Emergent Coherences

From the Series: Queer Futures

Photo by Michael Held.

Life is long, and not everyone researches one thing their whole life. We all know anthropologists who work in one fieldsite for their entire career, and others who shift projects. We are addressing a subset of this phenomenon around queer topics. My original work was about gay and lesbi Indonesians (Boellstorff 2005, 2007), and I have also done work in virtual worlds (Boellstorff 2008; Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, and Taylor 2012). Like others in this forum, I found this liberating: I loved learning a new set of literatures and finding a research community as welcoming as the one I found in queer anthropology.

I intentionally pushed myself to do something different from my original work and to have the coherence come after the fact, so to speak. To have it be emergent through the research, and thus create from the outset a space to be surprised (and I was). A connection without a trajectory, or at least without one set out ahead of time. Part of this is the question of traveling theory. As we know, the insights of feminist theory, critical race theory, and disability theory cannot be limited to their ostensible referents. You can use feminist theory to think about economics, you can use disability theory to think about embodiment, and so on.

Similarly, queer anthropology can travel, and can be just as queer in new contexts. And you can loop back: the trajectories we are talking about here are not always linear. They do not always take the form of “serial monogamy,” even though the limitations of time and energy mean that researchers must make choices regarding what they focus on at any point in time. It is both exhausting and exciting to learn that life layers as one moves through an anthropological career. You never really let the old stuff go.

In terms of connections that emerged after the fact, and as an example from my own work in Indonesia and in virtual worlds, I found shared resonances regarding making new kinds of fieldsites amenable to ethnographic investigation in order to show the broad value of anthropology. I also found resonances in redefinitions of the human and an expansion of what it means to be a full human being. In virtual worlds, one of the debates I’m involved in right now is in regard to the notion of the “posthuman”—the idea that when you add technology to the human, you get some kind of posthuman. Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan (2014, 4–20) have noted that every twenty years or so, people assert that we are now posthuman because of a new technology. They have asked: what might happen if we thought instead about a kind of latency—what I might term a potentiality—of the human with regard to technology, which is thereby attained by virtue of this new technology? A particular danger of the language of the posthuman is that anthropologists have a disturbing history of calling some people less human than others, which goes back to the beginnings of the discipline. So I worry about what it means when instead of expanding the human, we say that certain people are posthuman or nonhuman in any shape or form. This point links queer and digital anthropology for me.

The role of mediation and mass media has been very important in Indonesia—before the internet, and to this day. That mediation is an interesting link between my earlier queer anthropological work and the queerness of my digital anthropological work. One particularly important way this link shows up is with regard to placemaking. Placemaking was central to what I found in Indonesia—from gay and lesbi Indonesians making spaces of community in homes and parks to the nation itself as a place of sexual belonging. Virtual worlds also represent forms of placemaking; the most fundamental aspect of virtual worlds and something that distinguishes them from many other forms of online sociality is that they are places.

One final example: I have coedited a book about “big data” (Boellstorff and Maurer 2015), and in my own chapter in that volume I discuss what I term the “dialectic of surveillance and recognition.” Many people have used Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon to discuss the dangers of big data. I contend, however, that an equally important notion to draw from Foucault is that of the confession. Confessional discourse gives us a way to think about the desire to post, to be recognized—indeed, on some level to be surveilled. We need a way to deal theoretically with that desire when looking at all manner of online social interactions. Obviously, this interest in confessional discourse originates in my queer background.

So I have found liberation in trying something new, and part of that is what anyone finds from doing a second project. I think we are all talking about new futures for queer anthropology that are “queerying” broader domains. It’s a very exciting moment that we are in: a good time to take stock and think about these things as they work in terms of the discipline, but also in terms of our individual life courses and as communities of scholars.


Boellstorff, Tom. 2005. The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

_____. 2007. A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

_____. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

_____, and Bill Maurer, eds. 2015. Data, Now Bigger and Better! Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

_____, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Miller, Daniel, and Jolynna Sinanan. 2014. Webcam. Cambridge: Polity Press.