Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway on her new book, Signing and Belonging in Nepal

Interview by Rebekah Cupitt

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway’s book, Signing and Belonging in Nepal (2016) captures the ongoing and changing nature of both deaf Nepali and Nepali life in general. It especially marks the shifts in how deaf Nepalis perform their identities through sign language and the relation with the larger socio-political changes occurring during the many years she has visited Nepal. She traces the ties between the caste system and notions of ritual pollution associated with the stigma assigned to deaf people, then shows how deaf signers in Nepal used an ethnolinguistic model of deafness to address this stigma, while navigating the resonances of this model with the politics of language during the Nepali Civil War. Her book also examines how the drive for Nepal to become a modern bikas (developed) nation in the eyes of the global economy influenced interactions between hearing and deaf Nepalis. Erika ends by considering how deaf signers’ practices for framing and labeling different forms of signing may be shifting in the post-war period.  I should note that during our exchange, Erika explained that although she used the d/Deaf distinction in the book at the request of the editors at Gallaudet (she had originally used local terms), in more recent works she follows the lead of deaf anthropologists who are moving away from that particular typographical distinction. The terminology used in this interview reflects that.

 Rebekah Cupitt: Could you discuss how the political changes that occurred after the People’s War have further impacted signing and deaf belonging in Nepal. For instance, is there an instance of deaf signing practices from that period which is indicative of the current political situation in Nepal?

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: I noted in the book that, since the end of the war, the structural inequalities embedded in Nepali governance have shifted slowly and unevenly in the forging of a “new Nepal.” However, symbolic changes have occurred more readily, specifically with the grounding of nationalism in caste Hinduism becoming less overt. One obvious example of this type of change, which I discussed in the book, was the 2006 appointment of a new national anthem for the secular republic. The lyrics of Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka, or, “Made of Hundreds of Flowers,” are widely understood to signal a commitment to a form of nationalism that is explicitly multicultural and multiethnic and can be seen as an attempt to performatively call forth a not yet realized political landscape, one characterized by the inclusion that adivasi janati (indigenous) groups had struggled for in the war.

In this post-war context, then, efforts to link standard Nepali Sign Language (NSL) forms with caste-Hinduism have become a less necessary and effective way to align with explicit symbols of Nepali nationalism. In the book, I addressed how pictorial images of NSL signs served as public resources through which signers could access the cannon of lexical items understood to constitute standard Nepali Sign Language, and also as a tool through which signers were encouraged to create boundaries and linkages between a range of linguistic practices, different forms of representation of such practices, and social types. This use of the creative indexicality of images continues in the post-war period, of course, but the particulars of these practices are shifting along with the changing grounding of Nepali nationalism.

For example, I am currently working on an article in which I analyze deaf artist Pratigya Shakya’s illustrations representing a NSL version of the new National Anthem. Shakya’s pictorial representations of signing practices entail representing signing bodies, both performing and embodying (through, for example, their clothing) the social groups which the signs individually and collectively reference. Thus, in order to recapitulate the new anthem’s explicit claim that Nepali nationalism is widely inclusive, the collected figures Shakya painted performing the signs represent a range of types in terms of social (caste, ethnic, and geographic) variation. Here then, the inclusiveness referred by the anthem is materialized in the figures performing the signs, as this group of figures collectively indexes a social persona of “diverse Nepali.”

Rebekah Cupitt: In Chapter 3 and 4, you talk in detail about signing practices and how they are lexically tied to Hindu traditions in some cases, and in the case of homesign (sign systems developed by deaf Nepali who grow up without access to NSL, see Hoffmann-Dilloway 2016:70), traditions and socio-economic origins are framed as less desirable from perspectives grounded in hegemonic Hindu nationalism. I know that your research makes for an important comment and account of deafness in Nepal but do you see your work as commenting on Nepali culture and religion through deaf eyes and the situated performance of sign language thus offering a counter-narrative of Nepali life?

