Is there a Canadian anthropology or is it just anthropology in Canada? If it is “anthropology in Canada,” then from where has it been imported? If what we are doing is primarily US anthropology, then what are we importing when we do US anthropology in Canada? How do we do US anthropology in Canada? Does challenging US hegemony imply nationalism and, if so, does nationalism imply reactionary politics? Is US imperialism active in academia? Is there a Canadian epistemology? What does it mean to be Canadian? What is the relationship between Indigenous decolonization and Canadian anti-imperialism? These are the sorts of questions that were discussed on a panel on academic imperialism at a Canadian anthropology conference last week.
The Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) recently concluded its annual conference, held this year on the campus of Dalhousie University in beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia (since it’s in the Maritimes, the word “beautiful” is almost redundant). Thanks to the initiative taken by my colleague, Charles Menzies (Anthropology, University of British Columbia), and thanks to his organizing efforts, I was on a roundtable titled “Combatting Academic Imperialism: Making Space for a Canadian Anthropology” (p. 61), along with my friend Craig Proulx (Anthropology, St. Thomas University), and Karine Vanthuyne (Sociological and Anthropological Studies, University of Ottawa). Of relevance to this article is the fact that CASCA yet again partnered with a US organization in hosting a conference, this time the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA), which is a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Added to that, the US Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) also held its conference on Canadian territory this year, moving into Vancouver. Also of relevance, both Charles and I earned our PhDs outside of Canada, and we both did at least part of our graduate schooling in the US. Thus here we were, as two foreign-trained, US-influenced academics, at a roundtable on academic imperialism, accompanied by Craig (a Canadian with a Canadian PhD), and Karine (PhD earned in France). The abstract for the session was as follows:
“The academic and cultural imperialism of the US, the UK, and France has a long history in Canadian and Quebecois post secondary institutions. The impact and implications vary according to region and type of post secondary institution. This roundtable is designed to create an inclusive pro-active dialogue for Canadian anthropologists to collaborate in combatting academic imperialism. Many of us have noted the long-standing colonial mentality whereby Canadian doctorates are compared unfavourably with those from the Imperialist heartland. This colonial mentality intrudes into teaching and graduate instruction. This colonial mentality affects hiring practices and job opportunities. Then to further complicate matters we, as disciplinary practitioners, have in turn have participated in an internal colonization of Indigenous Knowledge and peoples. Drawing from Indigenous, Metis, and Progressive Settler perspectives we invite our colleagues and students to join with us in this roundtable on combatting academic imperialism”.
I can attest to the fact that the presentations by Charles Menzies and Craig Proulx were very engaging, packed with incisive insights and an abundance of valuable ideas worth pondering further. I could not have asked for better company. Karine served as a discussant, answering our three presentations, and then we took comments from those gathered. While I took notes on the entire proceedings, I feel reluctant about potentially or accidentally misrepresenting Charles and Craig by summarizing their presentations, so I will focus on what I presented, followed by a response to criticisms voiced at the session (but without identifying the speakers).
The criticisms that were politely and productively offered, were welcome: even though my extended paper on the topic, which prompted this session (see “Canadian Anthropology or Cultural Imperialism?”), has been read in whole or in part by over a thousand individuals thus far, commentary has been sparse at best. Now was my chance to hear back from people, and I should have anticipated some of the reactions—but more on that below. First, let me start with a summary of my presentation.
Academic Imperialism in Canada
“World Anthropology Day”—I opened by asking those gathered if they had recovered from the massive celebrations of “World Anthropology Day”. In response to the chuckles, I asked if they recalled the date of the event. Few seemed to be aware even of the existence of this day. Not one person knew the date. The reason for that is partly due to the fact that it was unilaterally proclaimed, for the whole world, by the American Anthropological Association. Here again was “American Anthropology” speaking for all anthropology, around the world, such that it arrogated to itself the authority and right to proclaim such a day, without our knowledge, consent, or participation. Here the behaviour of US anthropology was not that much different from that of the US State Department. The “world anthropologies” group offers little relief from this pattern—primarily US-based and US-trained academics, operating primarily under the umbrella of the AAA. The point here was to raise a series of related questions:
- Where does “Canadian anthropology” stand in relation to “world anthropology”?
