History of Science in Asia: Decolonizing the History of Science
This group engages questions regarding the deconstruction of imperial visions and definitions of the sciences in Asia, and explores how new work can contribute to the diversification of perspectives in the history of science.
To join this working group, click "Request group membership" at right. You will receive instructions for participating online or in person.
Mary Augusta Brazelton
Mary Brazelton is a University Lecturer in Global Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests lie broadly in historical intersections of clinical medicine, the life sciences and public health, in China and around the world.
Elise Burton holds a Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge (Newnham College). She earned a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, in two subjects, biology and Middle Eastern studies. In 2017, she completed her Ph.D. in History & Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. Her primary research interests are race, ethnicity, and nationalism; the history of genetics and evolutionary biology; and transnational scientific collaboration. Her first book, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity, is forthcoming in 2021 from Stanford University Press.
Shireen Hamza is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science. With the support of the SSRC-IDRF, she is researching a dissertation about the history of medicine in the medieval Indian Ocean World.
Charu Singh holds the Adrian Research Fellowship in the history of science at Darwin College, University of Cambridge. Her primary research interests are the history of language, knowledge/science, and culture in colonial South Asia. She is currently working on a book project which aims to provide a critical genealogy of the "scientific temper" in twentieth-century South Asia. She is interested in the history of astrology and meteorology; scientific languages, philology and lexicography; and scientific print, authorship, and publication.
Upcoming Meetings (all times Eastern)
There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.
June 26, 2020
Indigenous Knowledge: Asian Histories of a Global Concept
Guest: Yu-yueh Tsai (Academica Sinica, Taiwan)
In this final session on the relevance of the historiographic turn towards decolonization for science studies in Asia, we will focus on ‘indigenous knowledge’ and its Asian histories. In the history of science and STS, indigenous knowledge is a powerful concept to counter the hegemonic methods and practices of imperial and colonial sciences. Analyses of indigenous knowledge based on unconventional archives and interdisciplinary methods are well regarded as key decolonial moves in science studies. And yet, the category itself has much greater reach across the humanities and social sciences. It is used with slightly different connotations across a range of disciplines, institutions, movements, and geographies.
This session is dedicated to understanding what the concept of indigenous knowledge means for researching, writing and teaching histories of science/knowledge in Asia. What is ‘indigenous knowledge’ in the context of Asia? If by indigenous knowledge we mean the knowledge of ‘indigenous people’, we will explore which groups are identified as or self-identify as indigenous, and which forms of knowledge count as indigenous. Furthermore, given the fraught politics of ethnic nationalisms in Asia, we will also examine who speaks for indigenous knowledge and lays claim to it towards particular political ends – at times as ‘a euphemism for indigenism’ (Raina 2019).
Precolonial and colonial empires and modern nation-states in Asia have governed dynamic multiethnic communities with complex and shared ecologies and histories of language, religious beliefs, migration, material culture and social practices. In fact the sciences have played a constitutive role, defining heterogenous populations into modern collectives organised by ethnic identity and enumerated as majorities and minorities. As indigenous peoples across Asia faced the powers of premodern and modern state structures and global capitalism, various communities such as the Amazigh peoples of North Africa, the adivasis of South Asia and the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan were identified as indigenous or ethnic minorities, often with parallel experiences of disempowerment and dispossession.
In order to appreciate the heterogeneous histories of these groups and to understand indigenous knowledge within Asian histories, our discussion will focus on three case studies: the history of ethnicity and ongoing genetics research based on essentialized ethnic identities in Taiwan; the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of “Adivasi Studies” shaped by scholars and activists in India in the past decade; and the twentieth-century intellectual history of indigenous knowledge and the concept’s integration in technocratic discourses of sustainable development.
Over the course of our sessions, our working group has tried to learn from the insights offered by scholars of Critical Indigenous Studies. In this closing session, our aim is to deepen this engagement while attending to the Asian specificity of the politics of indigenous pasts. (We have included some of the relevant readings from previous sessions here.) Does the concept and claim to indigenous knowledge take on unique valence in settler colonial society? When, why and in which contexts do we talk about indigenous knowledge in opposition to western science? How has the historical relationship of indigenous groups to land differed across multiple contexts, and how does this diversity inflect the politics of global indigeneity?