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: While the book focuses on the practices of signers, in order to understand the political economies of their efforts to link linguistic forms to social types, it was necessary to consider scales “beyond directly observable and recordable face-to-face interactions” (Inoue 2016:153; Gal 1989). That is, it wasn’t just that I had to try to understand the ethnographic moments in which I participated within a broader social and historical context, but more specifically that I had to analyze the processes through which deaf social actors themselves understood and enacted such scalar relations (see Carr and Lempert 2016). So in that respect the book indeed seeks to highlight deaf perspectives on broader Nepali social life.

In some cases, these perspectives reproduced the hegemonic hierarchies of the state within deaf social worlds; in order to navigate the difficult period of the war, deaf leaders didn’t just work to associate NSL signing practices with the middle-hills caste-Hinduism in which Nepali nationalism was grounded. Rather, as you note, these processes also involved contrasting this cluster of practices, qualities, and affiliations with an opposed cluster that could serve as their foil (Irvine and Gal 2000). This broader project also involved work to associate homesigns with non-caste Hindu practices and qualities, in so doing replicating broader hegemonic discourses. At the same time, however, this diverse network of deaf signers did not universally share these bundles of associations. Thus, I also tried to highlight the ongoing semiotic work deaf leaders engaged in (such as leading workshops and creating images that highlighted links between signs and social qualities) in order to make these kinds of interpretive habits cohere, to some degree and for some duration.

On the other hand, the way that some signers recruited the concept of porous personhood as a tool to reduce internal hierarchy within deaf social worlds offered a counter-narrative not only of broader Nepali life but also of many enactments of ethno-linguistic models of deafness. Specifically, in some contexts, deaf people who begin to sign later in life, and whose signing shows the effects of such late-learning, may find their status as ethno-linguistically deaf challenged. Nepali signers who drew on understandings of distributed personhood to distribute linguistic competence, thus challenged not only Nepali models that would enjoin “polluted” signers to avoid contact with others, but also the internal hierarchies that can characterize the way that an ethnolinguistic model of deafness may be understood.

Rebekah Cupitt: Porous personhood as a concept is a compelling analytical device through which the social collaboration involved in becoming deaf is powerfully rendered, especially the stigma attached to it but it also forms the distinction between Nepali Sign Language signers and home-signers. Could you discuss how this notion of personhood has shifted given the decreasing focus on Hindu caste systems and the karmic model of deafness and a Nepal-wide more towards ideologies focused on development (bikas) and modernity?

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: In Chapter 5, I focused on The Bakery Café, a fast food chain in Kathmandu that hires and advertises the presence of deaf wait staff, as a way to think through this question. I pointed out that, since food was an especially effective medium for the transmission of pollution, hiring deaf waiters to serve in a restaurant chain was a risky proposition when the venture launched in 1997. However, I suggested that The Bakery Cafe was successful not in spite of the fact that the deaf waiters would “traditionally” have been understood to transmit pollution, but in large part because publicly accepting food from deaf servers created a way for customers to generate and display modern personas that hinged on a contrast with such “traditional” frames.

I should add that it’s possible see the Bakery Café’s hiring of deaf staff as part of a neoliberal commodification of linguistic and social variation, which might suggest that an individualizing frame would be overtaking a notion of porous personhood in that context. However, as Inoue (2016:166) notes, “the neoliberal self is produced through processes of “dividuation” as much as “individuation” (Inoue 2016:166), as persons are fractured into shifting bundles of qualities and skills. And, as Friedner (2015) describes concerning Indian businesses that attempt to extract value from deaf sociality, businesses hiring deaf workers may take advantage of the ways in which deaf signers work to share and distribute skills among themselves, saving the management some of the work of training and creating team dynamics. Similarly, in Nepal, it seems that models of deaf sociality generated in part through the concept of porous personhood have been productively exploited as deaf workers are incorporated into such work contexts. So, to address your question more specifically, my point is that these ideological frames and the embodied enactments of them have not replaced one another linearly, but have rather resonated together in complex ways.