- Is there a Canadian anthropology or is it just anthropology in Canada?
- If it is “anthropology in Canada,” then this suggests that anthropology here is an import. From where has it been imported?
- If what we are doing is primarily US anthropology, then what are we importing when we do US anthropology in Canada?
I noted that in the Canadian case, we are not dealing with one of the Rockefeller anthropologies that was set up in different parts of the world by different arms of the Rockefeller family of philanthropic organizations—but it is still primarily a US import, and secondarily British. In being a US import, however, we are also indirectly importing the influence of Rockefeller which shaped US anthropology and made it possible as an institutional entity and professional activity.
We “do” US anthropology in Canada and fuel US academic hegemony more generally, by a variety of routes. These include the following:
- Canadian students doing their graduate training in the US, in part to increase their chances of getting hired by universities back in Canada;
- Hiring US academics for jobs in Canadian universities;
- Lowering the prestige value or academic capital of Canadian university graduates, especially when not from the brand-name big three (Toronto, McGill, UBC) which are in turn the three most Americanized universities in Canada;
- Importing US textbooks, and using them as assigned readings in courses—the same applies to using articles in US journals with titles such as the “American Anthropologist” or the “American Ethnologist”;
- Financing US-based academic publishers, by importing their texts or adopting course materials produced by their Canadian subsidiaries;
- Using the code of ethics of the American Anthropological Association, divorced from the context of its particular historical development, when Canadian academia as a whole has its own code of ethics;
- Importing US academics to deliver keynote and other special addresses in Canada, as if signifying that we are to learn from “the masters” who will do our thinking and speaking for us; and,
- US academic associations holding their conferences in Canada, and thus directly competing with their Canadian counterparts (where Canadians will divert their limited funds to pay for registration fees and membership dues to the meetings that carry the higher level of academic capital).
From reflecting on these questions, I was led to deeper epistemological and methodological problems stemming from US dominance. For example, on these questions:
- What is an anthropological problem?
- What is an anthropological question?
- What makes a research method, or theory, anthropological?
There is nothing inherent to a question, a problem, or a method that makes it “anthropological,” I argued. The problems are assigned by the social context, and by leading political and economic power brokers. The history of US anthropology is a history of vested interests.
One can go as far as speaking of a “presidential history” in US anthropology (we have nothing that comes close to this in Canada)—and here the material presented in the extended paper, based primarily on the work of Thomas Patterson, is relevant. The nature-culture debate, of such long standing in US anthropology, first emerged from the US quest for funds in international capital markets shortly after winning independence from the UK. Salvage ethnography—not the phrase but certainly the very detailed description of the program, and its actual practice, emerged a century before Franz Boas, from Thomas Jefferson and then other US presidents. Linguistic studies of American Indian languages—recording, preserving, classifying, and charting affinities between language groups, while theorizing on their common origins—was pushed by George Washington and John Adams. US presidents and the Congress also impelled the study of Indigenous ruins, especially focused on the mound builders. Race and its relationship to illness was a subject of interest to insurance companies, which commissioned some of the earliest studies. Thus between capitalists and US presidents, the so-called four-field approach was established well before an institutionalized version of US anthropology emerged, and which—as if out of nowhere—had this baggage of paradigms, problems, and methods.
If there was a degree of individual “genius” among anthropologists, it was in at least intuitively recognizing, then formally synthesizing, and selling back that which the society had given to them in the first place. But then here we might also have a valuable clue as to how other national anthropologies are formed, or can be formed, and it is by being rooted in and engaged with the social, political, and economic problems that constitute the immediate environment in which practitioners live.
Hence the origins of “the anthropological problem” and “the anthropological question” in the US, whose bases lie in domestic social engineering (Indian assimilation, immigration, racialized minorities post-slavery, etc.), foreign policy (US expansion in the Americas and the Pacific), and international political economy (the quest for markets and capital).
