The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






This is an edited and abridged combination of materials that appeared in several articles on this topic on Zero Anthropology.

“We are America; we are the indispensable nation.
We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
(Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, 1998)

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? Was US anthropology ever really imposed? Is there a Canadian epistemology? These are just some of the questions that tend to be downplayed or pushed to the side in the actual practice of anthropology in Canadian universities. An anthropological study of anthropology itself should instead bring these questions back to the foreground, and not treat them as taboo topics. In this analysis, “anthropology in Canada” is held as distinct from Canadian anthropology, the latter being the focus of another article on the ZAP site. The aim is to invite meditation on questions of national traditions; the power to globalize a claim to pre-eminence over other national traditions; the capital deployed in and acquired from academic-political conflict; and, questions of intellectual independence. The ultimate aim of this project is to renew discussion of what a Canadian anthropology would mean, born in the shadow of US cultural and academic imperialism.

What is Academic Imperialism?

The definition of academic imperialism used by the ZAP is one that comes from two different sources, and can be seen as a subset of cultural imperialism. One definition involves modifying Oliver Boyd-Barrett’s definition of media imperialism (2015, p. 1), by adapting it to academia. As a result, the definition would look something like the following:

(1) that processes of imperialism are in various senses executed and/or promoted by and through academic structures and knowledge production;

(2) that academic institutions and scholars, the meanings they produce and distribute and the political-economic processes that sustain them, are shaped by and through ongoing processes of empire building and maintenance, and they carry the residues of empires that once were; and,

(3) that there is academic behaviour that in and of itself and without reference to broader or more encompassing frameworks may be considered imperialistic.

In other words, academic work can function to serve actual imperialist projects; and/or academic work may structurally resemble imperialism; and/or, academic subject matter was itself either created or enabled by a history of imperialism.

Another, closely related approach came from Johan Galtung’s exposition of “scientific colonialism” (with a special focus on metropolitan anthropology—see Galtung, 1967), which then formed part of his “structural theory of imperialism” (Galtung, 1971), when he called it “scientific imperialism”. Scientific imperialism focus on the division of labour between “teachers” and “learners,” and in particular it focuses on the location of the (master) teachers and the (subservient) learners. As he explained: “If the Center always provides the teachers and the definition of that worthy of being taught (from the gospels of Christianity to the gospels of Technology), and the Periphery always provides the learners, then there is a pattern which smacks of imperialism” (Galtung, 1971, p. 93). What we have then is an approach similar to point #3 in the modified Boyd-Barrett definition above.

Subservience also plays a role in Galtung’s theory: “The satellite nation in the Periphery will also know that nothing flatters the Center quite so much as being encouraged to teach, and being seen as a model, and that the Periphery can get much in return from a humble, culture-seeking strategy” (1971, p. 93). Without the active collaboration of the importers of knowledge, the recipients of instruction from the masters in the metropolis, the system would not function. This is another critically important fact of academic imperialism: it is not simply imposed by force (outside of strictly colonial settings); rather, it is usually facilitated, encouraged, adopted, and its contents and methods are imitated.

Finally, completing the picture of academic imperialism, and with special reference to anthropology, Galtung examined metropolitan academia’s extraction of information from satellite nations, with all value-added occurring in the metropolis. The finished products—books, journals, and so forth—are then exported back, at higher cost, to the satellite nations from where the information was mined, and are used as teaching materials (1971, pp. 93–94).

In his earlier article, Galtung spoke of “scientific colonialism,” which he defined as follows:

“Scientific colonialism is that process whereby the centre of gravity for the acquisition of knowledge about the nation is located outside the nation itself. There are many ways in which this can happen. One is to claim the right of unlimited access to data from other countries. Another is to export data about the country to one’s own home country to have it processed there and turned out as ‘manufactured goods,’ as books and articles” (1967, p. 30).

