This article offers an overview of science and technology studies (STS) in Southeast Asia, focusing particularly on historical formations of science, technology, and medicine in the region, loosely defined, though research using social science approaches comes within its scope. I ask whether we are fashioning an “autonomous” history of science in Southeast Asia—and whether this would be enough. Perhaps we need to explore further “Southeast Asia as method,” a thought style heralded here though remaining, I hope, productively ambiguous. This review contributes primarily to the development of postcolonial intellectual history in Southeast Asia and secondarily to our understanding of the globalization and embedding of science, technology, and medicine.
Few essays have been so frequently misunderstood as John R. W. Smail’s (1961) plea for an “autonomous” history of Southeast Asia. Bearing the imprint of Cold War academic politics in the United States, the manifesto argued for Southeast Asia as an authentic site for “area studies,” not just as the location of various colonial palimpsests, and not just as a branch office of South Asia and East Asia. Smail urged us to abjure the simplifications and conceits of the old colonial histories, but he never pretended that we might study Southeast Asia as if it were subtracted and separated from the rest of the world. For Smail, his “broader conception of autonomy” was shorthand for modifying the relative importance assigned to local historical agents (88). It was a question of whose perspective might be adopted. The dominance of colonial historiography had meant that too often the continuing, and adapting, cultural and social vitality of the peoples of Southeast Asia was discounted or ignored. To be sure, Smail wrote, “the colonial relationship remains a theme of great importance for modern Southeast Asian history”—except that we should not assume that it alone exhausts that history (101; see also Sears 1993). As Tim Harper (1997: 511) notes, Smail, unlike some of his successors, was aware of the “danger of merely juxtaposing new autonomous fictions against the contemptuous dismissal of the local realm by colonial scholars.” In effect, Smail’s plea for “domestic histories” anticipated postcolonial or subaltern studies rather than advocating reverential, enclosed nationalist histories.
A year before Smail wrote his influential tract, Yoshimi Takeuchi, a Japanese expert on Chinese author Xun Lu, addressed the problem of what he called “Asia as method.” He observed: “I suspect that they [Asian values] are possible as method, that is to say, as the process of the subject’s self-formation. This I have called ‘Asia as method,’ and yet it is impossible to state definitely what this may mean” (Takeuchi 2005 : 65; see also Chen 2010; Anderson 2012, 2017). Convinced that modernity in Asia was little more than a secondhand European castoff, Takeuchi sought alternative routes to modernization, which required fresh understanding of local agency and subjectivity. He wanted to question assumptions about Western hegemony, not simply to substitute preexisting “Asian values” or other regional ontologies. While still stuck on rationalist teleology and orientalist typology—in contrast to Smail—Takeuchi basically hoped for a more equal and respectful engagement with the West in building a better modernity. Both Takeuchi and Smail were pressing for reframings of agency and shifts in perspective, for reimagining Asia as a cognitive platform. “This is the main problem facing East-West relations today,” Takeuchi (2005 : 65) wrote, “and it is at once a political and cultural issue.”
During the past decade, scholars in Northeast Asia have taken up Takeuchi’s challenge and tried to imagine regionally distinctive science and technology studies (STS). “Are scholars still dependent on Western intellectual frameworks,” Togo Tsukahara (2009: 507) asks, “or developing independent scholarship?” The Japanese historian of science laments the “colonial and Western-dependent character of intellectuals; Western theoretical frameworks are simply translated without critical examination, and ‘introduced’” (see also Anderson 2009b, 2012). A number of scholars, especially those associated with this journal, which is based in liminal Taiwan, have sought to imagine distinctively East Asian STS, beyond presenting local cases and data framed by Euro-American theory. Recently, John Law and Wen-yuan Lin (2016, 2017) sketched a Chinese explanatory sensibility in medical practice, marking out a curiously hybrid epistemological space. Then they took the Chinese “theory” shi 勢 and mobilized it as an analytic term, or method, to explain an English-language story, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Their study was tentative and exploratory; it rendered Chinese- and English-language practices rather too homogeneous and bipolar; and it proved disappointingly indifferent to historicity and temporal asymmetry—yet it seemed to open up an accessible path toward “Asia as method” in STS (Anderson 2017).
What about the situation in Southeast Asia? As STS emerges in the region, what forms does it take? In this article, I offer an overview of science studies in Southeast Asia, focusing particularly on histories of science, technology, and medicine—though much research using social science approaches comes within my scope.1 I go on to ask whether we are fashioning an “autonomous” history of science in Southeast Asia—and whether this would be enough. Perhaps we need to explore further Southeast Asia as method, a thought style heralded here, though with some ambiguity, and remaining unspecified. This review article thus contributes primarily to the development of postcolonial intellectual history in Southeast Asia and only secondarily (though I hope not insignificantly) to our understanding of the globalization of science and technology.2
But first I should perhaps explain my seemingly retrograde recourse to concepts of Southeast Asia as region or cultural area. Of all scales for historical analysis, Paul A. Kramer (2012: 201) argues, the region is “the most ambiguous and free floating in its reach, able to embrace and define spaces from the just-larger-than-local to the multinational and continental.” And yet, he continues, “a region’s elusiveness brings with it fruitful ontological disruption,” perhaps especially in Southeast Asia, the most belated and substandard of regional constructs (see also Emmerson 1984). As Mary Margaret Steedly (1999: 434) noted, Southeast Asia is “at once territorially porous, historically shallow, inherently hybrid,” its cultural landscapes “open, plural, and contested interpretive spaces” (440). Historians working on a broader regional scale make the same point. Asia generally, according to Wang Hui (2011: 58), “is neither self-contained entity nor a set of self-contained relations”; it is “neither self-sufficient subject not subordinate object.” Even as Sanjay Subrahmanyam (1997: 742) deplores the potential of area studies—mapped onto the region—for “parochialism,” he concedes that, “given the fragmentary nature of access to knowledge, each of us is more or less condemned in greater or lesser measure to area studies” (761).3 But this expedient can be rendered more dynamic and constructive through tracing networks, relations, connections—“some process of circulation” (762). For Prasenjit Duara (2010: 981), “the region has no external limits or territorial boundaries and does not seek to homogenize itself within”; it “can remain a site of circulation and interaction, one that implicitly questions pure identity in the recognition of multiple connections and interdependence” (see also Spivak 2008). In other words, the region or area does not necessitate a singular mode of being or ontology; rather, it is a roughly integrated terrain from which, and across which, one might think otherwise, on a scale intermediate between local and global. Thus, in proposing “thick transregionalism,” Engseng Ho (2017: 912) seeks a “spatially expansive yet integrative account of a mobile society.” Inspired by migration and diaspora studies, Ho sees Asia “not as a unitary continent but an old world crisscrossed by interactions between parts that have known and recognized one another for centuries” (907).4 The conjunction of trans—in the sense of transverse, or across and beyond—and region vividly conveys the spatial and conceptual instability and perverse productivity of Southeast Asia. My frequent reference here to region should be read accordingly.
Before the end of the twentieth century, a meager number of scholarly—I am tempted to say critical—histories of science and technology in Southeast Asia were published. The history of science was particularly exiguous before World War II, consisting mostly of memoirs of colonial sojourner scientists, serviceable institutional histories, and occasional assertions of local scientific achievement, despite imperial disparagement. In the Philippines, José Rizal and his scientifically minded successors in the mestizo elite tried to document, or conjure up, imported research traditions dating back to the late Spanish colonial period. Rizal pointed to the early efforts of Dominicans and Jesuits to train inhabitants of the archipelago in the medical and natural sciences; others noted the advanced investigations taking place in the Manila observatory, and progress in volcanology (Anderson 2007).5 During the Cold War, practitioner historians turned to the recent past to identify special manifestations of scientific “genius” in the region and to speculate on how these might be nurtured to promote the further development of research.6 Modernization seemed to require some capacity for scientific thinking, which was associated with deft appropriation of Western modes of inquiry. No Joseph Needham fixed his gaze on an ancient tradition of Southeast Asian ways of doing science, on vernacular systems of understanding bodies and environments (Teich and Young 1973). Nor were there any equivalents in the region to South Asian attempts to indigenize Western science, to bestow on it a self-serving alternative local genealogy (Prakash 1999).