As you read, you may want to note down the definitions/valences of indigenous knowledge across these contexts, especially in relation to other kinds of knowledge. Please draw a representation of the relationship between Indigenous Knowledge and its Other(s) – settler knowledge, colonial knowledge, Western science, etc., in a context of your choice. We will start the session by sharing some of these drawings.
Tsai, Yu-yueh. “Geneticizing Ethnicity: A Study on the “Taiwan Bio-Bank”.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 4, no. 3 (2010): 433-55.
Dasgupta, Sangeeta. “Adivasi Studies: From a Historian's Perspective.” History Compass 16, no. 10 (2018): n/a.
Raina, Dhruv. “The Vocation of Indigenous Knowledge and Sciences as Metaconcept.” In Engaging Transculturality: Concepts, Key Terms, Case Studies. Edited by Laila Abu-Er-Rub, Christiane Brosius, Sebastian Meurer, Diamantis Panagiotopoulos, Susan Richter. (London: Routledge, 2019)
Comparative Case Study
Sturgeon, Janet C. “Pathways of “Indigenous Knowledge” in Yunnan, China.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32, no. 1 (2007): 129-53.
Readings of Interest from Previous Sessions
Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. "Decolonization is not a metaphor." Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1 (2012). (Nov. 15, Asia and Decolonization as Method)
Harding, Sandra, Other Cultures' Sciences, in Harding ed. The postcolonial science and technology studies reader (Duke University Press, 2011): 151-158. (Dec. 13, Decolonial Methods in Precolonial History of Science)
Kari-Oca Declaration and Indigenous Peoples’ Earth Charter, 1992.
Annual Meeting of the Federal Council, World Amazigh Congress, 2010. Selections.
May 1, 2020
Power in Scientific Working Relationships
Lead Convenor: Elise Burton
In this session, we will explore how science emerges through human relationships. In particular, we will analyze how certain kinds of relationships have come to be called “scientific collaboration,” and why collaboration became an imperative in many scientific fields by the late 20th century. To explore this historical phenomenon within Asia, we will discuss three case studies, which focus on Japanese scientific collaborations involving three different temporal and geographic contexts: Japanese botanical research in colonial Korea during the early 20th century; the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission established during the US occupation of Japan after World War II; and Japanese experimental stem cell therapies deployed in contemporary India.
Juxtaposing these cases raises many provocative questions, both at a broad conceptual level (i.e., what “collaboration” really is) and at the specific level of how scientific relationships function within and between Asian political formations. Here are some questions to consider as you read:
1) What, if anything, sets these relationships of “collaboration” apart from those of premodern and early modern “go-betweens” or “knowledge brokers”? Who gets to be a “collaborator” as opposed to an assistant, collector, informant, translator, etc and when/why does it matter? Are human research subjects collaborators? As historians, should we analyze collaboration only as an actors’ category, or (also) use it to describe all contributors to scientific activities (cf. Maienschein, p.171)?
2) Is the language of scientific collaboration and technical cooperation primarily a rhetorical shift related to international diplomacy, or a reflection of changing material infrastructures and scientific practices? How should we think about the rise of “scientific collaboration” in the Asian postwar and postcolonial geographies where political “collaborationism” has quite negative connotations? (If not familiar with this topic, cf. the included methodological readings by Shrum and Robinson.)
3) Critiques of historical and contemporary transnational scientific collaboration have highlighted the asymmetrical power relationships between the “West and the rest” or “Global North and Global South” (for examples, see the optional comparative readings by Manias and Okwaro & Geissler). The Japanese case studies describe the asymmetric nature of scientific collaboration in contexts of settler-colonial dominance; US military subjugation; and representing the upper tier of a geopolitical “biohierarchy.” How can a focus on collaborative relationships shed new light on our conversations throughout this year related to Asian imperial histories and the recognition of indigenous knowledge?
Jung Lee, “Mutual Transformation of Colonial and Imperial Botanizing? The Intimate yet Remote Collaboration in Colonial Korea,” Science in Context 29, no. 2 (June 2016): 179–211, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0269889715000423.
John Beatty, “Scientific Collaboration, Internationalism, and Diplomacy: The Case of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission,” Journal of the History of Biology 26, no. 2 (1993): 205–31.
Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner and Prasanna Kumar Patra, “Experimental Stem Cell Therapy: Biohierarchies and Bionetworking in Japan and India,” Social Studies of Science 41, no. 5 (October 2011): 645–66, https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312711409792.
Optional Methodological Readings:
Jane Maienschein, “Why Collaborate?,” Journal of the History of Biology 26, no. 2 (1993): 167–83.
Wesley Shrum, “Collaborationism,” in Collaboration in the New Life Sciences, ed. John N. Parker, Niki Vermeulen, and Bart Penders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 247–58. (focus on pages 247-8 and 256-8)
Ronald Robinson, “Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism: Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration,” in Studies in the Theory of Imperialism, ed. Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe (London: Longman, 1972), 117–40.
Optional Comparative Readings:
Comparative Case: Republican-era China
Chris Manias, “Jesuit Scientists and Mongolian Fossils: The French Paleontological Missions in China, 1923–1928,” Isis 108, no. 2 (June 2017): 307–32, https://doi.org/10.1086/692677.
Comparative Case: Contemporary East Africa
Ferdinand Moyi Okwaro and P. W. Geissler, “In/Dependent Collaborations: Perceptions and Experiences of African Scientists in Transnational HIV Research,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 4 (December 2015): 492–511, https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12206.
March 27, 2020
Archaic Modernities and Religious Scientisms: Rethinking Religion in Histories of Science in Asia
Lead Convenor: Charu Singh
This session engages with decolonization and Asia as method by focusing on the relationship between science and religion, and between forms of knowledge that are often described as scientific or religious. Asian religions and their epistemic communities have had longstanding traditions of scientific and medical knowledge, practice and their associated values and beliefs. To historians of premodern and modern sciences, the categories of religion and religious knowledge present distinctive challenges that are at once methodological, interpretative, and archival.
For instance, how do we distinguish between archives of science and religion, especially in the premodern period? How have secular commitments shaped the modern historian’s identification, use, and interpretation of sources that belong as much to histories of science as histories of religion? How have such histories reified or challenged scholarly characterizations of scientific knowledge based on religion? And how have several Asian nationalisms that were being simultaneously constructed claimed deep pasts and novel origins for the sciences, for very different projects of moral, social and political reform?
We will focus on three case studies from Iran, China, and India, and building on their rich analyses, we will aim to generate a discussion on methods, sources and historical interpretation.
Doostdar, Alireza. “Empirical Spirits: Islam, Spiritism, and the Virtues of Science in Iran.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58, no. 2 (2016): 322–49.
Kurtz, Joachim. "Disciplining the National Essence: Liu Shipei and the Reinvention of Ancient China’s Intellectual History." In Science and Technology in Modern China, 1880s-1940s. Edited by Jing Tsu and Benjamin A. Elman. 2014.
Subramaniam, Banu. Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism. 2019. Chapter 1. "Home and the World: The Modern Lives of the Vedic Sciences," 49-71.
(We've also included the Introduction and selections from the Mythopoeia in the file attached for those interested in reading more of the book.)
I. Methodological Reading
Elshakry, Marwa. "When Science Became Western: Historiographical Reflections." Isis 101, no. 1 (2010): 98-109.
II. Scientism in India and China
Arnold, David. "Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India." Isis 104, no. 2 (2013): 360-70.
Shen, Grace. "Scientism in the Twentieth Century." In Modern Chinese Religion II: 1850-2015. Edited by Jan Kiely, Vincent Goossaert and John Lagerwey. 2015.
III. Other readings of interest
Aggarwal, Neil Krishan. "The Sikh Foundations of Ayurveda", Asian Medicine 4, 2: 263-279.
Hammerstrom. Erik J. “Science and Buddhist Modernism in Early 20th Century China: The Life and Works of Wang Xiaoxu,” Journal of Chinese Religions 39, no. 1 (2011): 1-32.
February 21, 2020
Session Leader: Projit Mukharji (Penn)
To prepare for discussion, please read the attached articles:
Jean-Paul Gaudilliére, "An Indian Path to Biocapital?: The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, Drug Patents, and the Reformulation Regime of Contemporary Ayurveda." East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal, Volume 8, Number 4 (December 2014), pp. 391-415.
