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.
 
 
 

Upcoming Meetings

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Past Meetings

  • May 21, 2021

    Workshop: Donald Opitz (DePaul) & Banu Subramaniam (Univerity of Massachusetts, Amherst)
     
    This week, Don Opitz and Banu Subramaniam have kindly shared with us their proposal for a compendium of primary sources, under contract with Routledge and in an early stage of development. Here's a note from the authors:

    The document we are sharing offers an overview of the project with virtually the same detail that the publisher considered prior to approving our contract. During the session, we also hope to pitch questions to the group to engage us in sharing insights on “doing” postcolonial science studies, specifically with respect to the challenges of identifying and accessing relevant sources, “narrating” those sources, and other closely-related methodological considerations. Our framing question is: “How can we retell narratives of colonial and postcolonial science and gender through critical engagement of primary sources? How might we rethink what counts as a source?”

     


  • April 23, 2021

    Workshop: Minakshi Menon (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)
    Discussant: Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Cambridge)

     
    “What is Indian Spikenard?”
     
    Abstract
     
    “What is Indian Spikenard?”, asked the eighteenth-century orientalist, Sir William Jones, in a famous paper, published in Asiatick Researches, Volume II (1790). The question serves here as a point of entry into Jones’s method for creating culturally specific plant descriptions to help locate Indian plants in their Indian milieu, as a first step to identifying commercially valuable plants for the East India Company state.
     
    This paper discusses Jones’s philological method for establishing the jaṭāmāṁsī of the Sanskrit verse lexicon, the Amarakośa, and materia medica texts, as the “Spikenard of the Ancients”. Philology, for Jones, was of a piece with language study and ethnology, and undergirded by observational practices based on trained seeing, marking a continuity between his philological and botanical knowledge-making. The paper follows Jones through his textual and “ethnographic” explorations, as he creates both a Linnaean plant-object – Valeriana jatamansi Jones  – and a mode of plant description that encoded the “native” experience associated with a much-desired therapeutic commodity. The result was a botanical identification that forced the jaṭāmāṁsī to travel across epistemologies and manifest itself as an object of colonial natural history. In the words of the famous medic and botanist, William Roxburgh, whose research on the spikenard is also discussed here, Jones’s method achieved what “mere botany” with its focus on the technical arrangement of plants, could not do.


  • March 19, 2021

    Discussion
    Elise Burton, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity (Stanford University Press, 2021)
    Elena Aronova, Scientific History: Experiments in History and Politics from the Bolshevik Revolution to the End of the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 2021)


  • February 12, 2021

    Workshop: Noa Nahmias (York University)
    Discussant: Grace Yen Shen (Fordham University) 

     
    ‘The world of science at your doorstep’: Universal and national visions in Popular Science magazine, 1933 - 1937. 
    Abstract:  
    This chapter asks how science popularizers in China in the 1930s addressed questions of science as universal and science for national strengthening. It does so by examining the magazine Popular Science (Kexue huabao 科學畫報) from 1933 to 1937, focusing on the magazine’s publishing infrastructure, its material aspects such as formatting and visuals, and its circulation. I posit that Popular Science contained competing narratives on what science meant for China. On the one hand, the publisher and editors produced a transnational imaginary of science, while on the other hand they were committed to creating a local version of modern science.  


  • January 15, 2021

    Discussion: 
    He Bian, Know Your Remedies: Pharmacy and Culture in Early Modern China (Princeton University Press, 2020) 
    Harun Kuçuk, Science without Leisure: Practical Naturalism in Istanbul, 1660-1732 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019)


  • December 4, 2020

    Syllabus Workshop with Science beyond the West (Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania) 
    We'll begin the session with a quick outline of our plans for the rest of the year, following on from last month's introductory discussion. After some consultation, and regret that it's impossible to discuss all the books mentioned at that session, we as organisers are suggesting that for our January meeting, we discuss chapters from Bian He's Know Your Remedies and Harun Küçük's Science without Leisure, and in March we'll have a celebratory discussion of both Elise Burton's Genetic Crossroads and Elena Aronova's Scientific History. This selection ensures that we can support members' work and cover a range of chronologies and geographies.
    The main focus of Friday's session will be a syllabus workshop, put together with the generous help of the Science beyond the West Working Group, in which our group members have kindly volunteered to share syllabi on histories of science in Asia/non-western spaces (you should soon be able to download the materials for the seminar on the working group's web page under "Meetings"; Nir Shafir's syllabus includes a link to previous final projects, which you can find here:
    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_W5ks6dixELSRDZ-OPfFjnkrfTbrCbtn).

    We'll first have a discussion about how to approach the task of writing a syllabus. What kinds of considerations are different depending on the context and audience, i.e. undergraduate survey vs graduate seminar? What kinds of factors should be considered in selecting a course title? In the readings, alongside the syllabi we've included two pieces that set out some relevant pedagogical issues, James Delbourgo's "The Knowing World" and Yulia Frumer's "What is and isn't in a Name": how are these authors' experiences useful for us? Then, we'll move to breakout groups for conversations about the syllabi to be workshopped. Please bear in mind that these syllabi represent works in progress, and do not circulate them beyond the group. 


  • November 13, 2020

    Hello and Welcome Back! 
     
    Introductions and recap. 
     
    Readings:
     
    Anderson, Warwick. "Decolonizing Histories in Theory and Practice: An Introduction." History and Theory 59, no. 3 (2020): 369-75.
     


  • 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.
     
     
    Case Studies
     
    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)
     
     
    Primary Sources
     
    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?
     
     
    Case Studies:
     
    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.

    Case studies
     
    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.)

    Optional Readings

    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.


Group Conveners

  • mbrazelt's picture

    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.

     

  • eliskaburton's picture

    Elise Burton

    Elise Burton is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto (Institute for History & Philosophy of Science & Technology). She previously held 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. She is the author of Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity (January 2021, Stanford University Press).

     

  • shireenhamza's picture

    Shireen Hamza

    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's picture

    Charu Singh

    Charu Singh is a historian of science in modern South Asia. She currently holds the Adrian Research Fellowship in the history of science at Darwin College, University of Cambridge. She is interested in transformations in colonial scientific subjectivity and the powers of the modern sciences and their practitioners in colonial and postcolonial societies. In her recent and and forthcoming articles, Charu has explored the significance of literary technologies such as vernacular science periodicals and glossaries of technical terms as the necessary media for building science-literate national publics in twentieth-century South Asia. She is currently writing about how the 'life of science' - careers in modern science, medicine and technology - became a desired ideal for collective and individual futures in colonial north India. 

     

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