Imperialism as a theoretical framework seems like the most logical approach to explaining US power in academia, and explaining the roles, behaviours and functions of various actors and institutions. I indicated, following Oliver Boyd-Barrett, that we can see imperialism working on three levels:
- Academic agents and institutions working as imperial actors in their own right, with imperial interests and behaviour, of their own: here we can speak of the hegemonic practices of the AAA, its mobile conferences and quest for international membership, extending its role recently into the arena of international political adjudication by calling for a boycott of Israel’s universities and condemning the role of anthropology in that nation;
- Furthering imperial interests of a specific state, namely the US: here we speak of the role of US anthropology in espionage and counterinsurgency; and,
- That it can be shaped by imperial processes: thus the questions, methods, bureaucracy, and funding of the discipline are derivative of the imperial projects of the state.
Using this approach, and following Johan Galtung, I suggested that we see the university as the highest form of cultural imperialism.
The linkages between academic capital and financial capital are of particular interest to me. Here I explained that Canada can be seen as a market for US anthropology, in these senses, as a:
- provider of raw materials (ethnographic opportunities);
- provider of consumers (audiences, book buyers, students);
- provider of employment opportunities; and,
- importer and retailer of US anthropology (with Canadian academics serving as sales staff), with capital exported back to the US, and academic capital accruing to US institutions and agents.
I argued that a “triangle of conformism” on our part, as Canadian academics, sustained this system. Spectate, replicate, and subordinate: these are the three points of the triangle, which essentially involve reducing anthropology in Canada to a secondary and derivative role. Such a triangle guarantees the outflow of all forms of capital, academic and financial, and is ultimately a detriment to the Canadian nation-state, and performs a disservice to the Canadian students which it graduates.
Attempts to cover for US imperialism, by referring instead to unmarked forms of a generic neoliberalism that seemingly goes everywhere but comes out of nowhere, is unsatisfactory. I argued that the neoliberal model at work in the corporatization of the Canadian university is one that is ideally suited to Americanization. The neoliberal model blows open the university gates for Americanization by, among other things,
- importing “first class” academics and “top-notch” administrators to occupy key strategic positions in the university—with the implicit assumption being that they inherently know best how to master the model of the masters; and,
- Impact scores, citation indices, rankings—these emphasize following “best practices” and the best practices are always those of elite US institutions and publishers. It also means publishing in US journals, which are themselves nationalistic enough in many cases in preserving “American” as the first word in their titles.
Signalling the possible, if not increasingly likely end to NAFTA, I argued that as Canadian academics we should prepare for a post-NAFTA anthropology, or aggravate Canadian subordination and export of capital when we will be at our weakest. This then led to a discussion of possible solutions.
Here I indicated that there are two different kinds of problems and solutions: epistemic ones and political-economic ones.
With respect to epistemology, and methodology, I asked that we question our current methods; re-examine our theoretical heritage; and, redefine our disciplinary boundaries. Here I mentioned that ethnographic research overseas—while not to be discouraged—should not be our primary emphasis. I argued that we turn our attention to Canadian issues and problems, in reworking anthropology. In terms of decolonization—an area which I left to Craig Proulx, whose presentation was amazing—I hinted that a decolonized Canadian anthropology might be one that does away with the nature-culture dichotomy, which would already transform it thoroughly, and even question if not reject the human-animal hierarchy that is central to the anthropocentric Judeo-Christian tradition in anthropology. Finally, in admittedly opaque terms—because this is still new to me, and I am just at the start, as I said—I suggested that in developing a Canadian anthropology we might need to reencounter Canada, re-immerse ourselves in it, return to its diverse histories and traditions for inspiration, in developing something that might resemble a Canadian epistemology.
However, as I also said, I felt more confident when speaking of political-economic solutions. Some of the solutions here are rather obvious, as they involve a reversal of the problem—for example, emphasizing the hiring of Canadian citizens and those with Canadian PhDs, the first of these being an actual requirement under the law. That universities work around the law so often should have at least prompted a high-level federal investigation, except that the elites obviously favour such exemptions for a certain class of workers and the law functions more as lip service.
In terms of our existing organization, CASCA, it could take a more active and expanded role:
- By finally creating a directory of anthropologists working in Canadian universities.
- By creating a database of research done by anthropologists in Canada, so that it becomes easier for each of us to discover who else in the country is writing or teaching about particular topics.
- Transforming CASCA into a teaching hub, where course syllabi are archived.
