Dr. Alexander (Sandy) Ervin (PhD) retires at the end of June after 51 years as a faculty member in USask’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. (Photo: Chris Putnam)
Dr. Alexander (Sandy) Ervin (PhD) retires at the end of June after 51 years as a faculty member in USask’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. (Photo: Chris Putnam)

Looking out for the underdog

USask anthropology professor set to retire after half century on campus

After 51 years on campus, Dr. Alexander (Sandy) Ervin (PhD) is calling it quits.

But make no mistake: that doesn’t mean he is slowing down.

“I’m a late bloomer, you know. I’ve always been,” said Ervin, a professor in the University of Saskatchewan (USask) Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Ervin, who is approaching his 80th birthday, will retire from USask on June 30, 2022. He could have stopped decades ago, but found he was doing some of his best work long after the traditional retirement age.

That, plus an obsession with his chosen field of anthropology, has kept him actively teaching and researching.

“I love the subject. It really gets my juices going,” he said.

Ervin is a lifelong proponent of anthropology as a practical discipline. If his half-century career could be summed up, it would be this way: he studies the impact of policies on people.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Ervin studied at the University of Toronto and the University of Illinois in the 1960s and 70s. That era’s storm of activism around the Vietnam War, civil rights and feminism prompted him and his peers to shift their focus from pure academics to applied research.

Anthropology—with its wide lens on culture, biology, environment, economics, history and more—is uniquely suited to giving insights on virtually any area of human endeavour, argues Ervin.

“We need subjects that can make all those connections. Anthropology has the benefit of being where the rubber hits the road—seeing what's actually happening.”

Since he joined USask’s College of Arts and Science in 1971, the subjects of Ervin’s research have changed many times: from Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic, to Saskatchewan farmers, Saskatoon children, immigrants, and refugees. In each case, he has sought to understand the social and cultural effects of decisions and policies on people—especially the most vulnerable.

“I think in a range of humanities and social sciences, given their subject matter, you can’t help but develop a particular worldview—for instance, a certain concern for the underdog,” Ervin said.

One of Ervin’s greatest research achievements was a pioneering study of community needs in Saskatoon on behalf of the United Way. Published in 1991 and involving 135 community organizations, the project amounted to an anthropological study of an entire city.

That study, along with two books and several other papers authored by Ervin, are regularly cited in introductory textbooks on anthropology. Ervin’s book Applied Anthropology: Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary Practice, first published in 2000, has been the most popular text on applied anthropology for more than 20 years.

In 2017, Ervin became the first person outside the United States to be elected president of the Society for Applied Anthropology, one of the world’s largest associations for applied social sciences.

As an applied anthropologist, Ervin has always considered advocacy part of his job. He has had major roles in campaigns against nuclear energy, a downtown casino, the Meridian Dam, and more.

“It’s been in my blood,” he said. “I’ve been kind of a s--- disturber in all of my 51 years here.”

His activism also extended to USask. Whenever budget cuts loomed or administrators proposed changes that Ervin thought would negatively affect students or faculty, he was among the first to speak up on campus and in the media.

“And did I ever get into a lot of trouble,” Ervin said with a laugh.

He plans to keep speaking out on uncomfortable topics. One of Ervin’s first plans for retirement is to finish a book on political ecology in which he argues that capitalist societies cannot solve the climate crisis while maintaining continuous economic growth.

“The only way out of this mess is degrowth, not growth,” Ervin said. “We've been stealing from the young people that are growing up and future generations. We've been robbing from them through our resource use. We have to scale down our economy. It can’t happen all at once, but we have to reshape the whole animal.”

There will be more to Ervin’s retirement than just work, of course.

“I’m going to immerse myself into the natural history of the Acadian forest (of Nova Scotia),” he said. “I’m going to take it easy—you know, watch Netflix films. Spend too much time on Facebook arguing politics.”

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