About my work

Dr Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist affiliated with the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Cologne, and the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena.
OrcID: 0000-0002-6467-2338

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PIers Kelly

Communication is a foundational process underpinning and structuring all human societies. This means that the methods and mechanisms of communication, by means of speech, art or other forms of complex symbolic behaviour, are a really big deal.

I am interested in a smaller part of this big deal, namely how we augment ordinary linguistic interactions with the aid of graphic codes.

My research focuses on the relationship between people, language and graphic codes. My primary methods and theoretical stances are drawn from the field of linguistic anthropology.

A great many studies of graphic codes are concerned with writing, a specific variety of semiotic communication that associates visual elements with linguistic units. Writing is the most culturally successful graphic code ever created, yet it is quite rare and surprisingly recent in human history having been invented first in ca. 5000 B.P. and a mere three times since.

While written codes are an important focus of my research, I argue that the relevant context for understanding writing is much wider than the standard typologies of linguistically organised graphic systems. To better understand the nature and importance of graphic codes my research centres on people and their lived experiences of graphically mediated communication.

In every society, linguistic and non-linguistic graphic codes have performed an astonishing diversity of tasks. On a functional level, graphic codes are seen to assist in the resolution of complex coordination problems over time and distance, but they are also used to extend the ordinary scope of spoken language in ritual events, to circumscribe group and individual identities, or to notate and organise cultural categories. The visual systems at play are similarly diverse, ranging from compact linear forms to diagrammatic or multi-textual techniques. Far from amounting to ‘noise’, a patient examination and comparison of these practices in their ethnohistorical contexts is a revelatory exercise in its own right and is essential groundwork before we can make meaningful universalising claims about graphic communication.

View my current projects here.

Some of the texts that have informed my research direction and general intellectual outlook are here.



All my publications can be viewed and downloaded here. I love any kind of feedback and I’m always happy to read papers in my field. I have a statement outlining my personal policies on where I publish and what I am prepared to review here.


I believe in the obligation of scholars to give meaningful explanations of their work. You can find my writing on Rappler, The Conversation, Crikey and other forums.


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