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Alex Pillen

Alex Pillen

 +44 (0)20 7679 8641

Research Interests

  • Linguistic anthropology
  • The anthropology of war-torn societies
  • Theoretical understandings of reported speech
  • Ethnography of mediation and emerging public spheres
  • The anthropological study of Kurdish rhetoric (Kurmanci or Northern Kurdish)


Alex is the Chair of the MSc in Social and Cultural Anthropology and teaches courses in Linguistic Anthropology for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The lectures draw on theory within contemporary linguistic anthropology, and address linguistic relativism, gendered language socialization, and affective regimes. A key focus is the impact of rapid cultural change or globalization on gendered language practices - the loss of genres, the construction of liberal voices, and emerging rhetorical and ironic selves.

Selected Publications

Forthcoming October 2016 Language, translation, trauma. Annual Review of Anthropology Volume 45.

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.

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

Current Research

  1. Ongoing ethnographic research in diasporic Kurdish communities or a linguistic anthropology of Kurdish rhetoric: this concerns a study of the linguistic resources available to Kurdish citizens to document chronic abuse of human rights and states of dehumanisation. For the displaced Kurds, this is not only a personal tragedy but constitutes the end of an era – the destruction of a way of life (heyata gundi xelas e). Narratives of painful injustice rely on direct reported speech within a wider array of evidential affordances and discursive tactics. The evidential texture of such witness account often depends on a rush of cross-linguistic loan words from neighbouring languages (Turkish, Farsi and Arabic). The discursive simultaneity of multilingual fragments leads to a rhetorical style, which is the focus of a monograph provisionally entitled A Way of Life in Words.
  2. Theoretical research on language patterns reflecting the notion of non-identification within the segmentary logic of lineage-based sociability.
  3. Comparative work on direct reported speech in collaboration with Estelle Amy de la Breteque: This led to a co-edited volume on quotes, mimicry and impersonation entitled The Tones of Others (under review). The intonation of speech not only reflects the self, but often presents others too. The manuscript brings together expertise on the vocal construction of enemies and selves from within the disciplines of ethnomusicology and an anthropology of language as sound.

Up-coming Talk

November 2016, Minneapolis, Conference of the American Anthropological Association, paper for a panel on ‘Evidentiality in Contact Zones: Authority, Responsibility and Power’ (co-organised with Ozge Korkmaz).


Co-organiser of the Reading and Research Group in Linguistic Anthropology, forth-nightly sessions, all postgraduate students welcome. Founding members: Kelly Robinson, Liz Fox, Ozge Korkmaz, and Hyun Jin Cho.

Member of the Anthropology and Language Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Advisory panel member of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for the Study of Human Violence, Dominance and Aggression (New York, 2005-2009). 


Flemish, Kurdish (Kurmanci), Spanish, Sinhalese, English, French (in order of preference).

Current PhD Students

  • Kanchan Chaitanya (ESRC/AHRC Fellowship)
  • Liz Fox (ESRC Fellowship)
  • Aeron O’Connor (LAHP Fellowship)
  • Bayan Karimi (with SEES)
  • Giulia Cavicchioli (LAHP Fellowship)
  • Gwen Burnyeat (Wolfson Fellowship)
  • Isobel Gibbin (LAHP Fellowship)

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)


Alex arrived at UCL in 1994, and did an MSc and then a PhD in the Department of Anthropology. As a home grown member of the team, she welcomes PhD applications that are theoretically engaged, and grounded in the study of language practices.

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UCL Anthropology, 14 Taviton Street, London, WC1H 0BW Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 8633