Nicholas Harkness’s research aims to understand and explain the role of language, communication, conceptualization, and other semiotic processes in the formation and transformation of social groups. He is the Modern Korean Economy and Society Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Korea Institute at Harvard University. At Harvard, he also organizes the Roman Jakobson Symposium and the Harvard-Yenching Institute Field Development Program in Linguistic and Semiotic Anthropology.
Harkness’s long-term ethnographic research in South Korea has focused on language, music, and religion within the context of Korea’s massive engagement with Protestant Christianity in the 20th and 21st Centuries. This research has resulted in publications that primarily contribute to three foundational anthropological problematics. The first is an empirically comprehensive and analytically robust theorization of “voice,” systematically linking phonosonic process at the level of bodies and sounds to more interdiscursively expansive social “voicings” across semiotic events of speech and song. This project resulted in the book, Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea (2014). The second is an investigation of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues,” that harnesses major advances in linguistic anthropology over the past half century to develop a multidimensional ethnographic explanation of speech behavior at the limits of language. This research culminated in Harkness's second book, Glossolalia and the Problem of Language (2021). The third is the development of a distinctively anthropological approach to the problem of “qualia” that works at the limits of our current semiotic paradigm to theorize the sensuous aspects of social life.
Harkness’s scholarship and teaching have been recognized by numerous awards, including the Edward Sapir Book Prize from the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (American Anthropological Association), the Richard Saller Prize for the Most Distinguished Dissertation in the Division of Social Sciences (University of Chicago), and the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Excellence in Teaching (Harvard University). Harkness is also the recipient of major grants and fellowships, including from the Social Science Research Council, the National Humanities Center (Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship), the Academy of Korean Studies, the Korea Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation (Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowship).