A striking feature of these inquiries into the character of East Asian STS theories is the way they highlight the issue of community in the field of STS as much as theory itself. The success of EASTS in creating not only a publishing venue but a real community of scholars results in large measure from the serious interrogation of the significance of the enterprise of East Asian STS by Daiwie Fu and the many contributors to EASTS. The engagement of Asian scholars with each other and with this idea of what East Asian STS could be has produced a fertile body of work characterized by its empirical richness and, as Warwick Anderson has noted, a novel collection of questions and research sites grounded in the heterogeneous realities of technoscience in Asia. The intellectual fruits of “Asia as method,” therefore, are already abundantly evident. Yet empirical richness is not quite enough. As Ruey-Lin Chen, Jia-shin Chen, and Anderson persuasively argue, Asian STS, in terms of both community and intellectual foundations, can and should be a site of significant theoretical agency for the wider field of STS. How can this happen? Is it a question of just nurturing the community and waiting patiently for novel theoretical insights to emerge (recognizing how slowly indeed truly novel theories ever emerge, in any intellectual community)? It surely seems important to encourage scholars, as Jia-shin Chen so aptly puts it, to “tinker with, experiment on, and contribute to” STS theories, but is it enough? Are there other problems that stand in the way of East Asian STS becoming a robust site for theoretical innovation?
Ruey-Lin Chen's observation that few EASTS articles have explicitly engaged in theory building is fascinating. While we don't have any specific evidence as yet to understand why not, one possible dimension of this problem may be located in the ways that theories and communities interact. Theories don't exist in abstract universal space but instead emerge from communities and from the mutual engagement of scholars in those communities, becoming, in a field like STS, a necessary part of the language of that engagement. To speak an entirely different language (as one might do when embarking on novel theoretical experiments) is to risk being isolated or ignored. Yet staying carefully within the boundaries of existing theory only, while it may ensure legibility, may ultimately frustrate the very enterprise of scholarship, obscuring important stories and their more surprising insights and making certain vital forms of critique difficult or impossible to produce. As Asian STS scholars have built this body of scholarship, they have faced the challenge of striking a balance between innovations that emerge from the fruitful engagements within this particular community and legibility to others in the wider world of STS. This sort of balance can be difficult to achieve, as the tensions Anderson mentions between Euro/American and South Asian STS communities amply demonstrate. Multiplying sites of theoretical agency is necessary and important, but one consequence can be a proliferation of disconnects between communities with different experiences and priorities. Scholars working in East Asian STS who hope to constructively engage the widest audience therefore must always confront these two pressures: to theoretically innovate in a way that provides a more insightful understanding of the Asian (and indeed, the global) experience of technoscience, and to speak in a recognizable theoretical language that facilitates engagement rather than alienation. It is not that doing both is impossible; indeed, it is a problem faced by any innovator in whatever setting. But it is complicated by the fact that East Asian STS is often producing both empirical stories that are very new to non-Asian scholars and challenges to existing theories. How to enlighten and engage a wide audience under those circumstances is certainly a challenge.
Despite the difficulties, however, striving for this balance is essential. Should Asian STS become more insular, speaking a language available only to others within its borders, or on the other hand, should it refuse all innovative theorizing, merely applying widely accepted theories to Asian cases, it might devolve into the least that it could be: a geographically delimited “special interest group.” Clearly, East Asian STS is already much more than this and aims to be more still. As each of these authors argue, the deterritorialized vision of Asia as has been embraced by East Asian STS expands the community of scholars and creates circumstances that allow for critical engagement with Western (and other) STS scholarship, enabling conversations that may reshape and deeply enrich the wider field. So even as Asian STS scholars innovate, it is essential to consider, as each author in this forum has, how best to meet the challenges of speaking to and engaging with diverse communities.
How specifically do we go about simultaneously building theories and crafting modes of engagement with other communities? There is no recipe book for theory making, of course, and efforts to see technoscience with new eyes are difficult, but the authors here have helpful suggestions. Jia-shin Chen calls for exploring the value of a wider variety of available theoretical tools, breaking out of the mold of actor network theory (ANT) and proliferating the available lenses through which to study Asia. Ruey-Lin Chen offers several ways of building on and yet away from existing theories to produce something new and yet recognizable, the starting point for useful interpretations and conversations. I might add to these suggestions that scholars have faith in Anderson's heuristic of “Asia as method” and pay attention to their own intuitions about what stories matter or deserve analysis. Stories that seem uncomfortable yet compelling, too pat, impossible to tell, or seemingly irrelevant but strangely engaging, are all sites begging for innovation, as their very problems suggest that the interpretive tools at hand have already broken down. Such stories may provide creative challenges for building theories that enrich the interpretive foundations of East Asian STS and echo similar stories elsewhere that have been ignored or misunderstood. Scholars may also benefit from paying more attention to Asian history. This is a site where STS theories, often based on present-day assumptions about technoscience, markets, and cultures of exchange, can easily break down. Aiming to better incorporate the longer history of Asia into STS literature (as European STS scholars have long done) is a tantalizing prospect.
The question, What are East Asian STS theories?, seems to me therefore to parallel an equally important question: How will East Asian STS theorists choose to engage with diverse STS communities? Ruey-Lin Chen's call to make East Asian STS more theoretical not only promises to build the East Asian STS community and the vitality of the scholarship but also compels theorists to think about the multiple communities they are engaging, promoting we hope a more intellectually compelling and interpretively expansive foundation for STS scholars everywhere.