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Reading the (Anthropological) Signs


When Abigail Henkel ’21 walks through the streets of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, she doesn’t rush through the neighborhood with her friends in tow, searching for a bowl of ramen, as she used to do. Instead, she takes her time, taking pictures of signs on bakeries, cafes, and other shops to later analyze. Rather than view the community with the brusque recognition of a tourist, she examines Chinatown with the eye of a deferential, thoughtful spectator.

Abigail Henckel '21
Abigail Henkel '21

This summer, Henkel is conducting research on the linguistic landscape of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. To do so, she has been collecting data on the store signs that she sees in Chinatown, noting which language they appear in and what they say. In determining the degree to which signs are in English, Chinese, or multilingual and what they translate to, she is attempting to ascertain whether the shops are marketed toward tourists or Chinatown locals. By the end of her project, Henkel hopes that her research will illustrate the effects of Chinatown gentrification and “how this is evident in the representation of, and the  communication with, real and imagined audiences that want to grab a bite to eat in Philadelphia Chinatown.”

Henkel, an anthropology and French and francophone studies double major, noted that the inspiration for her project came from classes that she took at Hamilton. “After I took Professor Andrea Murray’s ‘Political Ecology of Tourism’ course in the spring of 2018, my eyes were opened to the ways that I had affected communities as a tourist,” she said.

In that same semester, she took a class with her project advisor, Lecturer in Religious Studies Meredith Moss, called “Indigenous Language Revitalization,” wherein Henkel learned how a language’s signage could impact a person’s perception of that language. As such, she stated, “Through this project, I ask if tourists are perpetuating the same forces that once bound Chinese Philadelphians to this neighborhood through linguistic/economic means.”

About Abigail Henkel ’21

Majors: Anthropology, French and Francophone Studies

Hometown: Haddon Township, N.J.

High school: Haddon Township High School

read about other student research

For Henkel, the research project represents a greater linguistic issue that she wants to continue exploring. She said that gentrification can be observed in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown through signage, and her summer research has helped her better understand the political and economic influences in neighborhoods like Chinatown. In the future, she intends to keep researching urban linguistic landscapes, which she described as a “lens for various topics, such as tourism, sociolinguistics, education, economics, and government.”

In all, Henkel’s research addresses broader sociopolitical issues, and she hopes to develop similar work and case studies as she progresses in her academic and professional career.

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