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Connecting with the Past? A Commentary Francesca Bray Received: 16 May 2010 /Accepted: 16 May 2010 /Published online: 9 July 2010 # National Science Council, Taiwan 2010 Keywords STS . East Asia . Historical questions . Technocracy Communities of practice Over its relatively brief history, science and technology studies (STS) has developed into an interdisciplinary project spanning issues as diverse as Welsh sheep-farmers' contributions to nuclear science or the dress codes of Chicago stockbrokers. Generally speaking, STS deals with the modern world or its immediate colonial forebears, worlds in which the terms ‘science’ and ‘technology’ are and were common currency. Indeed the greater part of STS research and reflection bears on the relations between technocracy and democracy in contemporary societies that have institutionalised science and technology as indispensable tools for solving society's problems. Within this journal, discussions concerning what might distinguish a specifically East Asian STS have variously proposed as a common substratum either a characteristically high level of scholarly commitment to critical, policy oriented analysis, or a shared post-colonial legacy of late admission into the magic circle of modern, international science. As Yung Sik Kim remarks in his Introduction to this special issue, the concepts and methods of STS are largely shaped by the conditions of modern life, and notably by a common belief that science and technology exist as entities, as distinctive human activities that shape our lives. This is a worldview that can legitimately be extended back into the colonial era, but certainly neither science nor technology constituted an actorcategory , however embryonic, in East Asia in earlier times. Kim argues that East Asian historians should not artificially impose anachronistic concepts or questions drawn from Western STS to frame their research, although an awareness of STS concerns can be productive. What Kim hopes an accumulation of studies of the history of science in East Asia in this vein might promote is a better understanding of ‘the common and distinct East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal (2010) 4:327–333 DOI 10.1007/s12280-010-9137-y F. Bray (*) Department of Social Anthropology, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, CMB, 15A George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK e-mail: history of traditional East Asia, which, I believe, is more significant [than the colonial experience] as a distinct background of science and technology of the region...New problems, subject, methods, etc. will come up when we take this East Asian perspective.’ Historical case studies of European societies certainly played a seminal role in shaping STS theories and methods, not least because they dramatically highlighted the contemporary strangeness of ideas that we now take for granted. One of the most striking and influential founding manifestos for STS was John Law's analysis of the Portuguese carrack and its place in a ‘revolution in the means of long distance control’ that transformed the balance of power across the globe; another was Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's study of the debates around Boyle's air-pump, and the building of a ‘scientific polity’ within which the experimental method proved its worth as an intellectual, and political, product (Law 1986; Shapin and Schaffer 1985). Shapin and Schaffer concluded that scientific knowledge, like politics, is the product of human actions. Law's paper represented the more radical Actor Network Theory approach within STS, dislodging humans from the apex of the great chain of being by attributing equivalent agency to ‘non-human actors’, including in this case charts, wind patterns, forms of rigging and eventually a transformed understanding of how political power was best exerted. There are, nevertheless, many common points between the contrasting approaches in these two seminal studies. Both treated scientific ideas and technological artefacts as the product of complex material, symbolic and social negotiations. Both blurred the boundaries, at that point still quite jealously preserved within historical sub-fields, between science and technology, ideas and matter, Nature and Society, the micro-politics of everyday experience and the macro-Politics of states and polities. That said, one could argue that Leviathan and the Air-Pump was still a quite conventional historical exercise in that it unteased the shaping and consolidation of new ideas...


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pp. 327-333
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Archived 2021
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