Debra Spitulnik Vidali

Associate Professor

Office: 209 Anthropology. Office hours Wedneday 9:00 - 10:30am and by appointment.

Phone: 404-727-3651


Additional Contact Information


  • PhD, Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Chicago, 1994
  • MA, Anthropology, University of Chicago, 1985
  • BA, Language and Mind, University of California-Berkeley, 1983



  • Public Anthropology
  • Ethnographic Theater-Making
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Voice & (In)visibility
  • Experimental Ethnography
  • Media Anthropology
  • Language & Discourse
  • Phenomenology
  • Critical Epistemology
  • Africa, U.S., Native American studies (Haudenosaunee)

My research focuses on civic engagement, human expression, and the frontiers of ethnography.  This work is guided by a theoretical and methodological examination of language and discourse in relation to power and “reality” construction.  As an ethnographer of communication, I see knowledge production -- and the production of expertise around knowledge production – as integrally linked to communication genres and forms of representation.  The interplay of voice and (in)visibility are central to this process.

In recent years, I have created projects which bring ethnography off the written page, as a theater-maker and as a multi-media ethnographic artist.  Many of these projects have a social justice or applied angle that situates anthropological insights in the service of wider communities for positive social change.  In this vein, I join a long tradition of social justice and humanistic anthropology that endeavors to decolonize scholarship and pedagogy and to understand humanity at its fullest expression.  In all of these efforts, I work between and across disciplines, communities, forms, and audiences.  Collaboration is a priority in my work and my view of anthropology’s future.

I work primarily in the U.S., and am starting to develop new projects in the area of Native American studies.  Previous research has focused on state radio broadcasting, discourse circulation, multilingualism, and national publics in Zambia.

Recent publications include an essay about “Repairing a Screaming Silence” in public knowledge about Native American histories and contemporary realities, and a book chapter about my boundary-crossing work in creating a verbatim documentary theater production about civic engagement in the US.  I am co-editor and contributor in a recent special issue of the journal Ethnography on “Civic Mediations” (2014, 15:1).  I am the founding director of the Re-Generation Initiative, a public scholarship initiative which aims to re-generate well-being, civic engagement and community dialogues through creative theater projects, storytelling, ethnography & multi-platform events.  Over the past five years, I have created and facilitated over a dozen ethnographic theater projects and participatory ethnographic theater workshops.  These projects have addressed issues of civic engagement, democracy and voting; global citizenship; gender stereotypes; racism; media overload; and our relations to time and stress in modern society. 

Building on an earlier period of research in Zambia, last Fall I co-created and exhibited a multi-sensorial ethnographic installation which is currently hosted on the web and in development for other applications.  I also recently updated a major online project on Bemba, the most widely spoken language in Zambia.

In addition to being a faculty member in Emory University’s Department of Anthropology, I am a founding member and core faculty member of Emory's Program in Linguistics.  I served as Director of the Program in Linguistics in 2002-2005.  I am also an associated faculty member of the Department of Film & Media Studies, where I assisted in the creation of an undergraduate minor.  I created and ran the Critical Media Literacy Group at Emory (2009-2012).  This year I was elected to serve as member-at-large on the Executive Board of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology. 

Future work will continue at the intersection of social science and theater/performance.  Issues of voice and (in)visibility will continue to frame my public anthropology contributions.  I also anticipate new experiments with soundscapes, spoken word, and cross-cultural ways of knowing.  Additional areas of interest and expertise where I support students include:  media anthropology, discourse analysis, public sphere theory, phenomenology, sensory ethnography, and the ethnography of subjectivity, affect, and embodiment.


  • ANT 240 Language and Culture
  • ANT 280 Native Peoples of North America
  • ANT 342 Media and Culture
  • ANT 372 Ethnographic Methods and Writing
  • ANT 385 Ethnography, Theater, and Performance
  • ANT 385 Public Anthropology
  • ANT 511 Discourse Analysis
  • ANT 585 Ethnography and Its Edges
  • FILM 204 Introduction to Media Studies (Contributing Lecturer)