- Expanding CASCA publishing into books, especially course texts, would work to stem the outward flow of capital.
- As more capital is redirected towards an expanded CASCA, it might then become an autonomous provider of research grants.
- Establishing CASCA research groups, to facilitate regular communication and exchange, and open the door to collaboration in research, teaching, and publishing.
Both at the session at which this was presented, and privately by email, various CASCA officers have claimed that they are working on some of these ideas (a directory of members, gathering course syllabi, and a supposed task force on Canadian anthropology)—but we need to see results. For too long CASCA has merely been a convener of conferences and home to a journal and newsletter. It has a particularly weak presence online, and its system of having a president serve for one year, without a permanent secretariat, is a hindrance to serious, sustained development.
While reversing the flow of capital drainage is one element of the strategy, demonstrating independence from the US, and reducing the prestige of US anthropology, is something that is to be encouraged and we can lead by example. For example, some of us have refused to publish in US journals, review US grant applications, or even travel to the US. “Life after the USA is quite possible,” I stated at the gathering. CASCA, for its part, could stop the practice of importing keynote speakers and plenary participants, and have Canadians only perform in such roles. CASCA could also stop the practice of being used as a cover for US organizations to expand their presence and recruitment in Canada.
Finally, I closed by recognizing that none of this can be imposed or commanded: academic freedom limits what can be done. I explained that it was not a matter of keeping colleagues under surveillance, shaming those who went against what was suggested above, or trying to intimidate and brow-beat colleagues. The primary emphasis was on making the US route less attractive, and to be more loyal to the students we supervise and graduate at the PhD level in Canada—that we do not knowingly exploit PhD students to enhance our CVs, and then wave them off to unemployment, or to wandering as servile adjuncts in their own country as jobs go to US applicants when we turn our attention to hiring.
Responses to Critics
There definitely was some resistance to one or a number of the points raised above, and I would say that the critical responses outweighed those in agreement, and those who remained silent were probably the majority of those in the room. I had no chance to respond to any of the statements in person, given the time limits and the priority given to allowing as many people as possible a chance to speak, which is why I chose to write instead. I am paraphrasing and organizing some of the main responses under the following headings:
Nationalism is Reactionary
One of the repeated points is that if what was being proposed was a “nationalist” solution, then that would be “troubling” because it implies a reactionary politics that is anti-immigrant. Others added that nationalism implied right-wing politics, and were critical of how the left in North America had abandoned issues of local employment to the right. Some said they were proud that anthropology in Canada had been “open to the world”.
Why should one’s first interpretation of nationalism be that it is reactionary? Have we not learned, as anthropologists, of the variety and differences of historical nationalisms that have developed in different parts of the world, at different times, and in response to different conditions? What justifies such a reductionist and essentialist treatment of “nationalism,” in the singular to boot?
This is a big problem for Canadian anthropologists, many of whom either support or tolerate calls for national self-determination from Aboriginals, or who may try to not simply denounce Quebecois nationalism. Indeed, Canada is home to many nationalisms. Furthermore, nationalism has been both defensive and liberatory, as a fundamental part of numerous anti-colonial liberation movements across Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific. Preaching “decoloniality” and anti-nationalism at one and the same time, as some do, means speaking with a forked tongue.
The outright rejection of nationalism means making enemies between anthropology and many of the people we write and teach about (and to) in Canada. In addition, the rejection of nationalism means one is reinforcing, abiding by, and legitimating the marginalization of Canadian PhDs who may be discriminated against when compared to job applicants from the US. Is that better? It strikes me as the cosmopolitanism of suckers. If this is the system we want to reproduce, then at least for ethical reasons post prominent warning labels on anthropology for our students.
My suspicion is that the reason there was a “nationalism is reactionary” response is the added impetus given to this idea by perceptions of the electoral campaign of Donald Trump, currently underway. Yet, it is an ironic stance of rejection, that serves to further advance Trump’s program. When others build walls and close behind “America First,” while we remain “open,” then that means we lay ourselves open to those who will aggressively privilege US interests more than ever, while we politely decline to protect the interests of Canadians out of misplaced and unrequited cosmopolitan sentiments. Open—closed as the two end points of a relationship, means a relationship of inequality. So if the response to “America First” means more openness on our part, we will in fact be aggravating the outflow of capital, increasing our dependence, and thus helping Trump to materially achieve the results of an “America First” strategy—not too smart of us.