Rebekah Cupitt: Are you able to speculate perhaps on what a focus on disability or the non-linguistic aspects of deaf culture potentially brings and/or removes from a study of deafness in Nepal? Given the strength of the ties between the ethnolinguistic model of deafness and the now less-popular Hindu nationalist movement, how might deaf personhood and belonging in Nepal appear differently should deaf identity be theoretically decoupled from language? 

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: To think through this question I need to be clear that concepts like personhood, identity, or disability are grounded in forms of semiosis (signification or meaning making). Linguistic practices can’t be easily separated from other modes of semiosis (see Nakassis 2016). For example, though much of my book is ostensibly about Nepali Sign Language, as the set of practices that ground an ethnolinguistic framing of deafness, consider how much of my discussion focuses on modes of semiosis that are generally considered non-linguistic, such as drawings, clothing styles, or food. While linguistic practices are explicitly centered in the meta-semiotic debates I analyze in the book, many of those practices center on forging or disrupting perceptions of entanglement between these linguistic practices and other modes of meaning.

Even as I want to keep in mind that language does not function independently of other types of meaning-making, however, working in a context in which many people (such as homesigners) have not had sufficient access to linguistically mediated sociality does make clear that linguistic semiosis is a distinctive and vital form of signification. Because deaf people often suffer from being cut off from sociality when shared linguistic practices are inaccessible, it’s difficult to imagine a politics of deafness in which language plays no role. However, there seems to be a lot of scope for variation in terms of how language is ideologized in deaf framings of personhood and larger scales of belonging. For example, while communicative sociality via accessible modalities will, I think, always be central, it may not always be seen as necessary to ground Nepali understandings of deafness in the perceived use of a particular named language like Nepali Sign Language, nor to posit hard and fast distinctions between named signed languages, spoken languages, written languages, gestural practices, and homesigns (for example, Kusters and Sahasrabudhe 2018).

Rebekah Cupitt: It strikes me, on reading the later chapters in Signing and Belonging in Nepal that deaf Nepalis have unique opportunities to engage with the international deaf community beyond receiving aid, sometimes even travelling to these countries, and therefore deaf Nepalis have access that other Nepalis, especially those from the lower castes and socio-economically poor ethnic jats lack. Towards the end of the book, you discuss what it means to be deaf and how deaf identity has changed in response to the political structure of Nepal, but I wonder if you could reflect on the potential for the deaf Nepalis you know, to themselves become drivers of change and not simply respondents – either on a national, local or global front.

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: I closed the book by saying that, “ultimately, I hope to have shown that deaf Nepalis will not only continue to respond to local and transnational change, they will also continue to actively participate in making such change” (Hoffmann-Dilloway 2016:116). Such changes may occur in part through the relationships that deaf Nepalis forge with signers from other countries – relationships that can entail travel but which are also enacted over media like Facebook and YouTube. For example, Pratigya Shakya, the deaf artist whose work I often discussed in the book, prolifically posts videos in which he provides artful portraits of Nepali and Nepali deaf life, which he addresses to a global “Deaf World.” Other signers, like Dipawali Sharmacharya, work with international organizations to create programs to help deaf Nepalis access language, schooling, and work opportunities, while yet others, like Upendra Khanal, have been publishing linguistic analyses of NSL that can affect local and transnational framing of Nepali signing practices (e.g., Morgan, Green, and Khanal 2016). However, given that broader social constructs (including both “Nepal” and the “Deaf World”) are generated (if not in predictable or controllable ways) by the interactive engagements they mediate, all deaf Nepalis are actively engaged in collaborative and contested ways of producing, shaping, and changing their social worlds.


Carr, E. Summerson, and Michael Lempert, eds. 2016. Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life. Oakland: University of California Press

Friedner, Michele, 2015. Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Gal, Susan. 1989. “Language and Political Economy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 18: 345–67.

Hoffmann-Dilloway, 2016. Signing and Belonging in Nepal. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Inoue, Miyako. 2016. “Where Has ‘Japanese Women’s Language’ Gone?: Notes on Language and Political Economy in the Age of Control Societies.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 151–77.

