UCL Anthropology


Alex Pillen

Alex Pillen

E-mail: a.pillen@ucl.ac.uk
Room: 140
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 8641

Research Interests
  • Linguistic anthropology
  • The anthropology of war-torn societies
  • The anthropological study of Kurdish rhetoric (Kurmanci or Northern Kurdish)
  • 24 May 2019, Department of Anthropology, UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab (MAL presentation), DFSR 2nd floor, 6-8pm, LESS FAKE? The architecture of evidence across languages.



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    • The Anthropology of War (ANTH0193 for undergraduates & MSc students)
    • Linguistic Anthropology (ANTH0028 for undergraduates & MSc students)
    Selected Publications

    2017 The space that will never be filled. Sharp communication and the simultaneity of opposites. Current Anthropology 58(6): 718-738.

    2016 (click on the title for free access to this article) Language, translation, trauma. Annual Review of Anthropology 45: 95-111.

    2015 Atrocity and nonsense: The ethnographic study of dehumanization. In Genocide and Mass Violence. Memory, Symptom, and Recovery. Devon E Hinton and Alexander L. Hinton (eds.), pp. 342- 358. Cambridge University Press.

    2007 Mothers and wives of the disappeared in Southern Sri Lanka: Fragmented geographies of moral discomfort. In Women and the Contested State: Religion,Violence, and Agency in South Asia. M.Skidmore & P. Lawrence (eds.) Pp. 117-138. University of Notre Dame Press.

    2007 Obvious pretence: For fun or for real? Cross-cousin and international relations in Sri Lanka. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(2): 313-329.

    2003 Masking Terror. How Women Contain Violence in Southern Sri Lanka. (Pennsylvania University Press, Ethnography of Political Violence Series, 2003). 

    Current Research
    1. Preparation of a book manuscript provisionally entitled KURDISH RHETORIC. The Endurance of Second-hand Reality.
    2. Research report entitled LESS FAKE? The architecture of evidence across languages in collaboration with Emma-Kate Matthews, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and Chaitanya Kanchan, Department of History UCL.
    3. A linguistic anthropology in dialogue with the humanities; see Quotation Lab


    Flemish, Kurdish (Kurmanci), Modern Standard Arabic (Elementary), Spanish, Sinhalese, English, French (in order of preference).

    Current PhD Students

    - Izzy Gibbin (LAHP Fellowship)

    - Joseph Buckley (Wolfson Scholarship)

    Completed PhD Dissertations
    • Ania Witeska (UCL Graduate School Fellowship)
    • Besim Can Zihr (University of Ankara Fellowship)
    • Qi Xiaoguang (China Scholarship Council Fellowship)
    • Shema Tariq (Medical Research Council Fellowship)
    • Juliano Spyer (ERC Project 2011-AdG-295486 SocNet)
    • Kanchan Chaitanya (ESRC/AHRC Fellowship)
    • Liz Fox (ESRC Fellowship)
    • Aeron O'Connor (LAHP Fellowship)
    • Giulia Cavicchioli (LAHP Fellowship)
    Biographical note

    As an undergraduate I studied Philosophy (1988-1991) and Medicine (1987-1994), at the University of Louvain, Belgium. At the Institute of Philosophy I took the classes of Prof. Jan Vanderveken who later wrote Merleau-Ponty in contemporary perspective (1993) , and Nature and logos. A Whiteheadian key to Merleau-Ponty's fundamental thought (2011). In the last year of my medical degree I specialised in psychiatry and wrote an M.D. dissertation on war trauma (summa cum laude). I attended the classes of Prof. Renaat Devisch in Medical Anthropology, who sent me to London to study at UCL and meet Prof. Bruce Kapferer. I took Prof. Kapferer's classes during an MSc in Medical Anthropology (1994-1995); a dynamic introduction to the dialogue between anthropology and continental philosophy. Upon arrival in London I also enrolled for a course on anthropology and psycho-analysis at SOAS taught by Dr. Audrey Cantlie, who became my mentor. She sent me on to the Tavistock to take John Byng-Hall's course on the observation of family systems (1994-1996), and organised my training in Lacanian psycho-analysis (1994-2001). During my MSc at UCL, I was allowed to observe the consultations of Dr. Derek Summerfield at the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture. I then enrolled in the PhD program at UCL, was first supervised by Prof. Bruce Kapferer (1995-1996), and after his departure from UCL, by Prof. Nanneke Redclift and Prof. Murray Last (1996-2000). Fieldresearch in Sri Lanka (1996-1998) led to a shift towards linguistic anthropology. Prof. Don Brenneis at the University of California, Santa Cruz became a source of inspiration and mentor. My doctoral dissertation was examined by Prof. David Parkin, who recently set up the Anthropology and Language Committee at the Royal Anthropological Institute. First a daughter and then a son were born in 1999 and 2001. In 2004 I was offered a tenured lectureship at UCL, and have now been studying and working in its Department of Anthropology for 25 years. I was an advisory panel member of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for the Study of Human Violence, Dominance and Aggression, New York (2005-2009), where Ms. Karen Colvard the Program Director showed me what an anthropology of war and violence should not be. In 2007-2009 I conducted field research in the Kurdish community of North London funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Nuffield Foundation. At first,I worked part-time at UCL because of family commitments (2004-2012), but am now a full-time staff member. Finally, I have enrolled at SOAS again, this time for an elementary course in Arabic.

    Applications PhD Program

    As a homegrown member of the team, I welcome PhD applications that are theoretically engaged, and grounded in the study of language practices.