But then again, we are not too smart apparently. After all, Canada is a country whose government signs us onto free trade deals with the European Union, with the obvious admission that there will be no benefits to Canadians. Indeed, Canadian taxpayers will be required to pay billions of dollars in compensation to those sectors of the economy that will lose the most from the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). By definition, it should be understood that if compensation is required by a trade deal, it means loss, and harm–i.e. not a good deal for Canadians. Not only that, but rather than importing what Canada does not and cannot produce, we will instead be importing what we already excel in producing and in great quantity—dairy products. We have no shortage of milk, cheese, and butter, and thus there is no objective need to import such items—instead, CETA will do just that, and threaten to undermine and possibly extinguish our domestic industry. What kind of government does such a thing to its own people? Clearly, not a nationalist one. Now you can argue with me about how nationalism is “reactionary,” and how globalization is instead “progressive”.
On the other hand, it is not as if what is being advocated here is a return to “Canada First” (which preceded “America First”). By some definitions of “reactionary,” Canada First might have been exactly that, and not anti-imperialist either.
The basic question remains: if Canadians will not look out for the interests of Canadians, then who will? UNICEF perhaps?
What US imperialism?
A couple of respondents at least seemed to question whether we could speak of imperialism, despite (or in spite perhaps) of what was presented above. One said plainly: “imperialism, I don’t see that too much,” emphasizing that anthropology in Canada has been “open” and “welcoming”. Another statement was that anthropology has been shaped by the people we study. Yet another suggested that instead of US or UK dominance—since not all US or UK universities are respected or known about here as leaders—that we should instead talk about an “international economy of elite institutions”.
The counterpoints raised here were interesting, but I think they are just as problematic. First, I am not swayed by any anthropologist in North America who says they do not “see imperialism too much,” because it is precisely imperialism that has been restricted and excluded from anthropological analysis, as I showed in my extended paper. So of course they would not “see” imperialism—that’s exactly what they were trained not to see. To make matters worse, it is mostly thanks to the influence of US anthropology that the tracks of US imperialism have been covered up.
As for being “open” and “welcoming”—it’s not a matter of being open and welcoming to all: we simply have not been. The complaint is not that we have too many professors from India, from across Africa and Latin America. We have been exclusively, selectively, and preferentially open to US and UK PhDs, that is the point—and masking this as cosmopolitanism is to engage in misdirection. Likewise, being against this system of privileging US and UK applicants is not being “anti-immigrant” as such, as much as it is resistance against hegemonic dominance. Without a policy of such resistance, we effectively become advocates for colonialism. (However, I confess that I may have unnecessarily irked some of those attending by flatly calling McGill University “a US colony, a bridgehead”.)
The question of how anthropology has been shaped by those we study is an interesting one, but here I confess that now I am the one who does not “see that too much”. After all, we emphasize both emic and etic principles. Our theories are those fashioned by Euro-American elites. While we must have been influenced in diverse ways, consciously or not, by those we study, it would seem like this argument attempts to make far too quick an escape both from decolonization and anti-imperialism, by arguing in advance that neither is possible because they are just not relevant.
Finally, while I can see the merits of speaking of an “international economy of elite institutions,” I do not understand whose feelings we are worried about hurting in naming things as they are. It may be that not all US and UK universities are elite institutions; however, all of the institutions treated as elite in Canada, are US and UK universities. If anthropologists really think that geography, history, and names do not matter, then they can stop doing ethnography because it means they really do not believe in it.
What is Canadian?
Put briefly, the basic point made here is that it is not clear what it means to be “Canadian”. If “Canadian” has no meaningful content, then how can you have a Canadian epistemology?
I think the broader point is valid: this federally-invented identity—Canadian—really is problematic. The paradox is that this would make the point a valid part of developing a Canadian anthropology, as others have already recognized—the recognition that, unlike the US and the anthropology that emerged from it, Canada lacks a monolithic, unitary identity. Canadian anthropology would thus be a shorthand for the pursuit of many regional anthropologies. Some efforts toward this end seemed to take shape—with an association dedicated to Atlantic sociology and anthropology at one time, and one in Quebec that still exists.
