About the Symposium

Jakobson picture

The Roman Jakobson Symposium was established to advance the study of language and semiosis (sign processes) in the social sciences.  Hosted annually by the Department of Anthropology at Harvard, the symposium emphasizes comparative, empirical research and methodological innovation organized around language, interaction, communication, and media as fundamental and unavoidable problematics in social and political theory. 

The symposium is named in honor of the late Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), the Samuel Hazard Cross Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and General Linguistics at Harvard (1949-1967) and one of the greatest linguists and semioticians of the twentieth century.  Jakobson’s work had a profound influence on many disciplines.  Anthropology in particular has been shaped by Jakobson’s groundbreaking contributions to phonology and morphology, his seminal theory of poetic function, and the conceptual bridges he built between European semiology (in the structuralist tradition of Ferdinand de Saussure) and North American semiotics (in the pragmaticist tradition of Harvard alumnus Charles S. Peirce).  This event spotlights the generative potential of semiotic approaches to understanding the pressing social, political, and intellectual questions of our time.

Annual Themes

2019            Signs of Race, Racializing Signs

2021-22      Seminars with the Harvard-Yenching Institute Program in Linguistic and Semiotic Anthropology


Further Reading on Jakobson in Anthropology

Caton, Steven. 1987. "Contributions of Roman Jakobson." Annual Review of Anthropology. 16:223–260.

Silverstein, Michael. 2017. "Forty Years of Speaking (of) the Same (Object) Language – Sans le Savoir." Langage et Société  2-3(160–161):93–110.



Nicholas Harkness
Modern Korean Economy and Society Professor of Anthropology