National Culture, Political Economy and Socio-Cultural Anthropology in English Canada

By Dunk, Thomas | Anthropologica, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
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National Culture, Political Economy and Socio-Cultural Anthropology in English Canada

Dunk, Thomas, Anthropologica

Abstract: The apparent absence of a unique national tradition of anthropology in Canada has been the subject of discussion since the 1970s. Howes (1992) proposed that, in fact, a Canadian anthropological canon can be identified and that these works share, along with Canadian culture more generally, a commitment to the principle of bicentrism. This article questions the idea that principles such as bicentrism and/or multicul-turalism are reflective of a distinctive Canadian national/popular collective will. It argues that, in English-Canada, there is a widely recognized intellectual tradition of political economy and that this tradition offers a better model for understanding what is or is not different about English-Canadian anthropology.

Resume: L'apparente absence d'une tradition anthropologique nationale unique au Canada a fait l'object de discussions depuis les annees 1970. Howes (1992) a soumis I'idee qu'en fait un canon anthropologique canadien peut etre identifie et que les travaux qui en relevent partagent, en accord avec la culture canadienne en general, un engagement envers le principe du bicentrisme. Le present article remet en question l'idee que des principes tels que le bicentrisme et/ou le multicul-turalisme refletent une volonte collective populaire nationale distinctement canadienne. Il soutient qu'au Canada anglais, il y a une tradition intellectuelle d"economie politique largement reconnue, et que cette tradition offre un meilleur modele pour comprendre ce qui est ou ce qui n'est pas different en anthropologie canadienne anglaise.


Whether or not Canada has its own national tradition of anthropology has been a subject of discussion since at least the 1970s. Recent efforts (Darnell, 1998) to trace the history of the discipline in Canada have enriched our knowledge of the development of the institutional bases of Canadian anthropology but have not identified a distinctive intellectual or theoretical anthropological tradition that reflects or expresses a unique Canadian culture. To date the most explicit effort to specify a distinctive Canadian anthropological paradigm is Howes' (1992) proposal that canonical Canadian anthro- pological writings express the principle of bicentrism.

In this paper I engage Howes' argument about the relationship between a distinctive Canadian culture and the tradition of Canadian anthropology. Since the specific objects of study in physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology are diverse, and anthropology in Quebec is different from the rest of the country, for the sake of clarity of focus I concentrate on socio-cultural anthropology in English-Canada. In contrast to Howes' argument that the Canadian anthropological tradition is shaped by and reflective of the principles embedded in the constitution of the federal Canadian state, I posit that if there is something distinctive about socio-cultural anthropology in English-Canada it is explained by political economy. Indeed, political economy is one intellectual field where there is a widely recognized, unique English-Canadian theoretical paradigm. The issues of concern within this particular approach help us understand both what may be different about English-Canadian socio- cultural anthropology and the politico-economic structures that work against the emergence or recognition of a clearly defined national tradition.

State, Nation, and Culture in Canada

Discussing the concepts of a national culture and a national tradition of anthropological research is fraught with potential complications because both depend on the idea that there is a distinct nation which could generate a national tradition. While it is true that nationalism has been a powerful force in world history in the last two centuries, in many cases the existence of a national culture can be, and often is, contested. If a nation is an "imagined community" (Anderson, 1991), there are many states that are not yet nations.

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