1869 Fascinating life, flawed memoir

You Have Been Referred: My Life in Applied Anthropology
by Michael Robinson

Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2021
$21.95  /  9781988440705

Reviewed by Kirsten Bell


Many of my anthropological brethren jealously guard the boundaries of the discipline. Although there is no formal registration process for anthropologists, the standard view within most professional associations is that a graduate degree in the field is required before one can claim the title.[1] As someone of the view that formal credentials are often trumped by experience, imagine my surprise when such snobbery immediately reared its head when I began reading You Have Been Referred by Michael Robinson.

Because Robinson describes himself as an applied anthropologist, I kept wondering whether he had anything beyond an undergraduate degree in anthropology to back up the claim. However, for a former Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Robinson is remarkably restrained in discussing his academic training,[2] choosing instead to focus more on personally rather than professionally formative experiences. Thus, I’m not proud of this, but ‘What are your qualifications, man?’ was my constant refrain for the first quarter of the book, before I realized that it didn’t matter because Robinson very clearly has an anthropologist’s eye (and, it must be said, writing style — more on that below).

I’d like to think that this obsession with Robinson’s credentials relates to my uncertainty about the purpose of the memoir and its intended audience, as opposed to sheer pettiness on my part. For me, the primary issue is the subtitle: ‘My Life in Applied Anthropology’, which sets up expectations about the book’s subject matter. I was anticipating some reflections on the nature of the field — or, at least, a basic definition of it. But Robinson, who I think we’ve already established is a better person than me, takes it for granted that the reader knows what anthropology is, thus demonstrating that he has far more respect for the average reader’s intelligence.[3]

My sense is that he found ‘applied anthropology’ to be a useful framing device for what has been a remarkably rich and varied career — as a tour guide in the Pacific Northwest, an environmental and social governance officer for oil and gas companies in Alberta, an executive director of an Arctic research institute with projects in the Soviet Union (Robinson has met Mikhael Gorbachev, and has the pictures to prove it!), CEO of Glenbow Museum in Calgary and the Bill Reid Art Gallery in Vancouver, and a Liberal party candidate. As the book’s summary makes clear, all of Robinson’s jobs have “depended on cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity”.

But these points are not explicitly developed in the book itself, which is primarily a collection of stories that are taken from key events in Robinson’s life and career, rather than a memoir per se. There’s no major narrative arc, and the book doesn’t close with any explicit revelations or insights in the ‘Things I Have Learned About Life’ vein. While in some respects this is a refreshing approach to the genre, it places an awful lot of weight on the strength of the stories themselves — and the quality of the writing — to keep the reader engaged. And here is where I found myself struggling (once, obviously, I got over myself).

Michael Robinson. Photo courtesy Powell River Peak

Although roughly chronological in order, the stories Robinson tells across the 35 chapters of the book are somewhat inconsistent in both content and quality. Some chapters are discrete stories; others must be read in concert; others still come across as short musings that don’t seem to have a point; and others are jarringly disconnected. For example, one chapter ends with the implication of a burgeoning relationship with a woman named Susan, so it comes as something of a shock when the next chapter begins “Lynn and I were married in June 1977”.[4]

It would take a remarkably good writer to get away with this sort of rug pulling, narrative inconsistency and erratic pacing, but, unfortunately, this is where Robinson is at his most anthropological. Clearly, Robinson is a prolific journaler with a prodigious memory, but the sheer level of detail he provides — faithfully reproducing whole conversations, naming every single person present, even if entirely extraneous to the story at hand — means that stories often get bogged down in the kind of descriptive detail that one frequently sees in academic writing but that makes for extremely dry reading.

The fact is that the stories Robinson tells should be interesting.[5] He has lived a fascinating life and reveals himself throughout the book to be a thoughtful, intelligent and incisive observer. Moreover, littered throughout the book are intriguing insights: into racism and intercultural tensions in Canada, what glasnost and perestroika looked like on the ground in the Soviet Union, and the nuances of corporate culture — I particularly enjoyed his observations about the “contrived casual” appearance of Toronto suits visiting First Nations communities. I am therefore forced to conclude that the primary problem with the book is editorial. A good structural editor would have resolved many of these issues. (A better copy editor would not have gone amiss either.)

None of this is to suggest that the book’s deficiencies outweigh its merits. There are certainly payoffs for the reader — even those with the prejudices of an academic anthropologist. Readers with a particular interest in the geographic regions (primarily, British Columbia, Alberta and Northwest Russia), cultural contexts and time frames Robinson writes about will find much to like. Finally, if you’ve ever met Robinson, then you must buy this book, not only because it’s your moral obligation to purchase books written by people you know, [6] but because the chances are high that you are mentioned somewhere.

