Anthropology must be protected

Indigenous studies program can be developed without sacrificing anthropology department

A proposal to close the anthropology department and eliminate anthropology programs at Mount Allison is now under consideration by the University. Budgetary considerations are clearly an important factor. Another suggestion is that the termination of the anthropology department could enable development of Indigenous studies at Mt. A. However, we believe the situation is more complex because the loss of anthropology will weaken efforts to advance Indigenous studies and cause lasting damage to the larger academic mission of the University.

Interdisciplinary academic programs are flourishing at Mt. A and both of us champion interdisciplinary teaching and learning – one of us (Walters) has long served as the coordinator of such a program (environmental studies) and the other (Murphy) was the course intern for the pilot introductory Indigenous studies course. We thus wholeheartedly support the development of an interdisciplinary program in Indigenous studies. However, we also believe that suggesting the development of a new interdisciplinary program in Indigenous studies at the deliberate expense of a core discipline like anthropology is academically reckless and harmful to students’ overall cultural competence.

Indigenous content is central to several courses that have been offered by the anthropology department over the years. Professors have encouraged students to take on research projects that cover topics ranging from Indigenous medicines to relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. While Indigenous studies do figure prominently, the scope of anthropology’s subject matter encompasses infinite linguistic, cultural, physical and archeological investigations. In short, anthropology is a foundational, scholarly discipline that seeks to understand humanity, its diversity and its origins. More than any of the other social sciences, anthropology is committed to field-based research of people, cultures and societies in every part of the world.

The suspension of enrolment to the anthropology program was announced in January 2017. It has been suggested that cutting the department would make room for an Indigenous studies program. Casey Doucet/Submitted

In fact, many of the world’s current, pressing challenges are linked to issues that have long been of central concern to anthropology, including issues of social and economic marginalization and injustice, cultural adaptation and conflict, and human-environment relationships. Students are aware of these persistent problems and thus it should come as no surprise that the demand for anthropology courses at Mt. A remains strong. Among Mt. A’s smaller departments, anthropology held 25 majors in the 2016 academic year, contrasted with only 13 in religion, 18 in classics and 20 in philosophy. In its prime in 2011 with four faculty members, the anthropology department held 35 majors, while the largest that any of the other small departments has had since 2010 is philosophy with 24 majors. Additionally, Mt. A’s most recent Rhodes Scholar was an anthropology graduate.

The department of history was not closed down to make way for Canadian studies. International relations did not displace political science. Women’s and gender studies did not spell the end of sociology. Geography was not tossed aside to create space for environmental studies and environmental science. Neither chemistry nor biology were terminated so that biochemistry could live on. To the contrary, these various interdisciplinary programs were created and now thrive precisely because they draw from the strong foundations established in core academic departments and programs. These programs now enrich the departments from which they grew. Given this institutional precedent, does the University now feel a need to view the future of the anthropology and Indigenous studies departments any differently?

We see a solution to this complex problem. We see a superb platform off of which the University can revitalize anthropology and develop a new program in Indigenous studies. We must acknowledge the obvious synergies and necessary divergences between anthropology and Indigenous studies and work toward two programs that can work in tandem like so many of the interdisciplinary programs that already thrive at Mt. A. We need to reframe this conversation with a positive vision for both anthropology and Indigenous studies at Mt. A.

Brad Walters is a professor of geography and environment and coordinator of environmental studies.

Sarah Murphy is a recent graduate (’17) of honours anthropology.

Sarah Murphy