Tidescapes: Notes on a shi (勢)-inflected Social Science
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What might it be to write a post-colonial social science? And how might the intellectual legacy of Chinese classical philosophy—for instance Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu—contribute to such a project? Reversing the more usual social science practice in which EuroAmerican concepts are applied in other global locations, this paper instead considers how a “Chinese” term, shi (shì, 勢, or “propensity”) might be used to explore the UK’s 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic. Drawing on anthropological insights into mis/translation between different worlds and their alternative ways of knowing and being, the paper explores that epidemic in three differently inspired shi-inflected “empirical” accounts. The first uses Sun Tzu’s strategic understanding of shi to tell a conventionally representational story. The second resists the causes and background factors implied in standard social science by offering a “light” and shi-inflected form of knowing. And the third combines the referentiality of social science with a Lao Tzu-informed commitment to the paradoxes of normative epigram. This third narrative thus illustrates the possible features of a situated and shi-inflected social science that recognizes that it participates in the contexted and immanent flows and counterflows of things in the world. The paper concludes by noting that such a shi-inflected social science is experimental, and suggests that it is important to explore a range of ways of reversing the flow of concepts between EuroAmerica and other global locations.
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