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In memoriam: Dr. Graham Watson (Professor Emeritus)


Photos courtesy Bruce Watson (left) and Dr. Doyle Hatt (Right). 

Monday, November 26, 2018

In memoriam: Professor Emeritus Dr. Graham Watson (Anthropology) passed away on November 9, 2018, of natural causes in Abingdon, UK, at the age of 83. Dr. Watson was one of the two founding members of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, which was established in 1967.

Graham Watson was born in Irvine, Scotland, and later moved to South Africa to pursue secondary studies. He originally completed a degree in fine art, but wanting to be practical and make a living, he instead focused on anthropology and took graduate classes taught by the legendary Monika Wilson at the University of Cape Town. His involvement in the growing unrest and his opposition to apartheid led to him living his life in Cape Town under constant threat of surveillance, and that, combined with the fact that his department refused to examine his doctoral thesis owing to its politically sensitive nature, prompted his decision to emigrate to Canada. He completed his doctorate at Simon Fraser University based on research he had conducted in South Africa.

So began his lifelong career in anthropology and the study of race relations. His original ideas and experiences were published in his influential 1970 monograph, Passing for white: A study of racial assimilation in a South African school. Graham incorporated that research as well as further studies of indigenous people in the Northwest Territories (Yellowknife) to establish his popular, long-running course on “Race Relations” in the Department of Anthropology. Dr. Watson later immersed himself in the field of ethnomethodology and introduced a generation of anthropology students to its theory and methodology. As an instructor, he was both feared and loved; his gruff exterior camouflaged his inherently kind nature and wry sense of humour.

Dr. Watson is survived by his wife Lorna, three children, and two grandchildren, all of whom he was completely devoted to. He and Lorna moved to Abingdon when he retired in 1998. There he indulged in painting, his first love, and continued to engage often in the kind of lively intellectual discourse with friends and colleagues that he thrived upon.

The entire department sends thoughts and condolences to Lorna and to their family. In remembrance, we share submissions from Dr. Watson's colleagues as well as personal notes from some of Dr. Watson’s former students.

In honour and memory of his contribution to the University of Calgary, the campus flag will be lowered to half-mast on Wednesday, November 28, 2018. 


Dr. Doyle Hatt (Professor Emeritus) has kindly written a summary of Dr. Watson's career and research and his influence on the Department of Anthropology from its inception. 

Graham Watson was initiated into social anthropology in the classes of the legendary Monica Wilson at the University of Cape Town. However, when, as a graduate student, the political climate in South Africa became too uncomfortable for a person of Graham’s convictions on the subject of apartheid, he emigrated to Canada and completed his doctorate at Simon Fraser University on the basis of research he had completed in South Africa.

In 1967, Graham Watson and Vernon Serl were hired as the first anthropologists in the joint Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Calgary. Graham was the first to arrive in Calgary, and, on that basis, claimed founder status, but Serl contested this on the basis that he had completed his doctorate, whereas Graham hadn’t yet. Thus, as is so often the case with institutional origin-myths worldwide, the origin of anthropology at Calgary was ritually perpetuated in a (fortunately good-natured) rivalry of the sort known to anthropologists as “joking-relationships” that reverberated over the decades. In the following years, the anthropology teaching faculty grew rapidly with new hires, and the anthropology caucus applied to become a separate Department of Anthropology. Throughout its history, the imprint on the department of its two founders remained strong.

Graham soon established two courses that defined his role in the department throughout his career: first, a year-long course, mandatory for majors, called “Comparative Social Institutions”, well-remembered by hundreds of students over the years, and, second, an elective course, “Race Relations”, which, in its early years, tended to use the terminology and models of the South African Institute of Race Relations, but which, as Graham’s thinking evolved, became increasing theoretical and sophisticated in its scope.

Graham Watson’s central interest over his career was the fluidity of social and ethnic categories, their situational contingency, and the sometimes unanalyzed degree of options that individuals who are subject to racial and ethnic labeling may possess. His inaugural publication in the Canadian Journal of Sociology in 1967 introduced a theoretical formulation which he dubbed “cumulative ad hocery”, and which he developed as a sort of trademark over the ensuing decade. This was intended as a means of modeling how processes of change take place which may result in radical change in both thinking and institutional arrangements, but of which the participants are often not fully aware. While fully acknowledging the impress of social institutions upon human behaviour, the formulation sought to show that serial ad-hoc decisions — each one a response to a practical dilemma — may often lead to major social change. His ideas were more fully developed in his 1970 monograph, Passing for white: A study of racial assimilation in a South African school, and in later research work he carried out in Yellowknife. In still later work, Graham expanded his theoretical net to include all sorts of identities, including even schools of anthropological thought.

In a series of papers that began emerging in the late 1980s — including a much-cited critique of the work of Clifford Geertz — he found himself moving strongly in the direction of ethnomethodology, and he was a key resource in the university’s Discourse Analysis Research Group, one of the fruits of which was his co-edited volume with Robert Seiler, Text in context: Contributions to ethnomethodology.

