I am trained in the methods of ethnography and field linguistics, and I do fieldwork in Mexico and in the US Southwest.
In terms of theory, I find the semiotic theories of Charles Sanders Peirce to be particularly good to think with, but I also draw on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and on phenomenological thinking. To understand politics and political movements, I often draw on Habermas’ concept of the public – but in combination with thinkers such as Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner, who bring Habermas in dialogue with Gramsci and post-Marxist thinkers. To me, the public is a semiotic construction, and language and meaning always exist within the political microcosm of recursively embedded publics.
Peircean semiotics are also good for combining critical post-modernist social science and humanist approaches with different forms of “hard science”, and I like to find ways of using methods from natural science in my own research as well as to critically analyze natural science approaches in the study of human social life and history. I do research on the following topics:
Nationalism, Indigeneity and Language Policy
My dissertation research studied the intersections of Mexican multicultural nationalism and indigenous ethno-politics, as it intersects in the field of language policy. The Mexican state is undertaking a seemingly very ambitious program for supporting and revitalizing endangered indigenous languages, and simultaneously many indigenous communities use language revitalization in their own political projects that sometimes align with the projects of the state and sometimes run counter to them. Particularly within the Mexican indigenous edication system these opposing tendencies produce friction that has both positive and negative ramifications for indigenous communities and for the lives of individual speakers of indigenous languages. I am writing an article on the relation between Mexican Nationalism and the promotion of indigenous languages by the state, in which I argue that indigenous culture is primarily used by the state to brand Mexico on the global market.
Nahuatl and Mesoamerican language history
I study the history of the Nahuatl language, using methods from ethnohistory and from historical linguistics. I am interested in the origins of the Nahuan languages, how they emerged from the Uto-Aztecan language family, and which other Mesoamerican languages they were in contact with before the arrival of the Spanish, and how this contact influenced and shaped the languages. As a part of this study I have also worked on the Otomi language and read intensively about several other Mesoamerican and Uto-Aztecan languages. I have done work on Nahuatl dialectology, documenting and analyzing the many different varieties of Nahuatl spoken in Mexico and El Salvador, and trying to see how far phylogenetic methods can take us in improving our knowledge of the deep history of these languages and their speakers. This work has so far mostly been published as conference papers, but a couple of articles are in the pipeline.
Semiotics, Experience, and Identity
The Politics of Representing the Past
Language is not only a kind of data that allows us to study the past, we also use language to represent the past as narrative – I am interested in finding the ways that the structures of language, and of narratives (what Hayden White calls metahistory) shapes the way we think of the past, and also how the narratives we construct about the past motivate future action. The representation of the past is an important venue for political action, and political struggles very frequently take the form of struggles over creating the dominant narrative of the past. This makes it important to analyze who gets to claim the right to tell these stories and to represent the past in different media. In this vein of research I have analyzed the representation of Native American history in Wikipedia, and published an article on Language, Society and History in the Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology.