By Allison O’Brien

Dr. Dorothy Smith, a leading Canadian sociologist and professor emeritus of the University of Toronto, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, and a celebrity among sociologists and the academically inclined, delivered a lecture via Skype to a room of UPEI Students on Thursday evening, March 15, 2018.

Smith, who can only be described as the fiercest 91-year-old woman you will ever meet, charmed the room with her autobiographical accounts of feminism in the 1970s and how she began to see a need for a “sociology for, not of the people,” which she later coined as institutional ethnography.

Brittany Jakubiec, a sessional lecturer at UPEI and Ph.D candidate in the faculty of education, said she was excited to find out about the presentation.

“When I saw the campus notice that Dr. Dorothy Smith would be doing a presentation, I definitely lost my mind a little,” Jakubiec said. “Dr. Dorothy Smith is definitely like a rockstar academic, and … if you’re doing any kind of social sciences research or taking courses in that field, you’ve read her work, you’ve cited her.”

Smith began her lecture with a story about a student at the University of British Columbia who approached her with a problem that he was having in the university. He asked Smith what she could offer her student in terms of an understanding of his problem from a sociological perspective, and Smith felt as though she had no resources to draw upon to respond.

This is when Smith recalled something she had read in her undergrad by Marx and Engels about a “need for sociology to begin with actual people and with the actual condition of their lives.”

“And I thought, I’ll go back to that,” she said. “I’ll see what I can learn from that. And that was the beginning [of institutional ethnography] to start with actual people.”

Smith continued in her lecture to talk about the need for women to have a voice in the 1970s.

“We were essentially denied of any public voice,” she explained. “We could not be poets in any serious way, we could not be artists … it was the male authority that stood up for us.”

But that began to change.

“We learned to listen to other women,” she said. “To take other women, and what they said, seriously… We learned to be speakers.”

Smith told an anecdote that took place fifteen years ago when she was on a bus in Vancouver and the man sitting next to her groped her knee.

“Now, I have learned in the women’s movement to speak up,” Smith said. “And so I said very loudly, TAKE YOUR HAND OFF MY KNEE.”

The room quieted as Smith shouted those words. “He did,” Smith said with a grin, and the room erupted into laughter.

“But I never would have been able to do that kind of speaking before the 1970s and 1980s, when women began to speak, began to be able to treat each other as authorities.”


Photo: University of Toronto