A Fathers’ Day Reading List for the New Year

When my own sons were young my partner gave me a copy of Patrimony by Philip Roth for father’s day. A little while later I came across an unexpected book by ecological anthropologist Ben Orlove, In my Father’s Study. These are books that have stayed with me.

The first is a tale of a son’s journey with a father at the end of his life.

The second is a story of a son coming to learn about his father, to come to an adult appreciation of him, after the father’s death.  It’s a touching memoire.  I’ve used it a few times in my teaching but my 20/30-something students respond to it rather differently than I. For them it is simply one more book on a reading list while for me it led me to think about my life as a father and as a son.

I’ve spent a great many hours with my own father. As a child following him around as he worked on his fishing boat. As a young adult working with him on the same boat. And later in life visiting with him, keeping each other company sometimes talking about the past, often about his health, and occasionally about my own work. Coming across Orlove’s book, almost by accident, has led me to gather over the decades an eclectic little library of books reflecting upon fathers and sons. Here, in sense of order, is a selection of my favourites.

  • In My Father’s Study. Ben Orlove. U.Iowa Press. 1995
  • A Life in the Bush: lessons from my father. Roy MacGregor. Viking, 1999. A loving tale of a northern Ontario father by one of Canada’s favourite journalists.
  • Waterline: of fathers, sons, and boats. Joe Soucheray. David R.  Godin, Publisher. 1996(1989). A memoire about restoring a boat, but its far more than that.
  • For Joshua. Richard Wagamese. Anchor Canada. 2003(2002).
  • To See Every Bird on Earth: a father, a son, a lifelong obsession. Dan Koeppel. Plume. 2006.
  • Lost in America. Sherwin Nuland. Vintage. 2004.
  • Patrimony. Phillip Roth. Touchstone. 2001.
  • My Father’s Wars. Alisse Waterston. 2013.
  • Fatherless. Keith Maillard. 2019.

There are more – but this is more than enough for a start.



Friends, Research, and Misunderstandings

One of the things about being a public anthropologist, a professional actively engaged in public issues, is that people will at times misunderstand what I have said (usually by mistake, but occasionally deliberately). Normally that is okay. But some things are potentially damaging and hurtful.

Many years ago I was at a research workshop on fisheries and the organizers had representatives to speak from all sectors but First Nations. That’s a long story in and of itself, suffice to say I was annoyed. I wrote a position paper on the spot and latter revised it to a full length paper.

In that paper I mentioned the fact that anthropological fieldwork is based upon friend-like relations. I went on to comment that many anthropologists go on to form life long friendships with the people we have lived with and written about. But that wasn’t the focus of the paper and I went on to pick up the main themes leaving behind my reflections on friendship. But it is this thread that has been misunderstood and misrepresented.  

I have continued to tell students in my teaching that anthropology is based on friend-like relations. AND because of this one needs to be especially careful about ethical considerations. When anthropologists (students or professionals) come from privileged wealthy backgrounds and have been accustomed to getting their own way they may well misunderstand and take advantage of how people they have come to visit might respond to them. The student, especially, arrives into a situation that is temporary and ephemeral. They are in part more cultural tourist than ally (though most take on the role of ally).

I also talk about the importance of performatively marking out when one is being a researcher. I suspect this is a complicated idea. I mean, how can I mark off that moment when I am Charles the researcher from Charlie the cousin and friend? Ultimately they are the same person. My point is that given the friend-like relationship upon which anthropology is based one must be very clear about when one is actively collecting information – one needs to mark off these boundaries clearly and obviously. There are many areas wherein one can slip up. My good friend and colleague Caroline Butler and I have recently written a paper about this very issue using our personal research histories and our personal identities to understand and explain it.

I often caution students that they should not take advantage of their privilege and the friend-like relationships that lie at the base of anthropological research. In places where I am a member, like my home nation of Gitxaala, I am especially concerned about students who may prey upon the good nature of others. So much so that I no longer organize so-called field schools, but instead arrange research internships that are directly under Gitxaala’s control. This setup leaves no ambiguity in anyone’s mind as to who is in control (Gitxaala Nation), who owns the data (Gitxaala Nation) and who decides what can be published and when (Gitxaala Nation).

Despite one’s good intentions one can not control how others hear oneself. It saddens the heart to learn that someone may have misunderstood the idea of friend-like relations so grievously incorrectly as to think they were being told they couldn’t make friends. I feel even worse to think that someone may have understood that the idea of friend-like relations was being advocated to trick others into revealing deep rooted secrets in order to build a professional career. Such characterizations are misunderstandings of an analogy used to explain something.  “Friend-like relationships” are none of those things.

