Webb Keane speaks Malay in both its formal Indonesian version (Bahasa Indonesia) and the regional variant common in the Southeastern Islands, as well as Anakalangese (a language of Sumba) and Spanish. He reads Dutch, French, and elementary Latin.
Keane has carried out extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia and research in Dutch colonial and missionary archives. In addition to two years on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, he has lived in east Java and Jakarta.
His current Indonesian research is urban and translocal in focus and concerns national language, semiotic ideologies, print and electronic media, and public and cosmopolitan cultures. At present, his main ethnographic focus is on blasphemy, secular understandings of language, and ideas about freedom in Indonesian journalism.
His comparative and theoretical work focuses on problems in religion, secularism, ethics, and morality, the dialectics of objectification, and on rethinking the material dimensions of social and cultural life.
The major topics of his earlier Sumbanese and Dutch research have been the forms and functions of ritual speech and material exchange, the values and practices introduced along with money and commodities, colonial missionaries and the processes of conversion from ancestral ritual to Protestant Christianity, and the church in post-colonial society. He brings this ethnographic research to bear on a range of theoretical and comparative problems in the study of religion, materiality, language, value, and history.
His legal and business consulting experience ranges from cultural influences on moral judgement to Indonesian social services, family dynamics, and religion.
In addition to his core interests in socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology, Keane is also interested in archaeology. He participated in a project organized by Ian Hodder, collaborating with archaeologists who are analyzing the Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük in Turkey. In an earlier incarnation, he worked as an archaeological draftsman in the Peruvian Andes.