Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.
This month the studio features Tom Boellstorff, Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist.
(1) What are you most passionate about–in life? In your work?
Working for intellectual inquiry and social justice, and feeling like I am living my life to the fullest. The joy of being overwhelmed.
(2) What were you like in junior high school? Rebellious? Studious? Popular? Shy? Intense?
Nerdy and shy. Being gay in junior high school in Nebraska and Oklahoma in the 1980s was not easy.
(3) When and how did you first encounter anthropology? And when did you decide to embrace it as a profession? Do you remember the moment?
I remember when, as an undergraduate, a friend of mine said “I’ve decided to study anthropology,” and for some strange reason I had a premonition and thought “I will do that someday.” (That friend of mine is still an anthropologist herself!)
(4) I know that you consider yourself a linguistic anthropologist, but I bet that many people who read your books or “meet” you in your current role as Editor-in-Chief of AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST do not know that. How important is your linguistic anthropology training to your current work? Or even to your professional sense of self?
My undergraduate majors were in music and linguistics. But for my final two years in college at Stanford, I did independent studies with Joseph Greenberg and became almost a secretary to him. He was, of course, retired at that time, but he devoted incredible time to me and his work on language typology, language and thought, and other topics influences me to this day. After a year of gay activist work after college, I entered the Ph.D. program in linguistics at Berkeley and worked in cognitive linguistics, studying under George Lakoff and Eve Sweetser. After only a year I realized it wasn’t the right thing for me and left the program, working for another year for an HIV/AIDS nonprofit before entering the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Stanford.
So my training is very odd in this way. I never really trained in linguistic anthropology; I trained in pure linguistics as both an undergraduate and for a year in graduate school. And because I never took any anthropology courses before entering graduate school, it was only while earning my Ph.D. that I really became exposed to linguistic anthropology. I ended up co-editing a book on language and sexuality (Speaking in Queer Tongues) and writing an article published in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology about gay language in Indonesia.
Now, I get to teach undergraduate courses on linguistic anthropology from time to time, and teach language theory in many of my graduate courses as well. It remains important to me and, for instance, if you look at my research on virtual worlds, you’ll see I’m often attending to language and incorporating language theory. Indeed, a keystone of my new project is using theories of indexicality to rethink “digital anthropology,” given the origin of “digital” in “digit,” the pointing finger. It’s also important to my professional sense of self in that it reminds me of the odd paths by which so many of us come to our interests and passions; I tell my story to graduate students sometimes to illustrate how you don’t have to know from the outset “what you will be.”
(5) People who read your work on “Second Life” may be surprised to know that much of your earlier work dealt with sexuality and gender, and I bet the same is true of those who read your sexuality/gender work first. How do you respond to people who express genuine surprise (and interest) in the change of topic? (I know you have immersed yourself deeply in both and do not know if you like thinking about the connections between the two overall projects and delighting in explaining it to others.)
It’s usual for anthropologists after their first research projects (based on their dissertations) to want to try a new research project. In some cases there’s a very close link to the earlier work, in some cases it’s somewhat different, and in some cases really different! In my own case, I really wanted to try something very different from my original work. I’d always been interested in technology and got curious about studying virtual worlds. I purposely decided not to focus on sexuality because of wanting to try something different, so while I discuss sexuality in Coming of Age in Second Life, it’s not the core topic of the book.
I’ve enjoyed doing both projects in parallel even though it’s been a lot of work. So, for instance, my 2009 American Ethnologist article “Nuri’s Testimony” and my June 2011 Cultural Anthropology article “But Do Not Identify as Gay” are about my sexuality work, not the virtual worlds work. Once my term as Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist ends next year, I plan on some research that will bring the projects together in new ways. I enjoy both the distinctiveness of the projects, and then putting them together in ways that surprise me.
(6) What makes you sad?
Injustice, talent wasted, lives cut short. Doing so much work on HIV/AIDS over the years has really impressed this upon me.
(7) What makes you mad?
See the above.
(8) What is one thing that only close friends know about you that you are now willing to share with others?
Nothing really springs to mind. I think this might be part of my own particular experience as a gay man; I’ve been shaped by a discourse of selfhood where being “out,” open about myself, has been very important–because I have seen the terrible power of silence. ACT-UP got it so right, early on in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with the “SILENCE = DEATH” slogan.
(9) Have you ever considered holding public office, starting an NGO, or devoting yourself directly or fully to political advocacy? Do you find yourself laughing at this question or surprised that I would ask?
It’s a great question, not surprising at all, but it has a dark side. I was in Moscow during the 1991 coup attempt, working underground with gay activists and then using computers the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission had brought over (and were in my apartment) to help print fliers for the pro-democracy resistance. I was Regional Coordinator at the Institute for Community Health Outreach in San Francisco and worked with that organization for many years, and have sat on the Board of Directors for that organization, Mobilization Against AIDS, and others. My first two trips to Indonesia I wasn’t even in graduate school yet; I was an HIV/AIDS and gay activist. I’ve helped many LGBT and HIV/AIDS nonprofits in Indonesia and still serve on the advisory board for two; one of them had their inaugural meeting in my apartment in 1993. I’ve also been involved in a lot of community activism in Long Beach, California, where I live.
So, on the one hand, activism has been central to my life; indeed, it was my path into academia. On the other hand, we can never forget the strains of anti-intellectualism in American society and never want to inadvertently strengthen them. I think that anthropologists who do no clearly identifiable activist work are completely legitimate, and that intellectual work is valuable on its own terms. It is not being ensconced in an ivory tower but being engaged in the human journey. Not everyone has to take the activist route I have taken, nor do I or anyone else needs to take it through our whole lives. Of course, I encourage activist work and see no contradiction between activist work and rigorous intellectual work. So the point is that for me it has been very important, and I encourage others to work for social justice and also for greater visibility for anthropology in public discourse, but also that intellectual work is activism, even if its effects are not always immediately apparent.
(10) What is the one question you wish I had asked but didn’t?
What are the challenges and benefits of anthropological publishing now and into the future? But that we can discuss another day!
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