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Ahearn, Laura M

ahearn lauraAssociate Professor


Tel: 848-932-5298

Office: RAB 308


B.A. in Political Philosophy, Williams College, 1982
M.A. in Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1992
Ph.D. in Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1994

 Research Interests

Linguistic and sociocultural anthropology, agency, gender, development discourse, ethnicity, practice theory, social change, marriage, kinship, love letters, childbirth; Nepal, South Asia, Israel.

Biographical Notes

Laura Ahearn is a linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist who works on issues of gender, kinship, and marriage in Nepal. Her first book, Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal (University of Michigan Press, 2001), is about the new courtship practice of love letter writing in the Magar village where she was a Peace Corps volunteer for several years in the early 1980's. She is interested in agency, constraints on meaning in Nepali women's songfests, and language as a form of social action.  She is exploring the possibility of beginning a new ethnographic project among Nepali immigrants in Israel. Read a New York Times article on her Nepal research.

She recently finished a new book, entitled, Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology.  It was published by Wiley-Blackwell in mid-2011 and has sold several thousand copies during its first months in print. It will be translated into Polish and published in Poland by Jagiellonian University Press in 2014.

She is currently working on a co-authored book, tentatively entitled, Anthropologies of Language: Lessons from the Field, with Alessandro Duranti, Paul Garrett, and Justin Richland.  It will be the inaugural volume in Oxford University Press's Anthropology of Language series.

Awards, Fellowships, and Grants

Rutgers University Leader in Diversity Award, 2006
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education, 2005
Rutgers University Board of Trustees Award for Scholarly Excellence, 2004
Fellow, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, 2003-2004
Edward Sapir Book Prize Honorable Mention for Invitations to Love, 2002
Rutgers Dialogues Grant, Rutgers University, 2002
Mungo Teaching Award finalist, University of South Carolina, February 2001
Excellence in Teaching Award, Mortar Board Society, University of South Carolina, 2000
Provost’s Teaching Development Grant, University of South Carolina, 1999
Josephine Abney Fellowship for Research in Women’s Studies, University of South Carolina, 1999
Service-Learning Faculty Fellow, University of South Carolina, 1999
Professional Development Award, Professional Women on Campus, University of South Carolina, 1998
College of Liberal Arts Scholarship Support grant, University of South Carolina, 1998
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers, 1996-1997
Mellon Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, University of Michigan, 1993-1994
National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, Nepal, 1992-1993
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, Nepal, 1992-1993
Mellon Foundation Candidacy Fellowship, University of Michigan, Summer 1992
Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, University of Michigan, 1991-1992
Margaret Wray French Anthropology Scholarship, Nepal, Summer 1990

Selected Publications


Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  Living Language is a clear and accessible exploration of the prominent theoretical issues in linguistic anthropology and a student-friendly introduction to the study of language in real-life social contexts around the world. Combining classic studies on language in social contexts and cutting-edge, contemporary scholarship, the book provides a unifying synthesis of research in linguistic anthropology and looks towards future research in the field. Treating language as inextricably intertwined with culture and social relations, Living Language combines theory with examples of contemporary language use to explore the way in which language creates, maintains, challenges, and reconfigures social hierarchies. Chapter topics include gender, race, and ethnicity, language acquisition and socialization, performance, literacy practices, multilingualism, and globalization. Living Language introduces the fascinating field of linguistic anthropology and underlines the value of an ethnographically grounded approach to the study of language.

Read the table of contents of Living Language here.

Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal. University of Michigan Press. 2001. This ethnography provides a close examination of the dramatic shift away from arranged marriage and capture marriage toward elopement in the Magar village of Junigau, Nepal. In this village, young people are applying their newly acquired literacy skills to love-letter writing, fostering a transition that involves not only a shift in marriage rituals, but also a change in how villagers conceive of their own ability to act and attribute responsibility for events.  Awarded Honorable Mention in the Society of Linguistic Anthropology's Edward Sapir Book Prize Competition, 2002.

Read the table of contents of Living Language.

Read the table of contents and other front matter of Invitations to Love.

Read Appendix A and Appendix B, the complete love letter correspondences of two Nepali couples.alt

Read Mark Liechty's review of Invitations to Love in the journal American Ethnologist, Vol.30(2), May 2003. 

Read Anita Wilson's review of Invitations to Love in the journal Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Vol.33(4), December 2002.

Read Anna Robinson-Pant's review of Invitations to Love in the International Journal of Educational Development, Vol.22(5):556-558, September 2002. (Not available to all viewers, unfortunately.)

Read Yoonhee Kang's review of Invitations to Love in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 14(1):112-113.

Read Gérard Toffin's review of Invitations to Love in the journal L'Homme: Revue française d'anthropologie, July 2006. (Review is in French.)

Articles and Book Chapters

“Agency and Language.” In Jef Verschueren, Jan-Ola Östman, and Jürgen Japsers (eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics, in loose-leaf and online version, as well as in a bound Highlights volume containing articles on “Society and Language Use,” pp.28-48, 2010.

