Waves and Forms: Materiality of Culture

Waves&forms_Chateaux de sable.pngThis project appraises 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 which was published by The MIT Press in 2015.

Waves and Forms (WV) is an attempt to bridge the particular and the universal through a combination of the relativist perspective of the social sciences and humanities, together with a positivist,  but non-essentialist, view of materiality rooted in classical physics. By focusing on the concrete traces of expressions, artifacts and actions, WV allows us to analyze the dynamics of what we call "culture" as its forms are created, propagated or dissipated among people, objects, and (especially) digital media.

Currently, WV 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. For case studies and examples of WV analyses, see the list of selected publications below.

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.

Publications (selected)

Zimmermann B. Humanités Populaires. La culture des objets. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2023.

Zimmermann B. "Similarity and difference in sound studies (and elsewhere)." In Rethinking Music through Science and Technology Studies, edited by Hennion, Antoine, and Levaux Christophe, 227-238. London: Routledge, 2021.

Sahin, O. Interactional expertise, forms and the imitation game: The integration of Chinese migrants in Beijing municipality  PhD Diss. 2021 DOI:10.13097/archive-ouverte/unige:156249

Halabi A., Zimmermann B. "Waves and Forms: Constructing the Cultural in Design." AI & SOCIETY 34 (3), pp. 403-417, 2019. See also the editorial Opening up the culture black box in community technology design.

Zimmermann B. "Trois regards sur la notion de « culture chinoise » ". Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques, 72(1), pp. 87-116, 2018.

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. [Chinese edition forthcoming: "波与形:电子音乐设备和计算机编码在中国" 翻译:袁邈桐,中国传媒大学出版社 (即将出版).]


 "What is AI? What is Culture? An anthropological perspective", 7th International Conference on Interdisciplinarity in Translation and Interpreting, Shanghai International Studies University. Novembre 2023.

"Learning from China: The Social Rematerialization 
of Sound", Soundin' China panel, Tonmeistertagung 32, Düsseldorf. November 2023.

"Comment résoudre la crise des humanités?". Cafés philosophiques des Bains des Pâquis, Genève. Octobre 2023. Cliquer sur le title pour visionner la vidéo.

"Résoudre la crise des humanités", Laboratoire d’étude des sciences et des techniques (STS Lab), Université de Lausanne. Septembre 2023.

"The Knife, the Starfish, and the Sandcastle: an inquiry into the ontology of governance by infrastructure", workshop Governance by Infrastructure, Laboratoire d’étude des sciences et des techniques, Université de Lausanne. Mars 2022. Click on the title to access the video recording.

"我们如何需要人类学––对人文和社会科学过去、现在与未来的反思" ("How Do We Need Anthropology? Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of Humanities and Social Sciences", presentation in Chinese). School of Sociology and Anthropology, Xiamen University, September 2020 (online).

"波与形式本体论" ("Waves and Forms Ontology", presentation in Chinese). Department of Philosophy, Nanjing University, China, November 2019. Online report.

"The Circulation of Ideas vs Physical objects". Keynote lecture for the international workshop Place, Migration and Imagination: Contemplating Mobility in Southwest China and Beyond, Research Institute for Social Anthropology, Nanjing University, China, November 2019.

"波与形式:数字流的物质性" ("Waves and Forms: The Materiality of Digital Flows", presentation in Chinese). 9th Finance, Technology and Society Workshop. Center for Social Research, Peking University, China, October 2018.

"How to trace materiality?". The Sound of the Anthropocene, IRCAM, Paris, France, September 2018.

"Three perspectives on the concept of culture".  Annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Washington D.C., United States, March 2018.

“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, China (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.