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. http://stsinfrastructures.org/content/tom-boellstorff/essay.
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.
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, Indonesia, chronicled 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 ...in 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.
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