Tom Boellstorff

Cite as:

Woodruff, Maggie. 2018. “Tom Boellstorff.” In UCI Anthro Faculty, edited by James Adams and Maggie Woodruff.  In UCI Anthro STS, edited by James Adams and Maggie Woodruff. In STS Across Borders Digital Exhibit, edited by Aalok Khandekar and Kim Fortun. Society for Social Studies of Science. August.

Essay Metanarrative

Tom Boellstorff is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research and writing is concerned with ideas of selfhood, embodiment, belonging, and emergent socialities in such field sites as Indonesia and the online world Second Life. His recent and current projects have explored the subjects of big data and disability in context of the misleading digital/real divide.

This PECE essay helps to answer the STS Across Borders analytic question: “What people, projects, and products exemplify how this STS formation has developed over time?”

This essay is part of a broader exhibit on UCI Anthro STS.

STS Across Borders In Brief

STS Across Borders is a special exhibit organized by the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) to showcase how the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has developed in different times, places...Read more

Who is Tom Boellstorff?

Tom Boellstorff's CV - July 2018

Tom Boellstorff's CV is available on his faculty web page.Read more

Interview with Tom Boellstorff, June 2018

Tom Boellstorff is a digital anthropologist. It’s one of his core identities. Another core identity is queer anthropology; Southeast Asian studies, medical anthropology, disability studies, and linguistics are important “subsidiary” domains of research interest. These core and subsidiary interests have shifted over his career, but not in a way he planned at the outset. “Often trajectories are post-hoc … because you’re a human being, there’s going to be a trajectory in the sense that your own history is going to shape what you see and what you read and what you cite.” And Boellstorff’s own history has certainly helped shape his research trajectory.

Boellstorff’s first two books, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia and A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesiachronicled his studies among queer communities in Indonesia. But he began this research after he left the PhD program in Linguistics at Berkeley to work for a non-profit conducting HIV prevention outreach, among other things. Boellstorff was aware of STS research; because of his experience with HIV/AIDS activism, Boellstorff was familiar with medical anthropology, and he was also teaching STS authors such as Bruno Latour and Stefan Helmreich to undergraduate and graduate students. One key connection between the Indonesia project and his third book, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, was mass media, Boellstorff explains. He considers digital anthropology to be part of STS, and describes science and technology studies as “an open and friendly space” for scholarship on digital cultures.

Reflecting on the "Across Borders" metaphor, Boellstorff notes that it is “a very continental metaphor that occurs to Americans or to Europeans where you have borders that migrants are coming across an archipelago, borders are internal." As Boellstorff reminded me, the world “archipelago” means “between the waters,” and STS is already a crossing of borders, between science and technology; in an international sense, “Across Borders” can also mean “across disciplines, across field sites." With this in mind, Boellstorff wonders, what would “STS between Islands” look like?


Boellstorff, Tom. Interview by author. Personal interview. Irvine, CA, June 12, 2018.



Notable Work

For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real

In this 2016 article, Tom Boellstorff argues that the ontological turn and related theoretical moves can help illuminate digital cultures and the false opposition between "digital" and "real." Boellstorff provides a link to the PDF on his...Read more


Tom Boellstorff's Spring 2010 MSTS Syllabus

Prior to the UC Irvine Anthropology Department offering an MSTS Masters program, Tom Boellstorff offered an independent study in Spring of 2010 on MSTS.Read more

For more syllabi from Tom Boellstorff's classes, view his website here.

What books do you recommend, Tom?

Asked what books he recommends in terms of classic work on technology and culture , Tom Boellstorff had this to offer:

  • Stefan Helmreich, Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in Digital World
  • Tom Standage,
  • ...Read more