Modern Asian Studies

Introduction

Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An introduction

DAVID ARNOLD and ERICH DeWALD*

That technology matters—and matters profoundly—to the humanities and social sciences is no longer in dispute. But exactly how it informs our understanding of society, now and in the past, remains a matter of scholarly contention. It might be argued that, as the history and sociology of technology moves away from its principal point of origin in the study of Euro-American societies, the questions that technology poses have, if only by virtue of their relative novelty, a particular resonance for the constituent regions of modern Asia—and not least for the societies of South and Southeast Asia that form the subject of this special issue. It is not a question of adopting an approach as unsubtle and outmoded as technological determinism, or of simply extending to one corner of the Asian landmass a set of ‘global’ theories and histories, with technology as their underpinning, already established and familiar in other contexts. Rather, it is a case of finding and developing a perspective on technology which helps to illuminate the inner histories and local narratives of these regions and which brings to the wider discussion of technology something distinctive, distilled from the outlook and experience of one part of the non-Western world. A desire to move beyond scholarship's still-dominant paradigms of colonialism, nationalism, and development, to explore the multivalent nature of ‘everyday life’ and enquire into ‘the social life of things’ as locally constituted, to examine modernity's diverse material forms, technological manifestations, and ideological configurations, to locate the regional roots as well as the exogenous origins of social change and cultural transformation, to situate subaltern experience alongside middle class mores and elite appropriation—all these interlocking considerations have begun to form part of a collective inquiry into the technological histories and cultures of South and Southeast Asia. A scholarly search is clearly under way to establish new methodologies and meanings, new contexts, and conjunctures, which will inform and reinvigorate the history, sociology, anthropology, and geography of these regions and redefine their place within the burgeoning field of science and technology studies.

(Online publication November 04 2011)

* With special thanks to Sarah Teasley for her most helpful comments on an earlier draft of this Introduction.