“Fateful Literacy: New Meanings, Old Ideologies, and Some Unexpected Consequences of Nepali Love Letter Writing.” In Literacies: Global and Local. Mastin Prinsloo and Mike Baynham (eds.), Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 93-116, 2008.

" Literacy, Power, and Agency: Love Letters and Development in Nepal. " Language and Education, 18(4):305-316, 2004. [Link to .pdf version of this article provided with permission of Multilingual Matters.]

"Writing Desire in Nepali Love Letters." Language and Communication, 23(2)):107-122, 2003. [Link to article may not work for all viewers. If you cannot access the article and would like a copy, please contact me.]

Comment on Alessandro Duranti's "Language as Culture in U.S. Anthropology: Three Paradigms." Current Anthropology, 44(3):335, June 2003. [Link to article may not work for all viewers. If you cannot access the article and would like a copy, please contact me.]

"The Magars of Banyan Hill and Junigau: A 'Granddaughter's' Reflections." Himalayan Research Bulletin, 22(1), 2002.

"What's Love Got To Do With It?" Anthropology News, 43(9). December 2002.

""We Were Kings Here Once": Gendered Constructions of Magar Ethnicity in a Speech by Gore Bahadur Khapangi." Himalayan Research Bulletin 21(1):7-10.

"A Traditional Massacre, or a Massacre of Tradition?" Anthropology News 42(8), November 2001.

"Language and Agency." Annual Review of Anthropology , Volume 30, 109-137, 2001. [Link to article may not work for all viewers. If you cannot access the article and would like a copy, please contact me.]

"Agency." In Duranti, Alessandro (ed.), Key Terms in Language and Culture. London: Blackwell, 2001, 7-10. [Reprint of Journal of Linguistic Anthropology piece.]

"Agency." In special issue, entitled, "Language Matters: Lexicon for the New Millennium," Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9(2), 1999, 9-12.

"True Traces: Love Letters and Social Transformation in Nepal." In Barton, David and Nigel Hall (eds.), Letter Writing as a Social Practice. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Press, 1999, 199-207.

"'A Twisted Rope Binds My Waist': Locating Constraints on Meaning in a Tij Songfest." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Volume 8(1), 1998, 60-86.

"Reading, Writing, and Romance: Literacy, Love Letters, and Agency in a Nepali Village." Texas Linguistic Forum, Volume 39, 1998, 248-258.

Courses Offered

Anth 108 Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology

Anth 291 Language and Gender

Anth 292 The Anthropology of Love Letter Writing

Anth 312 Language and Social Diversity

Anth 317 Method and Analysis in Cultural Anthropology
This class involved students in hands-on research in the community of Highland Park, New Jersey.

Anth 506 Research Design and Methods in Cultural Anthropology.

Anth 514 Language as Social Action
This course is now a required core course for CITE graduate students.

Anth 515 Theories of Agency

Media Coverage

Interview on NPR affiliate KPNR's show, "State of Nevada," on love letters and changing marriage practices in Nepal.

Rutgers Sciwomen interview on my research and graduate school experiences -- three excerpts can be viewed at 

Interviewed for a Discovery Channel documentary, entitled, "Royal Inquest," about the massacre of the Nepali royal family, March 2009.

Goode, Erica. "Arranged Marriage Gives Way to Courtship by Missive." New York Times, Science Times section, 9 February 1999.

Runas, Rochelle. "Love and Literacy in Nepal." Rutgers Focus, 15 February 2002.

RU-TV interview for "By the Book" program.

"Secret Love Letters," in the online edition of National Geographic Magazine, February 2006.

McGann, Mary Anne. Love Across Cultures, Odyssey Magazine, December 2006, pp.11-13.

Beesan, Nick. "Talking with America," Santa Barbara Talk Radio 1340 AM, 35-minute interview about cross-cultural variations and similarities in ideologies of romantic love, 11 February 2007.

Miscellaneous Links

Society for Linguistic Anthropology, the American Anthropological Association's linguistic anthropology section

Turtle Light Press, a small press founded by my husband, Rick Black

Agency Reading Group at the University of South Carolina

Peace Corps Writer, an organization devoted to the fiction and nonfiction writing of returned Peace Corps Volunteers

StoryCorps, a national project to instruct and inspire people to record one others' stories in a StoryBooth, such as the one in Grand Central Station in New York City

WGS Statement on Academia and Free Speech Rights

It is inherent to the discipline of Women's Studies to deal with complex subjects through theoretical lenses, which question conventional knowledge production. This department, one of the most distinguished departments of WGS in the country, has a highly visible faculty of national and international reputation invited to speak in various fora on sometimes highly controversial subjects. Such faculty members, as scholars, have not only a right, but also an obligation to produce and disseminate knowledge within and beyond the academy. Moreover, as private citizens, our faculty continue to enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any private citizen and in accordance with university policy the department supports their protection from institutional discipline in the exercise of these academic and free speech rights. 

Rutgers University Policy on Academic Freedom

Rutgers President on Free Speech and Academic Freedom

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