Several generations of Calgary anthropology majors were, in their turn, initiated into social anthropology in Graham Watson’s classes. They learned about the South African colour bar and pass laws, passing around Graham’s own pass card, which grew increasingly faded and dog-eared over the decades, and they saw some of the notable ethnographic films, the department’s collection of which was shepherded by him. Graham’s students were challenged; they learned to write and they learned to think more clearly than they did when they entered his class. 

Dr. Doyle Hatt


Dr. Jean-Guy Goulet (Full Professor, Conflict Studies, St. Paul University, Ottawa) sends an academic tribute to his friend and colleague. 

Graham, who was an avowed atheist and proud to declare himself so to those who became acquainted with him, was not averse to using religious language when communicating with others. It is in such terms that he surprisingly admonished me in 1988.

We had never met before. It happened that I had been recently hired as Director of the Native Centre at the University of Calgary where Graham taught in the Department of Anthropology. He had conducted fieldwork among the Dene of the Northwest Territories, and I among the Dene of northwestern Alberta. He sought me out, came into my office, and without further introduction, standing before my desk where I was seated, declared that “You have committed two mortal sins: you have gone native and you are not telling us [anthropologists] everything.”

What a startling moment, this one. I wondered who he was. Asked myself why he was so adamant that I had not lived up to anthropological expectations that we apparently did not share. In his eyes, as in that of many colleagues, I had come to behave, feel, and think like the Dene, and was not comfortable sharing nor publishing views they had expressed to me with the express mention that these were for my ears only ‒ that I was not to tell others.

Lo and behold, the more we talked about our different experiences and convictions, the more interested we became in each other. And so began what was to be a long-standing academic collaboration. As Graham introduced me to ethnomethodology and a body of literature that I was not familiar with till then, we returned to my field notes and focused on the communication processes through which the Dene Tha made available for themselves and to each other a social world in which they led lives based on assumptions that were strikingly different than the ones held by anthropologists in their own professional and personal life. This led to a number of joint publications.

Graham was a scholar who cultivated many professional relationships with outstanding scholars in social anthropology. We in the Department of Anthropology, faculty and graduate students, were most fortunate that Graham went out of his way to invite these colleagues to deliver lectures at the University of Calgary and meet with faculty and students. Three outstanding speakers that I remember were Stanley Uys, a prominent South African journalist and eminent opponent of the apartheid regime, Michael Moerman from UCLA, author of Talking Culture (1988), and John Commaroff from the University of Chicago who, with his wife Jean, had published Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (1992).

At the time of his retirement in the spring of 1997, Alan and Josie Smart and a few other colleagues invited me to attend his last lecture. I recall Graham telling his class that, as students of societies, we ought to “pay attention not only to what is breaking down but also to what is building up”. In this insightful statement one could recognize the impact of the formative period in Graham’s life as a student in Cape Town, South Africa, when the apartheid regime was breaking down and new institutions were emerging to shape the country in better ways.

In brief, Graham was an industrious and rigorous scholar, a most generous individual who, through invitations of scholar friends, publications, and teaching, enriched our academic and intellectual lives. We are therefore deeply grateful to him for his many contributions to our own development and to the quality of our academic environment.

Dr. Jean-Guy Goulet


Dr. Anne Irwin (an undergrad and graduate student, a friend, and, eventually, a colleague of Dr. Watson’s) shares with us her memories. 

It was my good fortune and a great privilege to be a student of Graham Watson’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then, very briefly, a colleague. For many years I have treasured his friendship. I am not alone in this sentiment; many of his students thought the world of him. The number of former students who wrote letters of appreciation to him in his last weeks is a testament to his popularity, as he told me himself the last time I saw him.

As a teacher, he was not warm and nurturing, but rather reserved and occasionally gruff, and yet he was able somehow to draw out of us our very best. By adroit questioning he taught us to think analytically, to question everything, to treasure learning, to enjoy intellectual argument, and most especially, to search for alternative readings of any text.

In my case, he was the first person to instill in me confidence in my intellectual abilities, and the way he did this was typical of his teaching style. I told him once, toward the end of my undergraduate degree, that I had always felt a bit of an imposter, that I didn’t feel I deserved the grade he had assigned to my essay, and that I thought I had pulled the wool over his eyes. His response? “That’s very arrogant of you”. Startled, I stammered, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”. “I’ve been teaching anthropology for 30 years. How dare you presume to think that you know better than I do which essays are worthy of an A?”

Not all students could see past the gruff exterior, nor were they able to detect the twinkle in his eye that betrayed his wry sense of humour, and many of them were very intimidated by him. This caused him some distress. He couldn’t understand why they found him frightening and he adopted various strategies in attempting to soften his image. He used to make pots of tea and serve biscuits during exams because he didn’t think it right for us to have to sit writing for three hours without refreshment. Some students were suspicious that there was some sort of trick hidden within this gesture of kindness.

