UCL Anthropology


Alex Pillen

Alex Pillen

Associate Professor, Linguistic Anthropology

E-mail: a.pillen@ucl.ac.uk
Skype name: alex pillen


  • Linguistic anthropology
  • The anthropology of war
  • The anthropological study of Kurdish (Kurmanci or Northern Kurdish)
  • June 18th-20th 2020, Discussant, Panel 'Genre, Memory, and Commemoration', organised by Christine Robins, Kurdish Studies Conference, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter.
  • July 20th-24th 2020, Paper for P056 'The Continuum of War: Narration, Accumulation and Dispossession in Transnational War Economy', organised by Ayse Seda Yuksel, at the Bi-annual Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, Lisbon (online via Shindig).
  • November 18th-22nd 2020, Paper for panel 'Producing Power and Participation: Papers in Honor of Don Brenneis', organised by Ilana Gershon, Conference of the American Anthropological Association, St Louis, Missouri (panel postponed to November 2021). 


  • The Anthropology of War (ANTH0193 for undergraduates & PG Seminar, term 2)
  • Being Human module (ANTH2008 for 2nd year undergraduates, term 2)
Selected Publications

2019 The Chagga word between brackets. First Book Symposium. Social Analysis,63(1):113-116.

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.

2013 (ebook), 2003 Masking Terror. How Women Contain Violence in Southern Sri Lanka. (Pennsylvania University Press, Ethnography of Political Violence Series, 2003). 

2010. The fear of the sorcerer: Finding a peaceful moment for a sacrifice in Southern Sri Lanka. In Axel Michaels (Ed.) Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual: State, power, and violence. (pp. 105-131). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

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.

Current Research
  1. Preparation of a book manuscript provisionally entitled Speaking Kurdish: The Pursuit of Humanity.
  2. Paper entitled  Language Printed in 3D - The Architecture of Evidence in collaboration with Emma-Kate Matthews, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and Chaitanya Kanchan, Department of History UCL.


Team member for Small lodgings architectural competition, Royal Commision of Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, final shortlist 'Sculpting Spaces' (see submission by AY architects + Ajlan Gharem studio), and exhibit at the seventh edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts, January 28–April 18, 2020.

LANGUAGES: Flemish, Kurdish (Kurmanci), Modern Standard Arabic (Pre-intermediate), Spanish, Sinhalese, English, French (in order of preference).

Current PhD Students

Izzy Gibbin (LAHP Fellowship)

Joseph Buckley (Wolfson Scholarship)


Aeron O'Connor (ESRC 2020-2021)

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 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.  In 2004 I was offered a tenured lectureship at UCL, and have now been studying and working in its Department of Anthropology for 26 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 influenced my approach to an anthropology of war and violence. In 2007-2009 I conducted field research in the Kurdish community of North London funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Nuffield Foundation.  I was awarded a mid-career Fellowship from the British Academy in 2016-2017.  Finally, in 2017, I enrolled at SOAS again, this time for a course in Arabic.


AHRC's London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) lead, doctoral progam: selection of PhD applications from Anthropology.

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.