From the late 1980s, more scholars began to study the impact of imperialism, war, and development on patterns of disease, and sometimes they went on to consider colonial and national reactions to the epidemics that swept through the region (Owen 1987; De Bevoise 1995).7 Inspired by “ecological” world histories, these epidemiologist historians were attempting to use our contemporary disease categories to diagnose the Southeast Asian past (McNeill 1976; Crosby 1986). In some of these accounts, responses to disease outbreaks could even be regarded as promoting intercolonial identity. During the 1990s, social and cultural histories of colonial medicine came to infiltrate the region, as they had already in South Asia and Africa, though in advance of their entry into Northeast Asia. It makes sense that the history of medicine and public health was in the vanguard of the regional history of science, since disease control had always excited the greatest colonial interest and investment, and training in medicine was initially the only way for the colonized to be exposed to science—at least until well into the twentieth century. Unlike narratives tracing the passage of infectious disease, these social histories of colonial medicine tended to anticipate later national formations, often recapitulating the supposed European trajectory to modernity (Anderson 1998b). Medical anthropologist Lenore Manderson (1996) described British colonial medicine in Malaya as a “cultural system” designed to protect the health of the colonizers, ensure a productive “native” labor force, and secure political and social control. Drawing on insights from political economy, Manderson demonstrated colonialism’s detrimental effects on public health—even as she observed mordantly that the medicine it also brought in its wake did more to legitimize state authority than to prevent or cure consequent disease. A few years later, Laurence Monnais-Rousselot (1999) told a similar story about French colonial medicine in Indochina, though she was perhaps more generous to those Pasteurians who introduced smallpox vaccination and imported in the 1920s their pronatalist concern with maternal and infant health (see also Guénel 1999).8 Importantly, Monnais-Rousselot showed how colonial medicine adapted to local conditions and became molded around a particular culture—not simply constituting a tool of empire operated from abroad.
In the early 1990s, I came to write essays on American colonial medicine in the Philippines, emphasizing how practices of hygiene shaped and reinforced racial hierarchies in the archipelago (Anderson 1995, 1996, 1998a).9 I was interested in how military strategy and administrative methods had focused medical attention on the dangers inherent in Filipino bodies—at the same time as this threatening corporeality of the colonized was juxtaposed against a uniquely vulnerable and valued white male body. Like all such discursive dichotomies, it proved unsustainable in imperial practice. Toward the end of Colonial Pathologies (2006), I concentrated on the impact of the “Filipinization” of the health services on late colonial practices of hygiene, tracing the rise of social medicine—thereby describing a sort of normalization of medicine and public health. But even as the Philippines colonial health service slowly assumed national form, returning American physicians were attempting to render more colonial, and racialized, the practices of hygiene in the United States. (This observation meant more to Filipino-American historians than to historians of the Philippines, of course.) Though I provided ample stories of local resistance or indifference to colonial medicine, my interpretive focus was on the connections between imperial science and racialization (Anderson 2006; see also Choy 2003; McElhinny 2009; Gealogo 2009). It was not until Sokhieng Au (2012) published her history of French colonial medicine in Cambodia that we gained real insight into ordinary medical encounters, the clash, as she put it, of different “epistemologies.” Her goal was “to understand the process whereby vastly different cultures interacted and attempted to negotiate with and understand each other, the epistemological wrangling that resulted, and the wider social implications of the interface between western medicine and Cambodian society” (7).10 And yet, even though ostensibly closer to “autonomous” history, Au’s account of colonial medicine ended up largely conforming to earlier interpretations.