David Hardiman, "Indian medical indigeneity: from nationalist assertion to the global market." Social History 34:3 (2009), 263-283.
January 31, 2020
Decolonization and the History of Science in East Asia
Lead Convenor: Mary Brazelton
This session builds on previous discussions of Asia as method and rethinking traditional divisions of time and space to ask: to what extent does the framework and vocabulary of decolonisation apply to the study of places and peoples identified with East Asia? How might we reckon with the imperial enterprises of China and Japan, as well as their resistance to subjugation by western peoples, in the modern period? A major point from our last session was the way in which European colonial legacies might inform definitions of science in important and long-obscured ways, and how this might inform our thinking about pre-colonial archives in the history of science. How should scholars parse the complex and 'hyper-imperial' nature of modern East Asian history when it comes to science studies? And how might the geopolitical events of the twentieth century have shaped the formation of Asian studies as a field - in the Anglophone and Western worlds, but also in China, Japan, and Korea - when it came to the formulation of questions about the history of science?
For this session, we are again reading one case study, which provides a starting point for discussing methodological readings. Many of these focus on Chinese cases and settings, but our hope is that discussion will be wide-ranging. Before the session, please prepare one question about the readings or topic that you'd like to discuss.
Shellen Xiao Wu, "Geography and the Reshaping of the Modern Chinese Empire," in Jeremy Adelman, ed., Empire and the Social Sciences: Global Histories of Knowledge, 2019.
Leigh Jenco, 'Teaching Chinese Political Thought is hard - is decolonising the curriculum the solution?'
Zhang Butian, "Translating History of Science Books into Chinese: Why? Which Ones? How?" Isis 109, no. 4 (Dec 2018): 782-88.
Lin Wen-yuan and John Law, 'A correlative STS: Lessons from a Chinese medical practice,' Social Studies of Science 44, no. 6 (Dec 2014): 801-24. We've also included the recent follow-up by Tereza Stöckelová and Jaroslav Klepal, "Chinese Medicine on the Move into Central Europe: A Contribution to the Debate on Correlativity and Decentering STS," East Asian Science, Technology and Society (2018) 12 (1): 57-79
Other readings of interest:
Ben Elman, 'China and the World History of Science, 1450-1770,' Education About Asia 12, no. 1 (2007): 40-44.
Fabio Lanza, "'America's Asia?' Revolution, Scholarship, and Asian Studies." In Asianisms: Regionalist Interactions and Asian Integration, ed. Marc Frey and Nicola Spakowski (Singapore: NUS, 2016).
Peter Perdue, "Writing the National History of Conquest," China Marches West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2005); also "Erasing the Empire, Re-racing the Nation: Racialism and Culturalism in Imperial China," in Imperial Formations, ed. Ann Laura Stoler, Carole McGranahan, Peter Perdue (Santa Fe, NM: SAR, 2007).
December 13, 2019
Decolonial Methods in Precolonial History of Science
Lead Convenor: Shireen Hamza
The academic discipline of the history of science is increasingly focusing on “modern science”; in non-Western contexts, the modern is often defined in relation to European colonial history. In this session, we will focus on practices of researching and teaching about sciences in the periods before European colonialism. Unlike within the broader discipline of history, few historians of science have integrated the study of science in these periods with "postcolonial science studies" (Davis & Altschul 2009).
For this session, we have selected one historical "case study," which will provide us a common ground on which to discuss the methodological readings (Ragab 2015). As you read, please think of one phrase related to decolonial methods in the history of science, and draw one (quick) map relevant to the history of any scientific tradition/discipline you have studied or researched.
A fascinating, generative aspect of studying sources from this period is that knowledge about the natural world did not follow the disciplinary formations of science today. Historians must decide what to call science and why. What colonial and decolonial legacies inform the ways we define science (Harding 2011), especially in a period before our historical actors had to contend with that term? How does this relate to our contemporary ideas of who does science, as well as where and when? What definitions of science(s) can make this term inclusive of multiple ways of knowing and manipulating the natural world, across period and region?
