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Warwick Anderson

East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal,

Volume 6, Number 4, 2012, pp. 445-451 (Article)

For additional information about this article

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East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (2012) 6:445451
DOI 10.1215/18752160-1572849

Asia as Method in Science and Technology Studies

Warwick Anderson

Received: 4 July 2011 / Accepted: 15 November 2011

q National Science Council, Taiwan 2012

Abstract One of the more exciting developments in science and technology studies
(STS) is the emergence of institutions, research schools, and career paths in the field in
Asia. Already it is clear that this constitutes no simple diffusion of STS from Western
Europe and North America (or even Australasia). Asian developments are adding to
the heterogeneity of STS, offering new approaches, different emphases, and fresh
topics. How, then, is East Asian STS related to local technoscientific nationalism, to
area studies, to postcolonial critique, and to the interrogation of globalization? In what
ways is it distinctive? In particular, how might STS scholars negotiate a path between
essentializing the East Asian historical experience and offering a fresh critique of
technoscience and modernity?
In reviewing the emergence of science and technology studies in Japan during the past
twenty years, Togo Tsukahara (2009: 507) asked: Are scholars still dependent on
Western intellectual frameworks, or developing independent scholarship? One of the
pioneers of the field in East Asia, Tsukahara lamented the colonial and Westerndependent character of intellectuals; Western theoretical frameworks are simply
translated without critical examination, and introduced (507). Since the beginning
of the 1990s, science and technology studies have flourished in Japan, Taiwan, and
South Korea, giving rise to university research centers, national and inter-Asian networks, scholarly journals (including East Asian Science, Technology and Society), and
regular conferences, culminating in 2010 with the annual meeting of the Society for
Social Studies of Science (4S) in Tokyo. According to Gregory Clancey, a leading
STS researcher at the National University of Singapore, The empirical material is
there [in Asia] for the taking and is being taken up by more and more scholars operating under an STS rubric (2009: 530). Obviously Clancey was using the term rubric

I thank Chen Ruey-Lin and colleagues for encouraging me to join this conversation. I am especially grateful
for the advice and comments of Prasenjit Duara, Michael Fischer, Fu Daiwie, Sandra Harding, Helen
Xinhong Hao, and Angela Ki-che Leung.
W. Anderson (*)
Department of History and Centre for Values, Ethics, and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney,
Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia


W. Anderson

in the sense of a heading or category, rather than a set of instructions or customary

practice. But what is happening under this rubric? Are we participating in STS as
usual, drawing on Asian materials? Or are East Asian theories emerging in the regional
practice of STS? Can we imagine Asia as method in STS?
Some South Asian STS scholars already may claim they have left nothing to our
imagination. Since the 1970s an active debate has taken place about the status and
meaning of science, technology, and medicine in India, much of it occurring within
distinctive Gandhian and postcolonial frameworks. Until recently, the relations of
these Indian studies to formal STS scholarship beyond the subcontinent often have
seemed brittle and fragmentary. But that disconnection deserves further consideration.
Is it possible, as Sandra Harding (1998, 2008) argues, that Indian critics of Western
science and technology such as Ashis Nandy (1988, 1995), Shiv Visvanathan (1997),
and Vandana Shiva (1989) are viewing and transforming STS from a regional standpoint? Could they be creating a South Asian STS with distinctive concerns about the
mixing of Indian tradition and European science, conflicted subjectivities and alternative modernities, neocolonial hegemony and social injustice? Harding (1994: 326) is
prepared to use South Asian scholarship to position Third World forms of democratic, pacific life-maintaining and communal tendencies against the imperialistic,
violent, consuming and possessively individualistic ones prevailing in the West. At
the same time, Itty Abraham (2006: 210) points to the regional political implications of
identifying science and technology as a site for understanding the clash of knowledges and the formation of alternative modernitiesof the sort Harding extols.
Despite the critical intentions of the authors, Abraham reports, nationalist forces
readily can distort and mobilize such ontological claims. Evidently, the politics of
science and technology takes on particular intellectual form and possesses special
valence in the Indian context. Yet even if we recognize this model of inquiry as a
distinctively South Asian intellectual and political endeavor, it seems many continue
to resist it as science studies, perhaps in part because we fear its practitioners may not
care to return our gaze.
In contrast to South Asia, the links of the East Asian science studies community to
Western STS scholars appear more carefully cultivated and mutually supportive. But
does this conviviality come at the cost of self-determination? More provocatively, can
we recognize neocolonial elements in East Asian STS? What are the possibilities, as
Fu Daiwie (2007) and Chen Ruey-Lin (2012) ask, of working through East Asian STS
theories? These questions all point to the challenge, so pressing to those of us beyond
North Atlantic shores, of imagining critical scholarship under conditions of neoliberal
Of course, the problem of Asia as method predates the development of STS in
East Asia. I suspect that they [Asian values] are possible as method, that is to say, as
the process of the subjects self-formation, wrote Takeuchi Yoshimi (2005 [1960]:
65). This I have called Asia as method, and yet it is impossible to state definitely
what this may mean. A Japanese expert on the Chinese writer Lu Xun, Takeuchi
believed that modernity in Asia was secondhand colonial modernity and that Asia
therefore must find an alternative route to modernization through deconstructing
Europe and its hegemony. Thus, Asia as method suggested a new vision of agency
and subjectivity in critical relation to colonial modernitynot the valorizing of
preexisting Asian values or other regional ontologies (Sakai 2010). Rather than