This Southeast Asian patchwork of histories of colonial medicine draws our attention to the dominance of biomedicine among the sciences of empire, the superior status of public health in relation to private practice, and the tendency in the region to create ideal biopolitical sites—microcolonies or model communities such as plantations, hospitals, and leper colonies—where new subjectivities might be fashioned (e.g., Anderson 1998a, 2008; Aso 2013). There are intriguing resistances in these historical narratives, including the studious avoidance of mental illness, in contrast to African and South Asian histories of psychiatry. The obvious exceptions are analyses of rare yet spectacular culture-bound syndromes such as amok and latah, and the occasional reference to neurasthenia (Kua 1991; Winzeler 1995; Anderson 1997; Pols 2006, 2007; Monnais 2012). Religious healing, too, receives scant regard. But perhaps the most distinctive development in the history of Southeast Asian colonial medicine has been the emergence of interest in the amalgamation of decolonization and nationalism with the biomedical sciences (Anderson and Pols 2012; see also Lo 2002). Certainly, it seems that scientific training, mostly in biology and medicine, generated in the early twentieth century a belief in progress and evolution, a dedication to rooting out social and political pathologies, and a sense of being modern and cosmopolitan. Thus science, and scientists, became intimately associated with decolonization and nationalism, perhaps as nowhere else. Recently, Hans Pols (2018) has described the rise and fall of the “national physician” in the Dutch East Indies, surveying the cultivation of modern identities in the medical schools of Java and the popularity of organic analogies and scientific metaphors among the nationalist elite.11 So far, few histories of science and medicine in Southeast Asia have escaped these national themes and broached any regional or international comparisons.12
Other aspects of science and technology in Southeast Asia have failed to elicit the same historical enthusiasm as biomedicine and public health. However, the general theme of the developmental state has appealed to some historians of science and technology, especially in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Andrew Goss (2011, 2009), for example, has recognized the role of botany and natural history in decolonization. He tracks the decline of such “Enlightenment science” after independence and the rise of mediocre applied science, suggesting that as science became serviceable it became less creditable. In contrast, Suzanne Moon (1998, 2007) looks more sympathetically at state-sponsored agricultural programs in the twentieth century, revealing how cooperation of scientific experts and small-scale farmers transformed land use in the archipelago. Her research opens up a vista of colonial and national technological adaptation and cultural change. Sulfikar Amir (2012, 2017) follows this story into the late twentieth century, examining the “co-constitution” of technology and authoritarian politics in “New Order” Indonesia. Asking what it means “to say technology is politically constructed” (2012: 160), Amir tries to find answers in the creation of a local aircraft industry, generated by Suharto and B. J. Habibie. Thus he shows us the complicated entanglements of technological determinism, regime legitimacy, and modern yearnings (see also Moon 2009; Barker 2005, 2015; Kusno 2000). In more of an anthropological vein, Chris J. Shepherd (2013) reconstructs the negotiations of development experts and Timorese over the past fifty years or so, concentrating on the misguided neoliberal humanitarianism of international organizations and how things fall apart on the ground.
Another cluster of historians of science has critically examined the environmental consequences of colonial and national development projects in French Indochina, or Vietnam, impressing on us other facets of the impact of scientific modernity on Southeast Asia. In his meticulous recreation of the practices of French forestry, Frédéric Thomas (1999, 2009) emphasizes how little the colonial situation influenced attitudes toward nature and its exploitation. Twentieth-century French foresters scorned indigenous knowledge and shunned conservationist sensibilities, contrary to any expectations of a locally germinating “green imperialism” (see Grove 1995). David Biggs (2003, 2008), however, describes colonial hydraulic projects in the Mekong Delta embedded in the existing precolonial infrastructure. He sees scientific models and technical interventions adapting to local conditions, or withering away, illuminating the limitations of the colonial state. In his historical inquiries into French colonial agricultural science in Indochina, Michitake Aso (2009, 2014) reveals the contributions of global commerce, along with the state, to the development of rubber plantations and the transformation of the colonial environment in the past hundred years. Aso discerns multiple imperial influences, including regional networks of knowledge, “shaping the techno-scientific assemblages from which rubber emerged” (2009: 233). In the Philippines, similar concern with colonial and national environmental sciences is manifested in the critical study of disaster prediction and response as scientific and technical endeavors. Prompted by the archipelago’s history of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and typhoons, Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. and his colleagues examine “science as observation and science as mitigation,” precipitated by modern disasters (Aguilar, Pante, and Tugado 2016: 651; Bankoff 2003; Alvarez 2016; Gealogo 2016).
