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Provincializing STS: an EASTS Forum on how East Asia complicates the STS Landscape

Wen-Hua Kuo

23 August, 2017

East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal (EASTS) is delighted to present a forum featuring the 2015 Bernal Prize winner John Law. An EASTS advisory editor, Law delivered his acceptance speech at the 4S annual meeting on the structure of an article entitled “Provincializing STS: Postcoloniality, Symmetry, and Method,” co-authored with EASTS editor Wen-yuan Lin. Using the ‘symmetry’ principle, Law and Lin challenged the normal “Western” framework by experimenting with “non-Western” concepts as analytical tools. 

Law delivers his acceptance speech at the 4S annual meeting hosted by the 4S president Gary Downey.

Unlike everyday speeches of this kind, Law's was born of diverse emotions—excitement and uneasiness, inspiration and confusion. Having circulated among STS scholars before being made public at the 4S, it was the subject of animated and thought-provoking discussion. While questioning the dominance of STS concepts and methods developed in the Anglo-European context, Law criticizes scholars who accept them without reflection as "beheaded" (身首異處), an analytical-institutional metaphor in which their minds (Western theory) and what their bodies feel (non-Western cases or phenomena) are separated. To stress this point, Law introduced, from Lin's fieldwork on the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese concept of shi (勢) to analyze the 2001 UK foot-and-mouth outbreak from an ANT perspective. He insisted that a so-called “Chinese-inflected STS” be presented as one possibility for increasing the plurality of STS concepts.

Among those who sat in the audience, the former EASTS editor-in-chief Chia-ling Wu later shared how she, personally, received Law’s speech (her words are to be found in full in her introduction to the forum):


... a sense of ambivalence emerged—in my mind at least. Why were EASTS and other non-English STS works seldom mentioned? Why was EASTS presented only as sharing the problem rather than offering solutions? Why was Taiwan so often contrasted with the West? And why was Taiwan located within Chinese-inflected STS, not East Asian STS? Wasn’t the Taiwanese practice of Chinese medicine, as much scholarly work has revealed, both a living tradition and a hybrid influenced by imperial China, Japanese colonization, Euro-America, and communist China? Didn’t the concept of shi, like yin and yang, have diverse meanings in different historical and social contexts? How could we use it without losing those contexts? Instead of being beheaded, would I rather use the multiheaded goddess Guanyin to portray the excitement of exploring the hybridity and complexity of doing Taiwanese STS, of which much excitement comes from working with EASTS?


Recognizing the heated discussions among the 4S participants, Wu addressed the issues and concerns of the EASTS editorial board and suggested the discussion continue at the next 4S annual meeting in Barcelona. Unfortunately, neither Law nor Lin were able to attend.

And so, instead of hosting a symposium in East Asia or at some other international occasion, EASTS decided to put Law and Lin’s paper, after intensive discussions and revisions with its authors, and other response papers together in a virtual forum, which we are delighted to be able to present here. Several distinguished scholars were invited, including Warwick Anderson of the University of Sydney, Judith Farquhar of the University of Chicago, Atsuro Morita of Osaka University, and Ruey-Lin Chen of National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan. This forum also includes a further response by Law and Lin. A self-assessment rather than a piece that argues against criticism from various perspectives, Law and Lin’s response appreciates these papers and carries on modifying their points in their experiment of creating "non-Western" STS concepts.

As a stimulating follow-up to Law's 4S speech, this forum not only clarifies Law and Lin’s standpoints as they return and confront East Asian colleagues; but also, as a whole, the papers in this forum represent the diverse, boundary-free landscape of East Asian STS as it starts to move away from using the “Western” as its primary reference point.

EASTS is grateful to all those who have helped to bring this forum into being. We are truly indebted to Duke University Press for encouraging academic research and for allowing free access to everybody to download material until September 2017. Do please make use of their very kind offer to download these papers and forward them to anybody you know who is interested in East Asia and in the methodology of doing STS. We also hope to meet you in person at the 4S annual meeting to be held in Boston, August 30 to September 2, 2017.


  Law takes a question from Donna Haraway in the subsequent Q&A session.

Forum: Provincializing STS


Body-Head Separation, or a Multihanded/Multiheaded Guanyin: Note on the Birth of the “Provincializing STS” Forum

Chia-Ling Wu

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 209-210; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3833196


Provincializing STS: Postcoloniality, Symmetry, and Method

John Law and Wen-yuan Lin

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 211-227; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3823859


Postcolonial Specters of STS

Warwick Anderson

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 229-233; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3828937


STS, TCM, and Other Shi 勢 (Situated Dispositions of Power/Knowledge)

Judith Farquhar

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 235-238; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3823579


Encounters, Trajectories, and the Ethnographic Moment: Why “Asia as Method” Still Matters

Atsuro Morita

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 239-250; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3825820


This Way Does Not Come to the Point: Comments on “Provincializing STS: Postcoloniality, Symmetry, and Method”

Ruey-Lin Chen

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 251-256; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3825960


The Stickiness of Knowing: Translation, Postcoloniality, and STS

John Law and Wen-yuan Lin

EASTS (2017) 11(2): 257-269; published ahead of print February 23, 2017, doi:10.1215/18752160-3823719

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Reports and commentary from meetings, workshops, and seminars of interest to the STS community, with images and other media.