Asia as Method in Science and Technology Studies


negation of the West, it implied a more equal tactical engagement with it. Takeuchi felt
that the Orient must re-embrace the West, it must change the West itself in order to
realize the latters outstanding cultural values on a greater scale. Such a rollback of
culture and values would create universality. The Orient must change the West in
order to further elevate those universal values that the West itself produced. This is the
main problem facing East-West relations today, and it is at once a political and cultural
issue (2005: 65). Evidently Takeuchi remained committed to rationalist teleology
and enmeshed in Orientalist typologies, but nonetheless he was proposing a different
set of questionsor at least questioners.
Taking up Asia as method more recently, Taiwanese cultural studies scholar
Kuan-hsing Chen (2010: xv) describes how using Asia as an imaginary anchoring
point can allow societies in Asia to become one anothers reference points, so that
understanding of the self can be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt. A crucial part
of the project requires theory to be deimperialized (3). Chen discounts regional
investments in nationalism and nativism, arguing instead for the development of a
subaltern or third-world consciousness (21), or what he calls the analytic framework
of geocolonial historical materialism (65). That is, he urges Asian intellectuals to
recognize their postmodern geographical location and postcolonial historical condition. This opens up the possibility of decolonizing Asian subjectivities, a process
that Cold War imperatives once interrupted. Drawing inspiration from the postcolonial criticism propounded by Frantz Fanon, Octave Mannoni, and Ashis Nandy, Chen
contends that intellectuals in Asia must engage critically with their formation under
Euro-American imperialism and internal regional colonialism. For too long they have
unreflectively used the West as method. Thus, opportunities for Asians to get to know
each other intellectually are often intercepted by the structural flows of desire toward
North America and Europe (225). The task of Asia as method, then, is to multiply
frames of reference in our subjectivity and worldview, so that anxiety over the West
can be diluted, and productive critical work can move forward (223).
From time to time, Kuan-hsing Chen is careful to distinguish Asia as method
from narrowly vernacular proposals such as Mizoguchi Yuzos China as method
(Chen 2010). Using China as synecdoche, Mizoguchi sought to place Japan within
Asia, impeding its departure toward Europe and North America. While Takeuchi tried
to think of Asia as a process, Mizoguchi believed it more practical to find refuge in
another national modernity that could represent the material Asia, one that appeared to
negate the West (Chen 2010). Yet Chen also hints occasionally at the attractions of
Asian, or Chinese, essentialism. Although he gestures toward Asian heterogeneity,
Southeast Asia, for example, drops out of the Asian ecumene, which is more or less
reduced to Northeast Asia or Chinese East Asia. Chen observes that members of
critical intellectual circles in Asia are better equipped to move beyond the limit of the
nation-state boundary, to develop discourses congruent with the new condition, to
create a new discursive mood, and to imagine new possibilities (Chen 2010: 214). But
he leaves open the question of who is eligible to join this elite Asian club. The influences of Takeuchi and Mizoguchi sometimes seem to compete in Chens narrative. In
the end, advocacy of critical syncretism prevailsthus Chen recommends the effort
to actively interiorize elements of others into the subjectivity of the self (99). He
notes the local formation of modernity carries important elements of the West, but is
not fully enveloped by it; the West therefore is not eliminated from the cultural