Evidently, the history of science, technology, and medicine in Southeast Asia has been reoriented and revamped from its early preoccupation with the frictionless spread of Western science to the recent interest in local cultural and social adaptation and change. Comparison of the work of Lewis Pyenson and Rudolf Mrázek illuminates most clearly this shift toward more “autonomous” histories. In the 1980s, Pyenson’s pioneering study of the “exact sciences”—that is, physics and astronomy—in the Dutch East Indies concluded that local history and politics had exerted no influence on these alien ways of knowing. European civilization thus was imposed undefiled and intact over the messy, disorderly archipelago (Pyenson 1989).13 All Pyenson cared for, wrote Paolo Palladino and Michael Worboys (1993: 98), was “the work of scientific missionaries exporting metropolitan civilization to the colonial periphery.” As harbingers of a richly contextual history of colonial science, Palladino and Worboys insisted that “Western methods and knowledge were not accepted passively but were adapted and selectively absorbed in relation to existing traditions of natural knowledge and religion and other factors” (99). Pyenson (1993b: 106) protested “only sharp-toothed unkindness would associate my conclusions with the denial of any people’s authentic history.” But clearly such authentic history, according to Pyenson, could not rechannel, let alone taint, the imperial diffusion or laminar flow of exact sciences. As we have seen, Pyenson laid out a path not taken by later historians of science, technology, and medicine in Southeast Asia. Instead, their intellectual trajectory led toward complex cultural and social histories of expertise and technique, toward assigning agency, perceptivity, and comprehension to the region’s inhabitants. In Engineers of Happy Land, that poetic and frenetic assemblage, Mrázek (2002) revealed how new technologies informed and framed nationalist consciousness, and conferred form on modern aspirations, in the Dutch East Indies: “As people handled, or were handled by, the new technologies, their time, space, culture, identity, and nation came to feel awry” (xvi). Through encounters with technologies like radios, telephones, trains, cars, and streetlights, natives became uneasy Indonesians. Figures such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer recalled themselves coming alive to technology, recognizing asphalt as a language, turning into radio mechanics. “Encountering the ‘unseemly’ technologies, people in the Indies began to move, speak, and write in a way that broke through—or at least scratched—the otherwise smooth surface of their behavior and language” (xvi). For Mrázek, technology in the Dutch East Indies was not just a tool of colonial domination: it enabled cultural translation and cognitive mediation among people.
Although much critical study of contemporary formations of science, technology, and medicine in Southeast Asia draws on what may be called autonomous, or richly contextualized and agential regional histories, it is surprising how resistant some STS scholars have been to allow their subjects a history at all. In part this reluctance derives from aversion to older colonial histories that implied European dominance and native submission—and just plain unfamiliarity with recent historical inquiries. Often a rather shallow ethnographic approach is favored, to the detriment of critical engagement with what it means for scientific and technical practice to be situated in a place with a specific history, located where conditions of possibility are constrained or released by a particular past. As Frederic Jameson (1981: 9) puts it, “History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis.” Or as Hayden White (2007: 225) argues, “Historicization, especially of the present, lifts the veil of its necessity, shows unacknowledged possibilities, and suggests routes of escape.”