British anthropologist Kate Fox


[1] This is why Kate Fox is often not considered to be a ‘real’ anthropologist by academics, despite the extraordinary success of Watching the English. While probably a bit too much is made of the fact that her father is Robin Fox, a famous British anthropologist (if professions were transmitted through osmosis, I would be able to identify a schist at 100 paces, given that my father is a geologist, as are my spouse and siblings), Fox unquestionably has the experience to merit the title.

[2]  Having been an academic in the UK for the past five years, all I can say is that if someone has been to Oxford or Cambridge, you typically learn this in the first five minutes of meeting them, and you continue to be reminded of this fact for the duration of your acquaintance.

[3] Although in my defence, I have been asked more than once whether anthropology is the study of ants.

[4] Especially for those readers hoping for the titillating details of a juicy beach encounter; not (ahem) that I was one.

[5] I must confess that parts of the book brought to mind a quote from the literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt, who once said of anthropological writing, “How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books?”

[6] At least, that is my own firmly held view, albeit one sadly not shared by the many friends, family members and acquaintances who have not purchased my own book.


Kirsten Bell

Kirsten Bell is an Australian and Canadian anthropologist living in London (the one in England, not the one in Ontario). The author of numerous academic books and articles, her first venture into popular anthropology, Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour, was reviewed in The British Columbia Review by Tom Koppel. She also has a free Substack of the same name, where you will find her anthropological reflections on any number of mundane and inane topics.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

6 comments on “1869 Fascinating life, flawed memoir

  1. As a co-publisher of “Bayeux Arts”, all I can say to the reviewer is: “Thank you for an unabashedly transparent hatchet job on the book.” Her specific motives for this review are less transparent. It appears however that she is perhaps more adept as a psychiatrist than an anthropologist , and an ‘academic’ anthropologist at that.

    It’s a disgrace for the journal to entertain such reviews. Recommending that readers buy the book because their name might be in it is patently insulting to readers.

    1. Hi Ashis, My rule of thumb with reviewers’ comments, in my 12 years as a book review editor, is do they constitute fair and legitimate criticism? In this instance, entirely so. So I stand by Kirsten Bell’s review. Reputable book review journals should not publish promotional puff pieces. As for motives, I might add that Kirsten Bell has waived the honoraria for this and her other reviews for us. Thanks — Richard Mackie, Publisher, The British Columbia Review

  2. It would have been nice to talk with Kirsten before this piece was published. I have a graduate Diploma from the Oxford Faculty of Geography and Anthropology, am the 1998 recipient of the Prix Weaver- Tremblay Award (For exceptional contributions to Canadian applied anthropology) of the Canadian Anthropology Society, and the book clearly states the Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis organization of the memoir. Other academic reviewers have commented positively on this organizational technique. The final chapter of the book analyses the learnings of my career. And the book’s cover contains four supportive statements from Canadian authors, national Indigenous leaders and NGO senior management. All in all – I am not impressed.

    1. Hi Mike, A few points. I disagree that Kirsten Bell might have contacted you while working on her review of You Have Been Referred: My Life in Applied Anthropology. I know that this sometimes happens for various reasons, but it’s much better that authors and publishers stay right out of the book review process. Indeed a hands-off approach is the whole point. As book review editor, I invite reviewers to assess books in their area of expertise. It’s then up to the reviewer and her autonomous intellect to assess and judge the book for our readers. (In this case, incidentally, I purchased your book in a Powell River bookshop, and Kirsten chose to review it and another from a list of 14 titles I sent her; which suggests that book reviews, positive or not, don’t grow on trees). Also, it’s up to the author — and his editor and publisher — to ensure that the book contains sufficient context and background in the foreword, introduction, author’s bio, or in the body of the book itself for the reviewer to assess the book independently. Your credentials, e.g. a diploma from Oxford, while impressive, are also irrelevant to the job of the reviewer. Your defence that “Other academic reviewers have commented positively” and that “the book’s cover contains four supportive statements” is neither here nor there. What other people have said about the book can have no bearing on what our reviewer chooses to say. What we want in book reviews is not puffery, orthodoxy, or consensus, which can be found anywhere, but the reviewer’s individual and independent opinion and assessment. These Kirsten Bell has provided for the benefit of our readers and, I would add, for the book’s readers. With best wishes, Richard Mackie (Publisher, The BC Review).

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