I am a linguistic and economic anthropologist interested in how people build their lives and livelihoods despite significant personal challenges. I have pursued these interests in a range of contexts – both intentionally, and as a matter of circumstance. My primary fieldsite is Ukraine, where I have worked in agrarian communities with people pursuing land rights and livelihoods amidst postsocialist transformation, significant political upheaval, and armed conflict. The war in Ukraine (2014-present) has drastically shaped my research agenda. My most recent fieldwork was in a landmine-affected region in then-Kyiv controlled Donbas; I am also engaged in refugee support in Halle (Saale), where the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is located. My book project, Words to Sow: Language and Violence in Ukraine, pulls together 15 years of research to investigate the multitude of relationships between speech and conflict. I offer re-examinations of the language politics, historical narratives, and hateful speech that supposedly incited violence in Ukraine, as well as new research on how language is thought to (and sometimes might) prevent or help people overcome violence, for example, through legal contracts and peace negotiations, giving testimony, or finding solidarity in online communities. Tastes of this work can be found in “The Fascist and the Potato Beetle: Patriotic Chronotopes and Dehumanizing Language in the Ukraine Conflict” (2023, American Ethnologist); “Hosts Seeking Refugees: Advertisements, Laments, and Success Stories in a German-Ukrainian Housing Forum” (2022 workshop paper, revising for publication); “When Flyover Country is a Warzone” (2022, Cultural Anthropology website); and my doctoral dissertation, “Afterlives and Other Lives: Semiosis and History in 21st Century Ukraine.”
Another significant trend in my research is the study of what we might call “unexpected labour,” or jobs that people never planned on doing, but found themselves taking on, and occasionally, finding fulfilling. In Ukraine, I have studied people engaged in the removal of landmines and other explosive remnants of war. My work details how people engaged in the tedious work of sweeping for bombs at the Ukrainian-Russian border found both horror and stability in a profession they had never imagined pursuing. As part of the Max Planck – Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy, and Social Change (2019-2021), I studied U.S. American ghostwriters working in genres such as memoir, business “thought leadership” (including Twitter), evangelical religious testimony, and of course, academic term papers. I have been particularly interested in how my interlocutors–– overwhelmingly women, many with disabilities–– came to this unexpected profession, and what freedoms and frustrations they find in it. I argue for viewing this type of work not (or not only) as “invisible labour” or a “performance,” but as “animation” collaboratively produced by ghost and client (cf. Silvio 2010). This does not mean that ghostwriting or explosives clearance is never disenfranchising, dangerous, or a profession of last resort. But like other forms of labour, what people glean from it may be counterintuitive and difficult to grasp at first glance. My writings on landmine clearance and ghostwriting have been published in Anthropology News (2019, with Darcie DeAngelo) and in Work, Society, and the Ethical Self: Chimeras of Freedom in the Neoliberal Era (2021, ed. Chris Hann). Two additional manuscripts are under review.
As of late 2022, I am developing a new project that combines my burgeoning interest in migration and citizenship with my strengths in the study of European integration, the performative effects of legal language, and women’s work. Tentatively titled Where the World Says ‘I Do’, this project investigates the rise of the international wedding industry in Denmark, where up to 50% of marriages performed annually are of people who are neither citizens nor residents of the country. Long a haven for binational and LGBT+ couples wishing to tie the knot, Denmark plays a key role in the granting of marriage certificates that afford recipients legal protections, including family reunification, in the European Union and beyond. This project will investigate who is marrying in Denmark; how Danish marriage certificates are used to secure lives and livelihoods in other countries; how the wedding industry, and the (mostly) women who work in it, has transformed Danish border and island communities that until recently were in steep economic decline; and how the Danish government has combatted the darker side of international marriage: marriages of convenience, fraud, and human trafficking. Where the World Says ‘I Do’ speaks to this department’s commitment to attending to our interlocutors’ “common worries,” such as: “how do I find stability for myself and my family?”; “how do I make a living at times of economic uncertainty?”; and most importantly, “how do I stay close to the people I love?”
While at the MPI I have primarily been engaged in research. However, I am a committed scholar-educator who enjoys teaching and mentoring. I have taught at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, Middlebury College, and the Martin Luther University (Halle-Wittenberg), and have co-authored (with Ilana Gershon) a chapter on methods in linguistic anthropology for use in the classroom.
Anthropology offers the opportunity to study the range of human experience, from deep history to the present, from everyday worries to life’s biggest philosophical questions. It breaks down micro-macro divides not only by showing us that the micro influences that macro, and vice-versa, but by forcing us to question what we suppose about scale in the first place. Anthropology asks us to examine our assumptions about how the world works, what the right metrics and categories are for studying it, what is most meaningful or logical to people, and what can or cannot be changed. At the same time, anthropology leaves room for the universal, be it common capabilities, concerns, desires, or senses of what is just and right.
What drew me to anthropology was the opportunity to study difference, or how life might be lived otherwise. But what keeps me here is the pursuit of the universal – and the realization that, on this rapidly warming planet, we need to be attuned to what binds us. Most humans wish to live good lives in the company of the people they love. How do they manage that? What barriers do they face? What can be done to make life a little less precarious, the tiniest bit happier?