About my work

Dr Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist at The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany.
OrcID: 0000-0002-6467-2338

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PIers KellyMy research focuses on language and creative agency in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In particular I am interested in the varied ways in which speakers manipulate symbolic systems to adapt to changing circumstances, or to solve specific problems.

Across the region, communities have engineered specialised language registers and alternative lexicons while others have extended their languages technologically through the invention of unique graphic codes.

These interventions have been motivated by a need to amplify the scope of ‘ordinary’ communication: to converse across thresholds, enact political identities, constrain social interaction, ritually influence environmental processes or produce aesthetic and narrative effects.

Thick ethnographic analyses of creative communicative phenomena—in comparative perspective—are vital for addressing higher-order questions in linguistic anthropology, the anthropology of literacy and the evolution of symbolic systems. Beyond ethnography, conscious symbolic manipulations are often revelatory of broader historical processes and contact dynamics, and may provide cognitive insights into communication as a defining mode of human interaction.

View my current projects here.

I am most influenced by ethnographically informed research that connects the complex specificities of lived experience with wider generalities that are necessary to make sense of them. Some of the texts that have informed my research direction and general intellectual outlook are here.


I have recently taken up a fellowship at The Mint, a new research group at the Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte in Jena, Germany.  Under the direction of Olivier Morin, I am working with James Winters, Barbara Pavlek,  Thomas Müller, Lidiia Romanova and Olena Tykhostup to investigate the evolution of graphic codes and the rise of writing. Collaborators on the project are Alberto Acerbi, Nicolas Baumard and Helena Miton.


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. My statement on peer-review is 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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