Department of Anthropology

Courtney Handman

Assistant ProfessorPh.D., University of Chicago

Courtney Handman



Linguistic anthropology, the anthropology of Christianity, translation, denominationalism, religion and media, Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, the Pacific.


My research is concerned with the social formations of Protestant Christianity, especially as these are organized around practices of language use and language idealogies. Although Protestant theology points toward an otherworldly individualism, I focus on the material and denominational configurations of Christians as the sites of contestation and moral ambivalence. Because language is one of the only kinds of "material" that Protestants recognize as important, I examine translation as a key process in the ongoing creation of Christian social formations. I have looked at the work of bible translators in Papua New Guinea, including both missionary translators from overseas and Papua New Guinean translators, and have worked with Guhu-Samane communities in the Waria River valley of Morobe Province, whose lives have been impacted by translation projects since the 1950s. I am currently working on an archival project about the use of Tok Pisin in the missionization of colonial New Guinea. 


ANT 320L • Invented Languages

31410 • Fall 2017
Meets TTH 2:00PM-3:30PM SAC 4.118

Although invented languages are currently associated with popular science fiction and fantasy genres, people have been inventing languages for at least the past 800 years. These invented languages have been part of religious projects of communicating with god(s), political projects of universal peace, or scientific projects of creating the language of truth. We will look at the different ways that linguists, hobbyists, or philosophers have understood language as “natural” rather than “man-made” phenomenon and how these debates have had effects on projects of linguistic planning, reform, or invention. In this class we will pay particular attention to the 19th and 20th centuries because this is when European colonialism altered and exacerbated questions of univeralisms, human communication, and radical social change that became central to projects of language invention. Topics will include: medieval Christian invented languages, Enlightenment projects of language reform, pidgin and creole languages, colonial linguistics, the International Auxiliary Language movement that advocated for global use of languages like Esperanto or Basic English, and contemporary “conlangs” associated with various science fiction and fantasy series. 

ANT 393 • Materiality/Media/Religion

31655 • Fall 2017
Meets W 1:00PM-4:00PM SAC 4.114

Anthropological analyses of religion have focused largely on dematerialized symbols of adherence, emphasizing private minds and beliefs as domains proper to the religious while consigning the public realms of practice and action to the domain of the political. This course examines and critiques this secular concept of religion through a focused engagement with the materials and the media of religious life, expanding the semiotic analysis of religious practice into its iconic and embodied modalities, and disturbing well-worn distinctions between religion and politics, mind and body, belief and action. Theoretical and ethnographic approaches to religion and semiotic mediation are the primary focus of course readings. Significant time is spent during the semester on: religious origins of ideologies of language and communication, language and religious subjectivity, the concept of the fetish, the mediatized circulation of religious texts, and the sensory experiences of religious practice.

ANT 307 • Culture And Communication

31205 • Spring 2017
Meets TTH 9:30AM-11:00AM CLA 0.112

The ability to learn and use language is a quintessentially human characteristic—one that distinguishes homo sapiens from other animal species. Language is simultaneously generated through and generative of social life; the former is a primary resource that we humans use in both the structuring and accomplishment of the latter. These dynamics form the subject of study of linguistic anthropology.

This course is an introduction to linguistic anthropology. It is impossible in a single semester to provide a complete overview of all topics that linguistic anthropologists address, so this course covers selected topics, the selection of which is aimed to illustrate how linguistic anthropologists go about doing their work: the range of topics they examine, the kinds of questions they ask, the types of approaches and methods they utilize, and the sorts of conclusions they reach.

ANT 392N • Intro To Grad Ling Anthropol

31475 • Spring 2017
Meets M 1:00PM-4:00PM SAC 4.120

An Anthropology Core Course, this course is an introduction to the theoretical and methodological foundations of the study of language from a sociocultural perspective. Topics discussed include linguistic, philosophical, psychological, sociological and anthropological contributions to the understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication as a social activity embedded in cultural contexts. No prior training in linguistics is presupposed. Readings include both ethnographic studies and theoretical work about language.

ANT 320L • Talk, Text, And God

31200 • Fall 2016
Meets TTH 3:30PM-5:00PM SAC 4.118
(also listed as R S 373)

While anthropologists often study the religious practices of the societies they describe, Christianity has long been neglected or specifically avoided in ethnographies. However, as Christianity has become an important part of many post-colonial communities, anthropologists are starting to examine this now global religious tradition. This course will introduce students to the anthropological study of Christianity, particularly in colonial and post-colonial settings. How can an anthropology of Christianity cope with the wide diversity of traditions that go under the Christian label? How have people understood the relationship between Christian missionization and other institutions of colonialism? In this course we will focus in particular on the ways in which Christian missionaries and Christian communities participate in traditions of textual circulation in which people are reading, translating, studying, arguing with, resisting, or praying from the Bible. We will also compare these traditions to Christian communities that emphasize non-linguistic forms of religious practice.

ANT 320L • Language And Empire

30317 • Spring 2016
Meets TTH 2:00PM-3:30PM SAC 4.118

This course will provide students with a focused analysis of an important but often underemphasized source of colonial power and transformation – the role of language and linguistic analysis. From early attempts at organizing what seemed a cacophony of unstructured sound to later attempts at creating ethno-linguistically unified nations during decolonization to post-colonial reconfigurations of global languages, the course will examine languages and language study as primary media of domination and resistance in colonial regimes. How was colonialism communicated? What novel languages or forms of speech did colonial encounters engender? Are global languages like English creating new linguistic empires today? Topics covered include the role of missionary and colonial linguistics in the creation of order; the production of ethno-linguistic identities; pidgin, creole, and other hybrid formations; languages of resistance; and the place of global languages in the contemporary world.

ANT 393 • Transltn/Boundaries Of Diff

30623 • Spring 2016
Meets M 9:00AM-12:00PM SAC 4.116

At issue in this course is the fundamental anthropological problem of the negotiation of difference, and of how difference is made manifest, created, concealed, or analyzed. Although at one point anthropology thought of its task as making other cultures and people comprehensible to Western audiences through a process of cultural translation, the pre-suppositions of that task came under heavy criticism at the end of the twentieth century. More and more scholarship is now focused on the ways in which situated social actors are themselves engaged in processes of cultural and linguistic translations as a regular, if not always mundane, fact of social life. But without the religious, universalizing, or evolutionary basis of earlier translation models, how do we conceptualize these projects of transformation? Although we will start by analyzing models of translation that seek to ensure “authenticity” (of selves or of cultures) we will problematize such models over the course of the semester through readings on colonial knowledge production, gender, law, language and the subject, and techno-science. Rather than thinking of translation as an exceptional moment of confrontation between two autonomous linguistic or cultural systems, we will end with analyses that examine translation as the site of the production of cyborgs and assemblages – people, objects, and texts in cultural circulation.