Reluctance to historicize contemporary projects in science, technology, and medicine in the region can distort analytic tone, even to the point of contriving a sort of facile orientalism or superficial Asian essentialism. Singapore’s Biopolis, for example, has been the subject of considerable scrutiny by STS scholars since its launch in 2003.14 What should we make of this hub for life science research and biotechnology development? As sociologist Catherine Waldby (2009b: 379) explains, Singaporean citizens, and others across Asia and Africa, “will be required to act as tissue donors and research subjects, to align the regenerative and experimental capacities of their in vivo biology, their ‘bare life,’ with the in vitro requirements of an expanding life sciences industry” (see also Waldby 2009a; Clancey 2012; Fischer 2013).15 According to Waldby (2009b: 381), “Biopolis and its high-technology biomedical expertise are finding new ways to render the biological qualities of the population as national assets and forms of regional or global value.” Anthropologist Aihwa Ong (2013: 73) agrees that Biopolis is “converting the diversity of life in the tropics into fungible assets.” But she assumes that such an “elastic laboratory” (74) is new to Southeast Asia. While Ong wonders “how flows of global knowledge to different sociopolitical sites may create distinct science cultures” (70), she does not tarry to chart the historical contours of science in Singapore and Southeast Asia.16 And yet, the multiply contested histories of development and medicalization in the region suggest possible continuities with Singapore’s contemporary harvesting of biovalue. Other parallels come to mind. Ong (2010) discerns a “new” racialization of Asian populations in the life sciences, a search for ethnic biomarkers, yet the critical history of colonial and national racialization in Southeast Asia remains hidden.17 She briefly concedes “the embrace of Western technology by Asian countries seems overly determined by dual effects Western imperialism and nation-building” (7) before moving on quickly to extol specifically Asian genomics and notions of distinct racial metabolisms. What, one asks, is the Southeast Asia of which she speaks? What are its histories?
In this survey I have sought to display the gradual incorporation of what might be called a critical area-studies sensibility—a perspective that draws at least in part from regional cultural studies and cultural anthropology—into the history of science, technology, and medicine in Southeast Asia. Admittedly, a few sociologists and critical scholars of science and technology, as I have shown, appear still to be more interested in evaluating the effects of globalization than in engaging with “autonomous” or at least richly contextual histories of the locale. In effect, these indisposed or unresponsive investigators still position the West as the main driver of local developments, and they imagine the site on which it operates as blank, bare, and bereft of history, as gray and undifferentiated—even if more through inadvertent omission than any conscious intent. Mostly, they craft their research to appeal to other STS scholars rather than to those keen to understand Southeast Asia. But their influence on what counts as science and technology studies in the region seems slowly to be diminishing. Instead, we find historians and social scientists more likely to embed science, technology, and medicine in common, even conventional, themes and modes of inquiry in Southeast Asian studies. As we have seen, these researchers seek to identify local agency and situated knowledge, modulated by distinct, if interactive, histories. In postcolonial fashion, they are detecting “the ongoing life of residues, living remains, lingering legacies” (Young 2012: 21).
While we are better at recognizing local actors and historical contingencies, lamentably little change in the cognitive repertoire and methodological setting of our narratives has occurred. We have identified new subject positions, but have we endowed them with new thought worlds? With European influence still in the spotlight, the natives often seem to be reacting, not acting.18 Southeast Asia as method still seems as elusive as ever. It could be said I am simply echoing an old criticism of area studies, an appraisal that might be especially acute in relation to supposedly universal or abstracted subject matter like modern science and technology. As Meaghan Morris (1990: 10) put it, the modern often is comprehended as “a known history, something that has already happened elsewhere and which is reproduced, mechanically or otherwise, with a local content.” According to Pheng Cheah (2001: 53; see also 1999), we remain stuck in a conceptual matrix in which “the subject of universal knowledge becomes isomorphic with the West and all other regions become consigned to particularity.” Thus, “Asian materials or data are ironically processed through the concepts and methodologies of (Western) theory” (54). The West, writes Ariel Heryanto (2016: 161), “is primarily expected to collect empirical data from the non-West that would validate the universalizing theorization in social science and humanities” (see also Heryanto 2007 ). How might we imagine Southeast Asian methods or theory—not just materials or data—in science and technology studies? Social theorist Michael Dutton (2002: 495) deplores the apparent “impossibility of writing a work that is principally of a theoretical nature that is empirically and geographically grounded in Asia rather than in Europe or North America.” Why is it that “whenever ‘theory’ is invoked, it is invariably understood to mean ‘applied theory’ and assumed to be of limited value only insofar as it helps tell the story of the ‘real’ in a more compelling way?” (495).
