The Astor Visiting Lecture: Words and Deeds

In this talk, I share some vignettes from my recent fieldwork among African
migrants living in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London in order to reflect on
the cultural and strategic reasons why migrants are often averse to speaking
their minds, telling their stories, or sharing their feelings. In linking this
parsimony in speech to economy in consumption, I explore not simply what
words mean or are made to mean, but what words do – their social effects,
their political repercussions, and their practical entailments. In this endeavor
I am, to some extent, echoing Wittgenstein’s proposition that ‘one cannot
guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that,’
though I am also mindful of Malinowski’s emphasis on language as ‘a mode of
action rather than as a countersign of thought.’