Anthropological research is built upon friend-like relationships. This is our strength and our weakness. We make friends because we care about the people we get to know over the years, if not decades of close association. When we are also insider researchers, like I am, it is even more the case since we are writing not only about our friends, but also about our families. This is a special responsibility that as an insider anthropologist we take on. We care about family, friends, and home in a way that no outsider, however well intentioned can do.

I grew up on the north coast of BC and have been privileged to continue to work along the coast in my home, with friends and families. It is a pleasure to write about my experiences and to reflect upon what I have learned through nearly six decades of life. Any sadness that accumulates along the way is cleansed in the certainty that I have a place to call home and that I know who my grandfathers are. It roots me to a deep history and a powerful future.


Family as a Site of Reproduction

[These notes connect with the lecture on Kinship and Family – audio notes]

Families can be described as “sites of reproduction”  – this can be the case in two senses:  People as individuals and people as future labour power.

Families, loosely defined (often times in anthropology we will say household – the group that is co-resident and share productive and consumptive activities) are the social institutions that typically produce people. Families tend to be the foundational unit of society that contributes toward the socialization of children and youth and acts as a primary site for the construction of social identity.

A lot of family studies -even anthropological research- examines the nature and structure of families as a way to understand what makes particular individuals the way they are. Educational studies of student success very often highlight family structure as being strongly correlated with student achievement.  Not surprisingly the so-called white middle class family – two parents, two or three children, parents educated in some manner beyond high school- tends to produce higher rates of educational attainment in children.  There is a problem, however, with such a limited approach.  This is an example of a type of study that doesn’t place the object of study within the wider dynamics of structural power, but simply looks at the organizational power within the family unit.

Two basic critiques can be offered:

  1. Educational success is predefined in such a manner, located within a particular cultural understanding of what success is, as to be in some sense a self-fulfilling prophecy
  2. Empirical evidence shows other factors play as strong, if not stronger, a role in shaping education outcomes than family structure alone.  For example, research at UBC in the Faculty of Education has shown that rather than family structure, household income is a far better indicator of educational success than any other factor.  Using real estate appraisals one group of researchers has shown that the higher the house values the higher the likelihood of the household’s children going on to post secondary education.

What we can see here is that while the structure of a family may have some bearing on outcomes for children, the structure itself is neither the causal factor nor the only one that has a role to play.  We need to take into account the wider ideas of “structural power” that Eric Wolf describes.  We need to locate families within wider processes of society to understand what is actually happening.

So here we see that simply looking at the family as a unit the produces individuals misses a significant part of the overall picture.  This takes us to the second aspect of reproduction – the reproduction of labour power that occurs within the family.

In the late 1960s a group of theorists, around a political campaign called “Wages for Housework” argued that the primarily female labour used to maintain the home and to raise children was actually a benefit being transferred to the capitalist system itself. Their argument went as follows:  women cook, clean, parent, manage the household, provide services for their partners.  All these activities can be costed in the larger labour market.  If their partners, or the firms that employed their partners, were to pay for these services it would result in a sizable amount of money.

This argument was also relied upon a conception of the role of patriarchy, a gender ideology that places domestic power and authority into male hands, in shaping domestic relations.  Their point was not that capitalism requires women’s unpaid labour in the home, but rather that capitalism as an economic system was able to adapt and deploy women’s unpaid labour in the home as a benefit to the accumulation of profits by reducing the amount of money businesses would have to pay their employees.  Thus, a pre-existing patriarchal gender ideology (that disadvantaged women) was deployed by capitalism to transfer the responsibility for the maintenance of labour power and the reproduction of future labour power from capital to individual women doing unpaid labour in the home.

Privatized care of children in the home – that is raising children as a ‘choice’ and without significant societal support, is also a cost transfer from capital to individual families.  That is, the costs of producing, raising, and preparing future labour power are transferred primarily to the domestic unit.  This is a critical point as it shapes public debates about childcare and education. The dominant ideology places raising children into a private domain of individual choice and responsibility.  Yet, from an empirical sense, capital saves money by transferring as much of the cost of raising and educating children as it can into families. Thus, the countervailing or more balanced argument tends to highlight the overall societal benefit that families provide by raising children and sees the provision of childcare services (either through socialized daycare or parental release with pay) as a society obligation rather than as an individual responsibility.

So, by maintaining women’s labour in the home as unpaid, by transferring the cost of the reproduction of labour power into the home, and by highlighting ideologies of individual responsibility above collective obligations the structural power of social class reproduces a wide range of social inequalities.  Keep in mind that the wealthier members of society can purchase labour power to replace their own personal labour in the home.  So, for the wealthy, the privatization of labour within the family does not directly affect them, or at least it affects them in a quantitatively and qualitatively different manner than working class or poorer families.  The end result becomes a transferring of critical aspects of societal responsibilities onto the backs of those least able to pay and then telling them that it’s their fault.

A rather back to front situation if ever there was one.