A veteran of WWI, Innis studied at McMaster and the University of Chicago. His choice of a Canadian thesis topic, a history of the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY, was his first step towards a reorientation of many fields of study relating to Canada, especially in the social sciences. In 1920 Innis joined the University of Toronto's political economy department, where he remained until his death.
During the 1920s he became increasingly dissatisfied because he believed that the American- and British-trained scholars who predominated in Canadian universities were applying inappropriate models to their analysis of Canada's economy. Innis's first major work, The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), established his reputation and introduced the STAPLE THESIS of economic development. Innis also opposed the continentalist school and argued that Canada's political boundaries were the logical outcome of Canada's economic history - contrary to the tenets of CONTINENTALISM.
Appointed head of U of T's political economy department in 1937, Innis continued to work on his second major study, The Cod Fisheries (1940). Although he had trouble finding a suitable publisher because of his cumbersome writing style, this work established him in the forefront of the world's economic historians. Whereas The Fur Trade had set Canada off from the US, The Cod Fisheries underscored Canada's European roots.
During the 1930s and WWII, Innis rose to the challenge of defending the integrity of the universities and of scholarship, which he saw as imperiled by the general atmosphere of crisis. He was active in establishing societies, such as the Canadian Political Science Association and the American Economic History Association, and he used his connections and prestige to secure funding for Canadian research.
More controversially, he vigorously opposed the efforts of fellow academics such as F.W. UNDERHILL who were involved in the LEAGUE FOR SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTION. To a considerable extent, the detachment of our contemporary Canadian academic community from political involvement derives from his attitudes and efforts.
Innis's scholarly reputation led to an invitation to visit the Soviet Union in 1945. His posthumously published Russian Diary shows his deep concern with the problems of Western civilization. In drawing attention to the impact of the media of communications on the extent and duration of a civilization, Innis's communications researches culminated his lifelong attempt to explain the interpenetration between Canada and Western civilization.
Innis expressed these concerns in his 1947 presidential address to the Royal Society of Canada, titled "Minerva's Owl," although his arguments were little understood at the time. He contended that western Europe and North America were in a state of profound crisis. This crisis was rendered more severe because the dominant media of communication fostered an obsessive preoccupation with the present, with the consequence that politicians and scholars were neither able to understand their circumstances nor able to devise an appropriate remedy for their problems.
Innis continued his researches amidst increasingly heavy administrative responsibilities. In 1947 he became dean of U of T's graduate school, and in 1948 he visited England to deliver the Beit lectures, material which he later included in Empire and Communications (1950). This synoptic study of ancient Egypt to the present explores the theme of the interconnection between the vitality and durability of countries and empires and the modes of communication that dominated in them. Innis was still working on these ideas at the time of his death.
Innis had few followers during his life, though since his death he has secured admirers from several different academic disciplines, ranging from Marshall MCLUHAN in communications to Canadian Marxists interested in his study of the interrelations between economics, politics and society. However, few of Innis's disciples have had the courage and the genius to follow him in the breadth of his reading and theorizing.
See also Mary INNIS.
Author WILLIAM CHRISTIAN
Links to Other Sites
A profile of Harold Innis from Library and Archives Canada.
Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power
A feature on Canadian political economist Harold Adams Innis his theories about the relationship between media institutions and the societies they serve. From Media-Studies.ca.
See online excerpts from Paul Heyer's concise biography of Harold Innis. From Google Books.
Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis
A critical review of Alexander John Watson's biography of Harold Innis. From universityaffairs.com.
Marginal Man. The Dark Vision of Harold Innis
A review of Alexander John Watson's biography of Harold Innis. From the journal "Communication".