One my fondest memories is of Graham wandering around alone during the department Christmas party with his stuffed Opus the penguin pinned to his shoulder. I asked him what on earth that was in aid of and he said had become aware that students were frightened of him and he was attempting to demonstrate that he was approachable and had a sense of humour. Unfortunately this strategy seemed to have backfired, as some of these students looked at him askance, confused by the penguin on his shoulder and convinced that he was conducting some sort of ethnomethodological breaching experiment on which they would later be tested.

Several of his students, myself included, who went on to academic careers confess to having, at one time or another, shamelessly lectured directly from the notes they wrote during classes he taught. All of us have gone on to use his pedagogical techniques, and all of us have used turns of phrases that came directly from him. I still have a page of what he termed his mantras, such as “the sentence that appears not to need interpretation has already been interpreted for you”.

After his retirement, Graham and Lorna moved to Abingdon, in Oxfordshire, where they welcomed many of us into their home on the edge of the Thames that Graham loved. Graham continued to hone his already prodigious cooking skills and took up painting. Their house was full of art, books, music, wonderful food, and stimulating discussion. Graham will live on in the memories of generations of his students. What I will remember most of Graham are his incisive intellect and his great kindness. He taught me how to be an anthropologist, but he taught me so much more about how to be a compassionate and kind human being. I am lucky to have known him.

Dr. Anne Irwin 


Dr. Liam Murphy (Professor, Department of Anthropology, California State University, Sacramento), completed an MA in 1994 and shares his memories and gratitude. 

Graham Watson was my professor in 1993 and 1994, during which time I was an MA student in the Department of Anthropology. I spent less than two years in Calgary, finishing my thesis in August of 1994 before hurriedly scampering off to Connecticut to begin a PhD. Still, during my time at U of C I was deeply influenced by the mind and character of this often gruff, sometimes cantankerous man who was nevertheless among the kindest and most thoughtful mentors I have ever had. Graham had an irascibility and dry wit that I think some mistook for stodgy formality or even arrogance, but those who knew him came to understand his mannerisms as but a crusty veneer. In and out of the classroom, Graham was sympathetic and encouraging; together with Jean-Guy Goulet, he made me feel connected to anthropology and anthropologists in a way I’d not experienced before. His knowledge of social theory and the history of anthropology was enormous, and his lectures had an inspirational quality I found (and continue to find) rare. To this day, I make use of several pedagogical strategies I picked up in his classes, and the notes I took in his theory seminar have long since been picked clean for the many insights Graham had on a variety of topics – most especially the thought of Emile Durkheim, the history of British social anthropology, and ethnomethodology and the microsociology of cultural meaning generally. Doubtless dry stuff for many, I found his discussions rich with possibilities. Although I never mastered (or even fully understood) the more formal aspects of EthMeth and conversation analysis, Graham’s lectures gave me a window into a world of theory that I felt privileged to understand, at least in principle. Little do they realize it, but my students, in their turn, receive some of this wisdom whenever I explain reflexivity or the mundane accomplishment of everyday life. Finally, among the most important statements of encouragement and support I’ve ever received in my academic career came from Graham. He once wrote across the top of one of my term papers, “I think you have a career ahead of you.” Understated and yet flush with significance…much like the man himself. I will miss you, dear Professor Watson, and am privileged to have been your pupil.

Dr. Liam D. Murphy


JoAnn Cleaver (MA '96) sent a tribute illustrating an instance demonstrating Dr. Watson’s compassion and the impression he left on her as a student, mentor, and friend.

Graham Watson was an exemplary professor on so many levels. No doubt many former students will speak of the breadth of his knowledge, his determination to stress effective writing, his unique teaching methods, and perhaps most importantly, his ability to instill confidence in fledgling learners. I wish to speak of his kindness.

I took Graham's signature course, “Race Relations”, in my second year, followed by more undergrad and graduate level courses with him. I leave it to others to highlight his significant academic accomplishments. I remember best his kindness and concern for his students.

Graham once interrupted one of his lectures to remark upon how pale a young student looked and asked him, "Are you feeling quite well?" I can still hear him asking. The student initially tried to brush off his concern, but Graham saw he was ill (in a very crowded classroom) and enlisted another student to accompany him to the Health Centre and ensure he was taken care of. He then assured both that he would see that they had access to that day's lecture notes. Off they went, and Graham solicited a promise from a few students to make copies of their notes for them and then picked up where he'd left off.

It was a small gesture, but I recall the atmosphere in the room being charged with the impact of his care and concern. This seemingly gruff, demanding, and intimidating professor had, in that moment, transformed a university setting that too often seemed large and cold and anonymous with his compassion.

It is not the least overstating the case to say that his encouragement and his interest in my progress as a student and in my overall well-being throughout some challenging years changed my life, as they did the lives of many who were fortunate enough to know him and learn from him.

My mentor. My friend. He left his mark, and he will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.

JoAnn Cleaver