In our last session, we discussed the ways some political and intellectual trends had informed various kinds of Pan-Asianisms in the last century. The geographies of various literate scientific traditions could also be a powerful resource for us in remapping historical connectivities -- as well as disconnections -- across Asia, over a longue durée (Pollock 2011; Subrahmanyam 2016). What if we take more shared cosmologies. philosophical methodologies, medical procedures or navigation techniques as the basis for mapping regions outside of colonial imaginaries? How can the critical scholar engage and subvert ethno-nationalisms based on particular visions within the histories of science? How do we study and teach about non-literate/indigenous knowledge traditions in these periods? Are there modes of “reading against the grain” relevant to pre-colonial archives? Continuing to learn with critical indigenous theory, we will also discuss the politics and ethics of this kind of scholarship (Smith 1999).
Ragab, Ahmed. "One, two, or many sexes: sex differentiation in medieval Islamicate medical thought." Journal of the History of Sexuality 24, no. 3 (2015): 428-454.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples (Zed Books Ltd., 2013): 29-41 [Chapter One, especially the seciton "Is History Important for Indigenous Peoples?"]
Harding, Sandra, ed. The postcolonial science and technology studies reader (Duke University Press, 2011): 151-158. [Other Cultures' Sciences]
Pollock, Sheldon, ed. Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern Asia: Explorations in the Intellectual History of India and Tibet, 1500–1800 (Duke University Press, 2011): 1-16 [Introduction]
Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. "One Asia, or Many? Reflections from connected history." Modern Asian Studies 50, no. 1 (2016): 5-43.
Park, Katharine, and Lorraine Daston, eds. Early modern science. Cambridge University Press, 2016. [The Age of the New]
Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul. Medievalisms in the postcolonial world: the idea of "the Middle Ages" outside Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples (Zed Books Ltd., 2013): 1-18 [INTRODUCTION]
November 15, 2019
Introduction: Asia and Decolonization as Method
Session moderated by Fa-ti Fan (SUNY Binghamton)
Discussion led by Mary Augusta Brazelton, Elise Burton, Shireen Hamza and Charu Singh
This working group aims to bring together historians of science working on Asia, broadly conceived to include not only East and South Asia but also West Asia (i.e. the Middle East), Central Asia and Siberia, to discuss research in progress as well as pressing issues of methodology and pedagogy in our discipline. Our thematic focus this year is how our field can contribute to calls for decolonization in scholarship and teaching.
At this introductory session, we will introduce the convenors and goals of the working group, and then host an open discussion centered around three broad topics:
1) the concept of "Asia as method";
2) the concept of "decolonization" and what it means for our field; and
3) the current hegemonic languages and geographies for studying science in Asia, and how we might challenge these hegemonies.
For scholars who are new to these topics or would like a refresher on the recent literature, we are providing the following readings in a downloadable zip file (see "Readings" tab at the upper right side of this webpage). Please feel free to review any subset of this selection, or other relevant writings, to bring up in our discussion.
Asia as Method:
Anderson, Warwick. "Asia as method in science and technology studies." East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 6, no. 4 (2012): 445-451.
Fan, Fa-ti. "Modernity, region, and technoscience: One small cheer for Asia as method." Cultural sociology 10, no. 3 (2016): 352-368.
Kumar, Prakash, Projit Bihari Mukharji, and Amit Prasad. "Decolonizing Science in Asia." Verge: Studies in Global Asias 4, no. 1 (2018): 24-43.
Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. "Decolonization is not a metaphor." Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1 (2012). This is a longer reading, and our discussion can focus on the sections on p. 1-7, 17-23, 29.
See also: Rohan Deb Roy, “Decolonise science – time to end another imperial era.” The Conversation, April 5, 2018:
Optional supplementary reading: 2018 special section from EASTS journal on Southeast Asia:
Anderson, Warwick. "Thickening Transregionalism: Historical Formations of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Southeast Asia." East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal 12, no. 4 (2018): 503-518.
Fischer, Michael MJ. "Theorizing STS from Asia—Toward an STS Multiscale Bioecology Framework: A Blurred Genre Manifesto/Agenda for an Emergent Field." East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal 12, no. 4 (2018): 519-540.
Duara, Prasenjit. "Time and Tide Wait for No Man: A Response to Warwick Anderson and Michael MJ Fischer." East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal 12, no. 4 (2018): 541-547.