Waves and Forms: Materiality of Culture

This project appraises what could constitute the theoretical foundations of area studies today, with a special emphasis on studies of China and the Middle East. It is based on the work of Asian studies scholars Geremie Barmé, John Lie and Donald Davis, and on a new ontology of cultural difference that draws from theories and methodologies in Science and Technology Studies. Its core framework is discussed in Basile Zimmermann’s book Waves and Forms published by The MIT Press in 2015. 

In a nutshell, the aim of the W&F project is to answer Barmé’s call for a New Sinology (Barmé 2005, 2008), as well as the ambitions of institutions of higher learning in China to define and circumscribe a new science of China. Roughly sketched, W&F attempts to bridge the particular and the universal through a combination of the relativist perspective of the social sciences and humanities, together with a non-essentialist view of materiality based on classical physics’ perspective of the world. By focusing on the concrete traces of expressions, artifacts and actions, W&F allows us to analyze the dynamics of what we call "culture" as its elements are created, propagated or dissipated among people, objects, and (especially) digital media.

Currently, W&F is being developed iteratively through trans-disciplinary empirical analyses, with core works published in the fields of contemporary Sinology, science and technology studies, design studies, and human computer interaction. As of 2017, these analyses include cases studies on electronic music devices and computer encodings in China (Zimmermann 2006, 2015), on the iPhone calculator app (Zimmermann & Nova, 2015), on a Chinese social networking site (Zimmermann 2010, 2013), and a study of a local community using online tools in Damascus (Halabi & Zimmermann, 2017).

This research is led by Dr. Basile Zimmermann in collaboration with Dr. Ammar Halabi. For more information about the project, please contact Basile Zimmermann.



Barmé, G. R. “On New Sinology”. Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter, Issue No. 3, 2005.

Barmé, G. R. "Worrying China & New Sinology". China Heritage Quarterly, 2008.

Davis, D. R. “Three Principles for an Asian Humanities: Care First. Learn from. Connect Histories”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 74-1, 43-67, 2015.

Guiheux, G. "Présence de la Chine et avenir des études chinoises". Etudes chinoises, Hors-série, 11-23, 2010.

Lie, J. “Asian Studies/Global Studies: Transcending Area Studies and Social Sciences”. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, 2, e-journal, 2012.



Halabi A., Zimmermann B. "Waves and Forms: Constructing the Cultural in Design." AI & Society , 2017, First View.

Zimmermann B., Nova N. “Circulation: A Theoretical Toolkit”, with Nicolas Nova. Design and Culture Vol. 7-2, pp. 167-184, 2015.

Zimmermann B. Waves and Forms: Electronic Music Devices and Computer Encodings in China. Inside Technology Series. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015.

Zimmermann B. “Materiality, Description and Comparison as Tools for Cultural Difference Analysis.” In A Companion to New Media Dynamics, edited by John Hartley, Jean Burgess, and Axel Bruns, 439-49. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.



“The concept of ‘culture’ and its quotation marks: Learning from electronic music practice in China”, Confucius Institute for Scotland and the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, June 2017.

“In-Game Advertising within the ‘Happy Network’: Circulation and Recyling of Design Elements in a Chinese Social Networking Site”, Convergence or Differentiation? Copyright Protection and Business Models in China’s Digital Creative Cultural Industries, Business School, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, June 2017.

“Matérialité(s) de l'analogique et du numérique: Extraits de musique électronique allemande à Beijing au début du 21e siècle”. Faculté des lettres, Section de langues et civilisations slaves et de l'Asie du Sud, Université de Lausanne, March 2017.

“Au croisement de la sociologie des sciences et de la sociologie de la musique: la matérialité du son”. Colloque Savoirs de la musique, étude de sciences, résonances. Laboratoire de recherche en sciences de l'information et de la communication du CELSA, Paris IV Sorbonne. October 2016.

“Waves and Forms: Electronic Music Devices and Computer Encodings in China”, Departments of Science & Technology Studies, Music Studies, East Asia Program, and the Contemporary China Initiative. Cornell University, United States, November 2015. Video

“The Present of Everyday Things: Electronic Music Devices and Computer Encodings in China” China Humanities Seminar and the Department of History of science, Harvard University, United States, November 2015.

“Waves and Forms: A Framework for the Materialities of the Digital”, annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Denver, United States, November 2015.

“Waves, Forms, and the Imitation Game”, School of Social Sciences, University of Cardiff, United Kingdom, May 2015.

汉学和当下研究 “Sinology and the Study of the Present”, World Sinology Conference, Renmin University, Beijing, Chine (presentation in Chinese), September 2014.

“An inspection of the concepts of culture and interactional expertise”, Communities of Integration Workshop, Studies of Expertise and Experience, Arizona State University, United States, May 2013.

“Waves and Elements: Toward a new conceptualisation of culture”, The Future of Content is Context, Université de St-Gall, Switerzland, April 2013.

“Chinese studies and the study of the present”. European Association of Chinese Studies XIXth Conference, Université Paris Diderot, France, September 2012.