Gretchen Pfeil

Term Associate Professor


Anthropology Department


Mondays 10:30am - 12:30pm

I am a linguistic and semiotic anthropologist who is concerned with how people think about, judge, and manage the movement and circulation of information and (or as) objects (talk, commodities, metadata). Since 2006, I have done fieldwork and worked with colleagues in Dakar, Senegal. My fieldwork has focused on the city’s charitable and domestic economies, tracing the kinds of knowledge and ongoing relationships built in and through networks of care managed by the city’s female householders. In this work, I have come to focus on the local value sutura (often translated ‘discretion’) as a guiding principle in Senegalese models of communication and interaction. I use sutura as a means to critically rethink anthropological models of communication, circulation, and individual action and efficacy, and to reframe current issues in global information security. 

My ongoing work draws on the routines of women’s everyday life in Dakar -- visiting relatives and going to market, talking and not talking, cooking and eating, getting into and staying out of trouble -- and on media representations of life in Dakar as framed  by local Wolof and francophone popular culture, news media, fiction, and drama. One of the everyday activities that I have focused on is the city’s large economy of small-scale almsgiving, sarax. In these transactions, female householders give the equivalent of millions of US dollars annually in cash and grain to anonymous homeless boys. My studies of Dakar extend into larger circuits of information and exchange in which these practices are embedded, most notably international rice markets and supply chains, and various national legal regimes of intellectual property governing the circulation of biometric/facial recognition data.

Conceptually, I am interested in the ways that semiotic practice creates apparent boundedness and the sense of ‘interiors’ and ‘exteriors’ to individuals, groups, moments, objects, and other entities emergent in interaction and interpretation. My work touches on classic themes in the anthropology of gender, kinship/relatedness, domesticity/food, Islam, and urban ethnography. As a linguist, I am particularly interested in vagueness, pronominal systems (particularly anaphoric deixis), silence, and the verbal construction of the “unremarkable.”

I am currently developing a project on Senegal’s implementation of new intellectual property and privacy legislation in relationship to global flows of facial recognition and other biometric data.

I conduct fieldwork and research in French, Wolof, and English, and have served as an English/Wolof interpreter in medical, legal, and diplomatic contexts in New York City.

I have also done fieldwork in and written about US charismatic/pentecostal protestant communities.

Linguistic and semiotic anthropology
West Africa/Sahel
African cities
Economic anthropology
Religion (Islam, American charismatic Protestantism)
Information management (secrecy, privacy, opacity, display, concealment)
Markets in grains and other fungible (“bulk”) commodities
Containment and enclosure

First-Year Seminar - Girl Talk: Language & Femininity
Introduction to Language and Culture

Charlotte W. Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship
Social Sciences Collegiate Division Dissertation Research/Teaching Fellowship, University of Chicago
Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Research Fellowship (Dakar, Senegal)

African Studies Association
American Anthropological Association
West African Research Association
Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Affiliated Researcher (past), West African Research Center, Dakar, Senegal
Affiliated Researcher (past), Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa

Book Reviews:
"Bottlenecks and Other Current Problems of Circulation (Melly's Bottleneck: Moving, Building, and Belonging in an African City)," Current Anthropology 60, no. 2 (April 2019): 275-276.

Book Chapters:
Sarax and the City: Almsgiving and anonymous objects in Dakar, Senegal. In The Anthropology of Ignorance: An ethnographic approach. C. High, A. Kelly, and J. Mair ed. NY: Palgrave, April 2012.

Imperfect Vessels: Emotion and rituals of anti-Ritual in American Pentecostal and Charismatic Devotional life. In Practicing the Faith: The ritual life of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians. M. Lindhert ed. NY: Berghahn Books, 2011.