However, one has to be careful not to tightly embrace this lack of a core identity. First, it suggests the impossibility of being cosmopolitan, because one approaches the world empty and with nothing to contribute, which if anything renders the cosmopolitan even more alien. Second, the announcement of Canadianness-as-nothingness simply underscores the problem of Canadian national identity, namely its diminished presence, and the failure of intellectuals in articulating the interests of the citizens they are meant to serve. The public intellectual in the public university can hardly be said to serve the public when that same intellectual declares that there is no real public out there.
As for the idea of a “Canadian epistemology,” the same observations could be made as above. There may not be a single one. Moreover, it may not even be originally Canadian, unless we are talking about Aboriginal epistemologies. On that, let me turn very briefly to the issue of decolonization.
Is Decolonization the Same as Anti-Imperialism?
What is the relationship between Indigenous decolonization and Canadian anti-imperialism?
For me one of the greatest oddities of living in the present is to face this sudden schism between decolonization and anti-imperialism, as if the two were ever separate in the first instance, during the wave of Third World independence movements as represented at the Bandung Conference. In fact, this “unnatural” separation strikes me as peculiarly North American, and more popular among those with a limited historical memory.
This gathering was a meeting of half-heads in some respects, and I mean no disrespect nor do I exclude myself. While we heard anti-nationalism in some comments, when speaking of Canada as a whole, we also heard support for national self-determination, but seemingly only if applied internally, to small Aboriginal bands. How Aboriginal national self-determination can be real, in a context of subordination to US-led neoliberal globalization, seems to be an unacknowledged contradiction. One can see this contradiction in actual practice. One example would be the general silence of the “decolonization” movement, of “Idle No More” and others, on matters of Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Libya. Indeed, some Aboriginal voices even tacitly support such interventions, on the grounds that their sons have taken up the path of the warrior and sustain Indigenous traditions by contemporary means: joining the US Marines. Another example of this unresolved contradiction is represented by those who simultaneously support principles of open borders (“No One is Illegal”) while denouncing Canada as a Settler State and calling for the return of lands to their original Aboriginal owners. If you recognize and support that the land belongs to Aboriginal Peoples, then what are you doing calling for more settlers? Do these people ever explain themselves?
CASCA and US Anthropology Conferences in Canada
A final note concerns something that happened at the same time as the CASCA conference, and that was the circulation of the President’s annual report. Here I want to just reproduce a passage from it, and no further comment from me is necessary at this point:
“One of the challenges faced by the executive in the early months of this term was the SfAA’s [Society for Applied Anthropology, a US organization] decision to hold their annual meeting in Vancouver. We were somewhat caught in a bind, to do nothing would have effaced CASCA, while participating could undermine our own conference. It was decided that doing nothing would be the worst option and it was decided that CASCA would be a ‘co-sponsor’ to participate, but more importantly to enter into a dialogue with the SfAA to explain why having large international, notably American, associations come to our large cities for their conferences has an impact on our association and our membership. We are open to partnerships, we are open to joint conferences, all that we ask is that we be treated as equal partners and given some advance warning. We must continue to reiterate that CASCA plays an important role for all anthropologists in Canada, even if they are not members. Our focus is working for our peers whether working in academia or practicing the discipline in larger society. We push to promote and encourage the development of the discipline across the country. Also, one point we tried to drive home with the SfAA and at the SfAA is that there is truly a Canadian tradition in applied anthropology, both in English and French, whereby the Canadian discipline is concerned with applied anthropology and ensuring that applied anthropology cuts across the sub-disciplines and that it is fundamental to all of the discipline, even those who do not normally label themselves as applied. The communities in which anthropologists live, notably those in smaller cities and centers, call upon researchers and scholars to work to meet their needs as full partners. I believe that applied anthropology—directly and indirectly—shapes Canadian anthropologists even those who would not call themselves such. I am very thankful to Jim Waldram for his tireless work in ensuring that CASCA and Canadian anthropology had a voice at the SfAA meeting….As for 2019, a joint conference with the American Anthropological Association is planned for the fall of that year in Vancouver”. (pps. 2, 4)