Canadian Universities as Retail Outlets for the US

The “Americanist tradition” has been reproduced in Canada in terms of the structuring of the leading anthropology departments according to the US discipline’s four fields of archaeology, linguistic, cultural and biological/physical anthropology. This is the case with university departments that function as virtual outposts, or bridgeheads, of the US master discipline, particularly at the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia. Historically, the departments at these institutions, which garner the bulk of research funding in anthropology in Canada, were staffed by faculty trained at the elite US institutions—the Rockefeller “centers of excellence”. When they host conferences of the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA), it appears that to make it worth their while they inevitably feel the need to “partner” the meetings with those of a US counterpart, such as the American Ethnological Society (AES). Such institutions sometimes share staff with US associations, such as the case of Monica Heller at the University of Toronto who served as the president of the American Anthropological Association, with all of her degrees gained in the US. At McGill, fully 70% of the anthropology faculty obtained their PhDs in the US, and a number of them are US immigrants. At the University of Toronto, among its Graduate Faculty category in the Department of Anthropology, the proportion of US PhDs is 54%—lower than that at McGill, but also because they have tended to hire more British PhDs. At UBC, the proportion of US PhDs in the Department of Anthropology is 48%. It should be noted that other, more peripheral anthropology programs in Canada tend to be partnered with sociology and thus lack independent departmental status—there are at least 11 such joint Sociology-Anthropology departments in Canada, out of a total of 47 anthropology programs in Canada. (Statistics presented above were valid as of 2016.)

In Canada, academic employment announcements always carry the obligatory legal statement that Canadian citizens and Canadian permanent residents will be given preference in hiring. Within university administrations, there are procedures that must be followed for justifying a non-Canadian hire. Yet, somehow, we still have a large portion of US citizens hired by Canadian anthropology departments, especially in the large urban centres, not to mention university administrations staffed by US personnel—at the same time as we have a high rate of unemployment for Canadian PhDs. Our total number of universities for all of Canada (population 34 million in 2016) was 98—while California (population 38 million in 2016) alone had 157 universities. This is an unusual case of “reverse brain drain”—the “brains” flow from the metropolis to the satellite in this case, and occupy key positions to the exclusion of local “brains” that have no similar opportunities in the metropolis. While structurally unequal, Canada is somehow expected to serve as a safety valve for either rising academic unemployment in the US and/or a place of privileged exile for the politically discontented.

In 2011, the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) released a very important, even unprecedented, survey of anthropology in Canada—which I have digitized and made available online. In terms of the hiring of anthropologists with Canadian PhDs, the survey found that out of 306 respondents (this is roughly half the number of anthropology professors in Canada), 168 had earned their PhDs in Canada, while 138 had earned them abroad. This means that, overall, 54% of those interviewed had Canadian PhDs. Just over 25% had US PhDs, with the remainder representing PhDs obtained elsewhere. However, as we saw above, these proportions are not the same when we consider the leading, core anthropology departments in the major Canadian urban centres—responsible for teaching the majority of Canada’s anthropology undergraduates (4,000 such students exist in any given year, on average, for the first decade of the 2000s).

Notes on the “Sales Representative”

US symbolic dominion today does not come about as a result of a brute imposition, in most cases. Instead, US paradigms become locally dominant outside of the US, thanks to various “carriers” and their relations of dependency with the US, which retains the power to consecrate its local acolytes. Researchers in the dominated countries derive “material and symbolic profits…from a more or less assumed or ashamed adherence to the model derived from the USA” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 46). Here Bourdieu and Wacquant broach the subject of collaborating elites, the “mystified mystifiers”. One of the lessons taught by these carriers, is about how to consume the right knowledge.

In terms of the consumption of knowledge, most if not all Canadian anthropology programs essentially serve a retail function for US-produced and US-published anthropology, first and foremost. This ranges from the core texts that students are required to purchase, to journal articles assigned as readings, to documentary films purchased by libraries, and even the study of research ethics can borrow from the American Anthropological Association. To say that US anthropology in Canada is hegemonic is virtually an understatement. For the most part, Canadian anthropology is actually just anthropology in Canada, and most of that is US anthropology, and secondly British anthropology.

Lecturers in anthropology in Canada can be readily compared with the figures of the “sales representative,” or perhaps something akin to altar servers or what Bourdieu (1990, p. 116) referred to as “lectors”. The point is that the Canadian figure plays a supportive role, not normally a commanding one, regardless of how much that person has published on a given topic. Deference tends to follow in one direction primarily: away from Canada and toward the US. As sales reps for US anthropology, Canada-based academics seek out taxpayer-funded grants to host their US superiors, who are given pride of place as keynote speakers at Canadian conferences, as the feature attraction at plenary sessions, and are honoured as distinguished guest lecturers. There is very little reciprocity in return. The undeniable pattern of asymmetry is one that facilitates the extraction of capital (both academic and financial) away from Canada, while it is accumulated in the US. The more this happens, the more it commands itself as something that must be done, followed, obeyed, because that is somehow “the nature of the industry”.

