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SEE Q&A (8): Expertise as a “Classic Problem” November 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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As we conclude our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project, I would like to thank them for taking the time to answer the questions and for participating in the blog format.  As we continue to toss around and develop ideas on this site, I imagine we will have many opportunities to refer back to this series.  Please note that Collins and Evans crafted their responses jointly.

Will Thomas: You mentioned back in your foundational paper in SSS (cited here) that the establishment of levels of expertise “has the feel of a classic problem”.  I would tend to agree, finding in my own work on operations research that creating social arrangements where “policy science” can contribute to rather than dictate decision making was a central concern in the postwar evolution of the various policy sciences.  In reading your work I am reminded of Herb Simon’s work Administrative Behavior, or even Robert Merton’s “The Role of Applied Social Science in the Formation of Policy: A Research Memorandum” Philosophy of Science 16 (1949) 161-181.  Have you been finding over the last several years that SEE has had resonance in other fields?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: It does not surprise us to find that SEE resonates with post-war work because of the fact that both maintain a divide between the technical and the political.  Thus we find 1950s debates in the British Civil Service about the role of technical experts in respect of generalists and the continuing question of whether scientists should be ‘on tap or on top.’  We are undoubtedly going over much of the ground that was first traversed in Wave 1 but we are not going back to same way of thinking.  The differences between Wave 3 and Wave 1, as have been remarked above, concern the nature of the divide between technical and political.  For us, in consequence of Wave 2, the technical is less simply and purely ‘technical’ and the divide has to be much more sociological than logical.

The world is also a very different place now to what it was in the 1950s.  We are finding that though our ideas have been resisted within science and technology studies (a resistance which appears to be gradually diminishing), they have marked resonance in other academic areas which draw on science studies.  It may be that what we are witnessing is the realisation that there is only so much that can be done with Post-Modernism.  Wave 2 is essentially a sceptical movement—and very comforting because scepticism is ‘bomb proof.’  But scepticism can only satisfy for so long.  There comes a point when one has to start to synthesise (and hence the epigraph discussed earlier).  Synthesis is much less comforting because it is far from bomb proof.  The positive resonances we are finding have, perhaps, to do with the fact that we are seeing a wider change in academic consciousness that is of a similar magnitude to that which ushered in the exciting times of the 1960s and 1970s—we are witnessing ‘Post-Post-Modernism,’ which includes a realisation that a world in which science and politics are treated as indistinguishable is not one we would want to live in.

‘Post-Post-Modernism’ is a bit of a mouthful and the term we prefer is ‘Elective Modernism.’   ‘Elective Modernism’ captures the idea that, as with any kind of scepticism, the ideas of Wave 2 are indefeasible—science is not forced upon us by its efficiency or its revelation-like certainty.  Nevertheless, it is impossible to live by scepticism alone.  Therefore, irrespective of the logic of the sceptical arguments one must still elect to live by principles that recognise the value of experience and expertise.

Elective Modernism does not reinstate Modernism as it was before Post-Modernism.  Instead Elective Modernism describes an age in which we choose to value expertise and experience because we know that while the problem of legitimacy cannot be ignored, neither can the problem of extension and we know that a society in which an expert opinion is given the same weight as any other opinion is not one we would want to live in.  We have all been changed by Wave 2 and by Post-Modernism, but we still have to get on with a life informed by expertise; we must surely elect to live in a society where decisions are made for reasons in addition to power and populist sentiment.

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1. aldenswan.com » Blog Archive » Working on the New World Order - March 6, 2009

[…] or Post-modernism, they are advancing what they call “Elective Modernism.”   From a Q&A on the subject: ‘Post-Post-Modernism’ is a bit of a mouthful and the term we prefer is […]


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