Irvine, Judith T. and Susan Gal, 2000. Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation. In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities (Paul Kroskrity, ed.): 35–84. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Kusters, Annelise and Sujit Sahasrabudhe, 2018. Language Ideologies on the Difference Between Gesture and Sign. Language and Communication 60: 44-63.

Morgan, Michael, Mara Green, and Upendra Khanal, 2016. Sign Language: Southern Asia. In The Sage Deaf Studies Encyclopedia (Genie Gertz and Patrick Boudreault, eds.): 815-817. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Nakassis, Constantine, 2016. Linguistic Anthropology in 2015: Not the Study of Language.  American Anthropologist 118(2): 330-345

Rebekah Cupitt’s “Making Difference: Deafness and video technology at work”

rebekah culpritt


Meetings – a photo of a poster hanging on the wall of the office I moved into on the first day of my PhD at KTH. I noted and documented it because it was an accurate representation of my own impression of meetings, pre-research – pre-thesis.

That a discussion of meetings takes place on page 99 of my thesis is perhaps a bit unexpected given its title, Make difference: Deafness and video technology at work. Meetings do not figure here and there are good reasons why…

My doctoral research was on how video technology and people’s (deaf and hearing) interactions with it in the course of the work of television production create distinct and fluid subjectivities. I used empirical examples to recount how these diverse subjectivities are enacted in different contexts and sometimes for specific (political) purposes. In the later chapters, I go on to illustrate how the multiple ways of being deaf, hearing, and interpreting materialise during instances where video technology is used. These instances are video *meetings*. The meeting forms a setting of sorts and is convened to carry out work. Is it an event, is it a practice, how can it be understood within the larger context of the work of television production and the organisation of the television station? It is these kinds of questions the discussion on page 99 pre-empts.

Page 99 is part of one of three introductory chapters that lay the groundwork for later discussions (Technology, Organisation, Meetings). Each of these chapters establishes how technology, the organisation (Swedish Television) and meetings (video meetings) are treated and framed in my analysis. In Meetings, I discuss the various conceptualisations and ways of analytically approaching meetings from a variety of perspectives. It goes without saying that the subject matter of this page mis-represents the topic of my thesis to a certain extent but it is indicative of a critical part of my research – its necessary inter-disciplinarity. As an anthropologist practising in a non-anthropological institution, this page is about how I position myself in relation to the field of research of Human-Computer Interaction. It is also about drawing from my disciplinary background and translating anthropological knowledge into a language that can be understood by computer scientists, audiologists, engineers, designers, and of course, my fellow anthropologists and social scientists.

Not only is this page about positionality but this page, and the thesis on a whole, is a proving ground. It is about me distinguishing myself from my disciplinary ancestors and previous researchers. It is about Making Difference – which is in itself, the subject and entire point of the thesis. In writing this page, and my thesis, I am carrying out the scholarly work of mimesis and alterity: showing that I am at once the same and yet distinct, different and more than… This task mirrors the ways in which the employees at Swedish Television carry out video meetings. In each video meeting, there is a sense of collaboration, of the team coming together, identifying as ‘same’, sharing the same goals and knowledge. Yet there are differences that co-exist with this sense of togetherness and belonging. Hearing colleagues acknowledge and work hard to incorporate and adapt their hearing ways of being to shared understandings of deafness and communication in sign language. Deaf colleagues accommodate and adapt to hearing ways of communication, and the interpreters vacillate between modalities of communication. The video technology, however is designed and functions purely from a hearing point of view and this affects the ways in which deafness (and hearing) are performed during video meetings.

While page 99 gives no hint at this (other than its rebellious stance against Goffman, perhaps), my thesis concludes with a challenge to all interested in technology and its design to question the normative assumptions that hide behind design decisions and utopian visions of technological futures.

Cupitt, Rebekah. 2017. “Make difference. Deafness and video technology at work” KTH, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, PhD dissertation.