W. Anderson

calculus but becomes one cultural resource among many others (223). Asia as a state
of mind and, as a subject position, becomes remarkably cosmopolitan, heterogeneous,
and hybrid.
Ultimately, the import of this argument depends on how one thinks of Asia. Chinese
literary historian Wang Hui (2007 [2002]) explains that Asia began as a European
notion, principally as a figure in the writings of Montesquieu, Adam Smith, G. W. F.
Hegel, and Karl Marx, useful for European self-constitution. Asia emerged as both
geographical category and form of civilization, variously signified by Oriental despotism, the Asiatic mode of production, hydraulic societies, Confucianism,
and Asian valuesthe well-known medley of Orientalism and Asian exceptionalism (Acharya 2010). The local imagining of Asia was entangled in nationalist aspirations, expressed perhaps most vividly in Sun Yat-sens Great Asianism speech in
Kobe in 1924, the harbinger of an expanded Asia consisting of nation-states. More
recently, Asia could be been seen as a means of overcoming national sovereignty
(Duara 2010). As Wang eloquently concludes, the idea of Asia is at the same time
colonialist and anticolonialist, conservative and revolutionary, nationalist and internationalist, originating in Europe and shaping Europes image of itself, closely related
to visions of both nation-state and empire, a notion of non-European civilization, and
a geographic category established through geopolitical relations (2007 [2002]: 27).
According to Wang, the imagined Asia is neither self-sufficient subject nor subordinate object (27)that is, neither definite and self-contained nor simply relational. Its
multiplicity keeps bursting out of any number of essentialist straitjackets (see also
Spivak 2008). Even so, Naoki Sakai plaintively asks how civilizational designations
such as the West, Asia, Europe, and so forth, are still possible today (2010: 446). Why
has it been so hard to disenchant ourselves from this civilizational spell (447)?
This brings us back to the original question: What might Asia as method mean for
science and technology studies? For a start, it surely would imply a challenge to the
authority of the old masters of Western theory . . . to describe the broad contours and
grand features of the intellectual landscape (Hillenbrand 2010: 317). Above all, it
means Asian scholars and activists developing STS theories of broad applicability
as they have in cultural studies through journals such as positions: asia critique and
Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. According to Kuan-hsing Chen, Asia as method depends
on critical engagement with the heterogeneous Asian situation, recognition of a terrain
that external and internal colonialism has worked over, and a willingness to multiply
frames of reference in our subjectivity and worldview (2010: 223). This implies an
Asia that is good to think with, and think from, rather than a fixed, hegemonic geographical region or essential civilizational entityAsia as method, not Asia as selfevident cultural value. One effective means of sharpening the methodological edge of
Asia might be paradoxically to fragment and multiply Asiannessto deterritorialize Asia (Chen Jai-shin 2012)by including Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea,
the Middle East, Australasia, and the Pacific (as East Asian Science, Technology and
Society already does). Otherwise, we could face the prospect of replacing Eurocentrism with Sinocentrisman exclusionary focus on Chinese East Asia that might produce a nationalist or nativist STS. It is perhaps heuristically useful to imagine a global
Asia just as we signify the global South. In accordance with this imagined geography, Asia as method therefore requires no negation or denial of Euro-American STS,
but rather it allows us to treat this Western body of knowledge and practice as one

