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SEE Q&A (3): Who Determines Expertise? October 6, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: Your book’s epigraph is from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season… a time to break down, and a time to build up.”  One of the key strategies of prior sociology of science has been to question the socially constructed science/non-science divide in establishing what knowledge can be considered authoritative.  Through the construction of a “periodic table of expertises” you attempt to establish new normative standards of policy participation relating to whether actors have “contributory” or “interactional” expertise, and so forth.  Who determines who has primary access to a given problem and, thus, what other parties have pertinent expertise?  Is this purely a matter of social and political power, or are there other means of assembling teams of relevant experts?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: The epigraph is directed at our colleagues in science and technology studies who seem to have become addicted to breaking down barriers, creating monsters that cross boundaries, always attending to detail instead of generalising, and so forth.  If the fragility of all generalisations and classifications were widely accepted it would dissipate the power of science.  Science, like any synthesising activity, depends on the creation of new objects and categories and boundaries.  We think it is time to start building up science, including social science.  In our case we have tried to build new categories in the form of the Periodic Table of Expertise—the name was chosen to be ‘in your face,’ so there could be no doubt about the new emphasis on building and classifying.

Given the new emphasis on building up, the answer to your question: ‘Who decides who has pertinent expertise?’ has two stages.  In the first stage the answer is ‘us’—the social scientists.  We have to stop being afraid of using our expertise.  It used to be fun but the time for saying our expertise lies in knowing how little we know is over.  Of course, the attribution of expertise is always going to be heavily invested with power and politics but we want our kind of analysis to moderate this influence—to make it more likely rather than less likely that a person who becomes counted as an expert is not just attributed with expertise by the powerful but actually has expertise.

The second stage arises because for this to happen the ideas about expertise that social scientists like ourselves are developing will have to diffuse beyond the academy.  If they do, the ideas of, say, interactional expertise, or experience-based expertise, will legitimate the inclusion of new kinds of experts into technological debate.  At the same time others—such as scientists, drawing on the authority of the metaphorical ‘white coat,’ and speaking outside of their narrow domains—will be excluded.

Identifying specific domains of expertise and the individuals who best represent them is something that needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, but the use of expert commissions, select committees and so on within virtually all democracies suggests that these problems can be solved in practice. Our aim is to introduce a new criterion—that of expertise—that can be used to assess the suitability of competing claims for relevance and it is this aspect that enables the SEE approach to ‘build up’ and not simply ‘knock down’.  Whereas under Wave Two all knowledge claims tend to look the same, under Wave Three it is possible to differentiate knowledge claims according the source of the expertise of the claimants, including some and excluding others.  The first result that emerges from this kind of thinking is that ‘the people’ en masse have little to offer to the technical phase of an argument and would therefore be excluded from that part of the debate even if they remain important actors within the broader democratic phase.

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