number of full-time anthropologists in each department is noted. In a few cases (Manitoba, northern British Columbia and Saskatchewan), the number of Americanists is larger than the number of full-time faculty; this is because emeritus and part-time colleagues as well as those based in other departments have been included.

My tabulation is optimistic and should be read as identifying a maximum number of currently practising anthropologists in the academy in Canada who list themselves as having an Americanist ethnographic specialization. In a number of cases, other ethnographic specializations are also listed. It may be that these multiple allegiances primarily reflect the increasing difficulties, both political and financial, of undertaking overseas field work. …

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