Asia as Method in Science and Technology Studies


cultural resource among many others (Chen Kuan-hsing 2010: 223). Indeed, as Rey
Chow (2000) suggests, a lingering attachment to Western theory can give Asians and
others the opportunity to be both local and global, to fashion themselves as cosmopolitan yet situated agents in a world of theory.
Evidently, like Takeuchi, when I use the phrase Asia as method, I find it impossible to state definitely what this may mean. Instead, I want to convey the heuristic
possibilities of Asia as method, to point to a locus of enunciation, rather than describe,
much less establish, any distinguishing Asian canon or methodology. I am suggesting
an ethical standpoint, not positing a rival epistemology. To be sure, one might argue
that some distinctive topics and approaches already are emerging in Asian science and
technology studies. Scholars are exploring the influences of exceptionally variegated
colonial regimes and semicolonial arrangements; they emphasize the role of the state
and the development of technoscientific nationalism; they are reanimating a unique set
of local knowledges; they focus on the postcolonial archipelago of experimental sites
and identify novel regional biopolitical formations, collaborations, and networks
(Anderson 2009b). These are just a few of the features of East Asian STS that demand
my attention; other scholars will discern different agendas, other concerns. That is
beside the point. Asia as method is not a recipe bookindeed, I admit it may not even
be a method. It is a local mode of operating on technoscience, a form of life still
inchoate, a critical body of work that will fill out with time.
Already we know that Asia as method is inherently a postcolonial project, a
means of decolonizing science and technology studies (Anderson and Adams 2007;
Anderson 2009a). It demonstrates an affinity with other efforts to multiply the sites of
theory, to destabilize geopolitical dominance, and to express subaltern and previously
subjugated knowledge, including Raewyn Connells affirmation of Southern theory
(2007) and Linda Tuhiwae Smiths validation of Indigenous research practice in
Decolonising Methodologies (1999). As Connell points out, Colonized and peripheral societies produce social thought about the modern world which has as much
intellectual power as metropolitan [Euro-American] social thought, and more political
relevance (xii). The majority world, she argues, does produce theory (ix). Thus,
East Asia, however imagined, would not be alone in making this claim.
Not surprisingly, many Latin American scholars have anticipated this line of
reasoning. For example, Walter D. Mignolo advocates the destabilizing of Occidentalism through border thinking, which implies the restitution, and critical recognition, of colonial difference that global translations attempt to erase. For Mignolo,
border thinking is more than a hybrid enunciation. It is a fractured enunciation in
dialogic situations with the territorial and hegemonic cosmology (2000: x). That is,
border thinking functions as a machine for intellectual decolonization, operating
between universalism and subjugated knowledge (45). Mignolo hopes for a postOccidental restructuring of modernity in Latin America. Similarly, Fernando Coronil
(1996) urged us to move beyond Occidentalism in our settings of theory and method.
Border thinking and beyond Occidentalism could be the touchstones of emergent
East Asian STS.
In the interests of comity, one might even propose that this geographical dispersion
of theoretical agency represents a postcolonial reframing of the old area studies
approach. Critics fervently and justly attacked the area studies enterprise during the
1990s, adducing its origins in the Cold War, instrumentalist concern with policy, and


W. Anderson

tight bounding of geopolitical space, apportioning the world into enclaves knowable
to US scholarship. The area studies tradition, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai
observed, has probably grown too comfortable with its own maps of the world, too
secure in its own expert practices, and too insensitive to transnational processes both
today and in the past (1996: 17). All the same, even the old area studies did emphasize
linguistic competence, interdisciplinary inquiry, the need for fieldwork, and the benefits of scholarly interaction within and beyond the regions (Anderson 2009b). Since
the start of this century, area studies have shown potential to become a platform for
regional scholars and activists, an enunciatory position for previously marginalized
local intellectuals, and a postcolonial site of difference and dissent. For example,
South Asianist David Ludden finds that area studies now encourage more intense
concentration on the empirical and conceptual problem posed by the area-ness and
the territoriality of knowledge (2003: 135). Today they constitute perhaps the most
creative venue for studies of imperialism and the imperial aspects of globalization,
having become a necessary counterweight to the decontextualizing force of universal
globalism (136). This is what I meant when I wrote: Let us have area studies of
technoscience . . . but only when viewed through a postcolonial lens (Anderson
2009b: 169).
My argument here is merely a brief elaboration of the themes canvassed so persuasively in the early issues of East Asian Science, Technology and Society. Fu Daiwie
artfully began the first article of this journal speculating on whether a postcolonial
approach might cause the loss of the primacy of historical and geographical boundaries for a distinctive East Asian STS (2007: 6). Fa-ti Fan joined in soon after,
pointing out that categories such as East Asia must be relational and contextual . . . we
cannot avoid the multiplicity and heterogeneity of what we call East Asia (2007:
244). After giving the matter due consideration, Fu concluded: The scope of a distinctive East Asian STS seems to hold and be stable, even when facing the critical
power of postcolonial non-essentializing and de-territorializing (2007: 8). So it turns
out the foundations of East Asian STS theory were here all along.

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