The Methods of Mimesis

The question of how knowledge is produced in the case of anthropology in Canada takes us to a broader analysis. This question goes beyond the structure of the leading university departments of anthropology in Canada; the composition of staff in terms of their PhDs and the interlocked networks of connections those imply; and, the incessant partnering and correspondence with US programs. Focusing on socio-cultural anthropology, the dominant mode of producing knowledge in Canada is via ethnographic research done abroad, and secondarily among Indigenous communities at homes. Such anthropology takes its inspiration from two imperial tradition: one  stems from the US’ war and post-war paradigm (whereas in the 1800s and early 1900s, US anthropology was almost always done “at home,” and only expanded abroad as the US imperial state expanded militarily); and the other is the British colonial tradition. As a consequence, Canadian graduate students in anthropology may sometimes appear ambivalent, regretful, apologetic or even ashamed to admit that their graduate research “had to be” done in Canada (usually due to insufficient funding—thus unfairly shouldering personal blame for that too). The impact of following US methodology is that it commits Canadian students to the mission of scientific colonialism as originally defined by Galtung above.

How to Challenge Indispensable American Anthropology?

The situation affords us numerous options. However, what it does not afford is numerous persons with the willingness to choose those options. Lest anyone protest that we do not offer solutions, here are just some of the ways we could challenge the alleged indispensability of US anthropology in Canada—with more concrete solutions added in this article.

  1. We do not actually need to be members of the AAA, pay dues to that organization, and participate in its conferences. This world, and our own nation, is full of academic associations and conferences, there is no need to develop a fixation with one alone. If it is a matter of building your CV, then surely tenure should give you more reason to be confident about becoming less dependent.

  2. We should try as much as possible to use texts written by Canadian colleagues, especially those who are Canadian-trained, and in any case acquire texts from Canadian publishers. In addition, with the weakening of our currency due to periodic commodities crises, this dependency automatically increases costs shouldered by our students. In other words, we need to reduce if not eliminate our capital exporting function as retailers for the master discipline.

  3. We must critically question the application of US paradigms, and be wary of following all of the latest theoretical fads of US anthropology, by being less innocent about the powerful interests vested in shaping the directions of US anthropology, and the particular social dynamics at play in how various US cliques formulate solutions to what they consider problems.

  4. We should explore the possibilities for a long overdue construction of self-reliant national and regional anthropologies in Canada. Of course, we also need to consider a very basic question: why do we have or need an institutionalized anthropology in Canada? If the answer is, “because others have it,” then we are in serious trouble.

  5. We should resist attempts by the AAA to speak for us, and to use Canadian soil as if it was its own territory, let alone furnishing the AAA with its top-most bureaucratic personnel.

“Resource nationalism is readily applicable
to issues of academic power and academic capital”

We here in Canada might perhaps not recognize that we do indeed have capital—however, being drained of it almost immediately, we never get a chance to hold onto it long enough for it to feel like capital. Resource nationalism is nonetheless readily applicable to issues of academic power and academic capital, especially when the Canadian university is supposed to be a public university, mandated to serve the public interest—and that public is only and exclusively the population of Canadian citizens. While the nationalism of interest has been lacking for decades, the resources have not: they consist of empirical realities mined and materialized by others, as well as a large body of student learners, professional societies, publishers and publications, and universities themselves. If we had no such capital, we would not have US academics seeking and acquiring faculty and administrative positions. The nationalization of intellectual capital involves diminishing the role of Canadian academics (or academics in Canada) as the “salesmen” of empire, turning our universities into the retail outlets for the processed goods of the US.

[For more on this topic, read the background to the ZAP plus “Elements of Canadian Anthropology” and see the articles listed under Canadian Anthropology and Academic Imperialism.]


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1990). Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre, & Wacquant, Loic. (1999). “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. Theory, Culture & Society, 16(1), 41–58.

Boyd-Barrett, Oliver. (2015). Media Imperialism. London: Sage.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2016). “US Anthropology: Political, Professional, Personal, Imperial”. Zero Anthropology, January 7.

————— . (2016). “US Anthropology is Imperial, not Universal”. Zero Anthropology, January 14.

————— . (2016). “Canadian Anthropology or US Cultural Imperialism?”. Zero Anthropology, January 21.

————— . (2016). “Canadian Anthropology and Cultural Imperialism: Criticisms”. Zero Anthropology, May 19.

Galtung, Johan. (1967). “Scientific Colonialism”. Transition, 30(April-May), 10-15.

————— . (1971). “A Structural Theory of Imperialism”. Journal of Peace Research, 8(2), 81–117.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.