In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Harold Innis

  • Introduction
  • Autobiographical Material
  • Major Field Notes
  • Essay Collections
  • Major Works in Economic History/Political Economy
  • Major Writings on Geography and Transportation
  • Major Biographical Writings
  • Major Essays on the Intellectual and the Social Sciences
  • Major Essays on Education and Universities
  • Major Collections on Communication and Culture
  • Major Essays on the Press and Journalism
  • Major Essays on Marketing, Publishing, and Public Opinion
  • Major Essays on Communication and Culture
  • Innis in Context
  • Innis as Economic Historian
  • Innis as Communications Historian
  • Innis and Geography
  • Innis and Politics
  • Innis on Communication, Culture, and Bias

Communication Harold Innis
William J. Buxton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0205


Harold Adams Innis (1894–1952) was a Canadian economic historian, political economist, and communication theorist. Born in Otterville, Ontario, he graduated with a BA from McMaster University before serving as a member of the artillery in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. After suffering an injury near Vimy Ridge in 1917, he convalesced at a series of hospitals in Great Britain completing an MA degree under the auspices of McMaster University and Frontier College. Following his return home, he studied for a PhD in economics at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1920. He was subsequently hired by the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, where he spent his entire academic career (1920–1952). Innis first became known for his studies on how the production of staple products such as fur, fish, lumber, and wheat shaped and directed the path of Canadian economic development. This involved a close examination of the impact of European colonial systems on North America, particularly those of Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain. To this end, he was very engaged in what he called “dirt research,” which involved lengthy research visits to resource-producing areas of Canada, particularly in the North. During these trips he made detailed field notes based on observations, social interactions, as well as the collection of primary data (see Autobiographical Material and Major Field Notes). During the 1930s, he became engaged with issues related to bias in the social sciences, as well as to the role universities had played in the development of Western civilization (see Major Essays on Education and Universities). In his later years, he turned his attention to the history of communication, with particular attention given to the relationship between forms of media and broader patterns of power and social control. Innis was closely involved with numerous academic and funding bodies including the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Social Science Research Council (see Fisher 1999 under Biographical/Theoretical Works), the Canadian Humanities Research Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He served as president of both the Economic History Association and the American Economic Association. Despite his abiding suspicion of academics who participated in the policy process, he was a member of such consultative bodies as the Nova Scotia Royal Commission of Provincial Economic Enquiry (1934) and the Canadian Royal Commission on Transportation (1949–1951). While there is general agreement about his shift in research interest from Canadian economic history to history of communications, there is a decided difference of opinion about the extent to which there was continuity between these two phases.

Archival Collections

While one can find items pertinent to Innis and his contributions in a variety of archives around the world, the University of Toronto Archives has by far the largest collection of Innisiana. However, in many instances, material specific to a particular aspect of Innis’s academic work can be found in collections that appear to be remote from the documents in question. For example, there is a good deal of research-related correspondence in Innis’s administrative records as chair of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. Library and Archives Canada houses some collections specific to some of Innis’s activities.

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