What then would it mean to think with Southeast Asia, to postulate, in effect, a global Southeast Asia? In his provocative revision of Takeuchi’s (2005 ) Asia as method, Kuan-hsing Chen (2010: xv) describes how “using Asia as an imaginary anchoring point can allow societies in Asia to become one another’s reference points, so that understanding of the self can be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt.” Crucially, this project would require “theory” to be “deimperialized” (3).19 Chen argues against regional investments in nationalism and nativism, against the ontological falsification of “Asian values,” urging Asian intellectuals instead to identify with their diverse postmodern geographies and heterogeneous postcolonial histories. For too long Asians 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 heuristic of Asia as method might “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). Let me emphasize again that term heuristic. There has always been a danger that Asia as method dwindles into a form of Chinese essentialism, as in Yuzo Mizoguchi’s proposed “China as method” (see Anderson 2012). Itty Abraham (2006) has warned also against the possible collusion of ontologically inclined postcolonial science studies with Hindu fundamentalism. Yet thinking Asia as method from Southeast Asia will surely further destabilize and disperse the project, rendering it even more heterogeneous, in a productive way. As Fa-ti Fan (2016: 363) notes, “The multiplicity, ambiguity, and elusiveness of ‘Asia’ is, methodologically speaking, an asset,” hence the pressing need to thicken transregional analysis as heuristic, or orienting device.
I have been speculating on how thinking with Southeast Asia might alter our concepts of science, technology, and medicine—also, just as significantly, our impressions of temporality, historicity, and modernity. But even as I write this, I can hear Takeuchi’s plaintive evasion. “This I have called ‘Asia as method,’” he averred, “and yet it is impossible to state definitely what this may mean” (2005 : 65).
Many colleagues have helpfully offered comments on earlier drafts of this article, including Itty Abraham, Filomeno “Jun” Aguilar, Michitake Aso, Fa-ti Fan, Francis Gealogo, Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Laurence Monnais, Suzanne Moon, Hans Pols, Ricardo Roque, and Laurie Sears. Thanks especially to James Dunk for research assistance. I also benefited from discussions of this material at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and the Department of the History of Science, Harvard University. My research was supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council (FL110100243).
While I do not try to assess whether distinctive forms of science are emerging in the region, I assume a degree of metonymy between the critical study of science and its subject. Obviously, I am concerned here with critical scholarship in STS, but as Itty Abraham (personal communication, 6 September 2016) points out, Southeast Asian research into science, technology, and medicine is frequently—perhaps exceptionally so—figured into policy assessments and state reports, which I do not consider here.
For a comparison of Cold War area studies and emergent postcolonial or critical area studies, see Anderson 2012.
Presumably, Ho is alluding also to Clifford Geertz’s (1973) notion of thick description, derived from studies of Indonesia.
For an illuminating recent example, see Peckham 2016.
More recently, Monnais and Tousignant (2006) have been able to relate the Vietnamese national obsession with pharmaceuticals to the influence of French colonial medicine. See also Thompson 2003, Wahlberg 2006, and the essays in Monnais, Thompson, and Wahlberg 2011.
But see Manderson 1995, Amrith 2006, and Eddington and Pols 2016. Recent collections of essays are valuable but fail to achieve an explicit comparison; see Lewis and McPherson 2008, Harper and Amrith 2014, and Pols, Thompson, and Warner 2017.
For a similar argument for French Indochina, see Pyenson 1993a.
While I focus here on Biopolis, many other excellent anthropological studies of recent influenza and SARS epidemics in Southeast Asia come under the rubric of STS (e.g., Lowe 2010; Porter 2013). Numerous inquiries into regional biodiversity conservation and environmental science have also contributed to STS (see Tsing and Greenough 2003; Tsing 2005; Lowe 2006). Additionally, there is a profusion of critical, if still synchronic, studies of information technologies in Southeast Asia (see, e.g., Rafael 2003; Lim 2005; Barker 2015; Nguyen 2016). A comprehensive survey of these endeavors would exceed the limits of any essay.
I discuss Biopolis and global health in Anderson 2014.
For an extended treatment along these lines, see Ong 2016.
See the essays collected in the special issue edited by Anderson and Roque 2018.
The formulation is from Sears 1993.
Chen echoes Chakrabarty’s (2000) argument for the decolonization of history.