11 septembre 2018

Assembling Exclusive Expertise

In a context marred by fake news, alternative facts and  steadily deepening distrust of experts – including academic ones – it is important to reflect on the relationship between academic research and political practices. In their coedited book Assembling Exclusive Expertise: Knowledge, Ignorance and Conflict Resolution in the Global South (Routledge) – the results of a four-year project – Anna Leander and Ole Wæver come to the conclusion that this relationship is best conceived of as an “assembling” of an expertise that is furthermore “exclusive” in the dual sense of being valuable and discriminatory. It therefore remains essential to engage critically with expertise so as to preserve its indispensable and empowering role, as Professor Leander argues below.

Why it is so important to discuss expertise?

Expert committees, expert opinions and expert statements are a staple in most political processes. This is part of the reason it is so controversial. The experts involved will always be the wrong ones from someone’s perspective. Indeed, the relativisation of expertise has made many suggest that it is (or should be) defunct and that the terms should be abandoned. However, simply steering clear of the term expert is hardly going to change the reliance on expert rule.

On the contrary, it is important to grapple with what expertise is, including by thinking about the role of research in making and unmaking it. Unlike many, I do not think that the critique of expertise and science has gone too far and is co-responsible for the current fate of expertise. Nor do I think that all we need is the reestablishment of firm foundations for genuinely scientific expert authority. Such a conservative restoration project is both impossible and undesirable. We cannot simply forget what we know about power-knowledge. The work of postcolonial and feminist scholars also serves as a powerful antidote to the nostalgic lure generating the desire to do so.

But perhaps most importantly, focusing on expertise matters precisely because the expert “actually knows something”, as Rushdie reminds us in the Golden House. In the social sciences and humanities we need active engagement to resist their replacement by the “post-factual”, where fiction is too elite. We need to convey how expertise is made and unmade to show the power relations enacted in the post-factual. We also need to do so to show the scope for agency.

But the expert is not only someone who knows something, it is someone whose knowledge is authoritative on a specific question or problem. The expert on the Sarin gas bombing in Syria is neither the scientist in a lab who knows everything about gas poisoning nor the anthropologist who can tell us all about Ghouta. It is the scientist, anthropologist, think tank, company, or for that matter a database (such as those featuring in Keith Krause’s chapter), an app (such as the UN SanctionsApp in Thomas Bierstecker’s chapter), or an artwork (such as those discussed by Donatella Della Ratta and me) whose knowledge is authoritative in relation to the Sarin gas bombing. Because of this embarrassment of choice of potential experts, we propose in our volume to think in terms of assembling, as a more promising way of coming to terms with the (un-)making of expertise.

What exactly do you mean by assembling expertise?

First, a wide range of scientific, practical-experience-based, but also socio-technical knowledges can potentially be turned into expertise. The bounded, relatively stable fields of knowledge offer poor guidance for understanding how this is simplified and expertise is made and unmade. A “cunning uncertainty” weighs on the processes through which often “transgressive” expertise is made). This makes the processual and malleable notion of assembling a more helpful thinking-tool than anything more stable and fixed.

Moreover, awareness that expertise is inherently plural and contested has also made it seem replaceable, provisional, not to say disposable. Research institutions, including our own, are expected to enthusiastically embrace the resulting pressure to update their knowledge and innovate. The stable is replaced by the ephemeral, reinforcing the appropriateness of assembling for conceptualising the process.

Finally, as a consequence of becoming provisional and multifarious, expertise is also becoming “disenchanted”, as David Kennedy puts it. Experts making too bold claims risk being held accountable, as were the experts who failed to predict the Aquila earthquake. Few things are more likely to disqualify an expert than an assertion that their own well-tried knowledge can stand alone, and does not require to be updated to a changing world or enriched by interdisciplinary insights and collaboration. In our contribution to the volume, Donatella Della Ratta and I reflect on what happens when creative expression is turned into conflict resolution expertise as a consequence of these development.

Why is expertise exclusive?

The qualifier exclusive is suitable as it highlights both the valuable, treasured, indispensable character of expertise, but also its hierarchical, discriminatory and ignorant dimensions. It allows for nuances that exclusionary, exploitative, oppressive or dominating would miss. Exclusive introduces the possibility that expertise may also be empowering and therefore also saps the idea that it works along some fixed line such as that between South/North, local/global, national/international, women/men, etc. Considering how knowledge of the Global South is assembled into expertise makes this quite clear. The Global South is all over the place in conflict resolution knowledge and expertise. Local ownership and local solutions have become part of the mantra in international conflict resolution. Conflict resolution failures are often attributed to the insufficient integration of local knowledge, and/or to the integration of the wrong local knowledge. The pertinent question is therefore not if the local plays a role in the assembling of conflict resolution expertise, but how it does so. Exclusive intimates that the how matters.

This is particularly important because the omnipresence of the Global South should not mask the obvious exclusionary processes at work. Being too close to the local is often considered suspicious. It generates bias. Going native jeopardises judgement. So the Global South can be included but only if it distances itself from the local. Exclusive has the advantage of acknowledging these (subtler?) processes of exclusion and domination without denying the presence of the Global South and the ways in which this presence may also be empowering: the international seeps into the local and becomes part of its relations, hierarchies and disputes just as much as the local is smuggled into to the international and transforms expertise.

Exclusive also signals that there is space for local agency. The “Local/Global South” has loudly and for long been claiming a stronger voice for itself. It has done so in polyphony. The government, the indigenous, the subaltern, the stakeholders, the armed forces and non-state militias, the elders, the clansmen, the religious minorities, the women, the farmers, the children as well as many of those who purport to speak on their behalf, have actively positioned themselves as the “local” that needs integration. In the process, they are revamping both their politics of their own context and the politics of assembling expertise. They give novel transversal meanings to the exclusivity of expertise.

So, what are the practical implications of your volume for institutions?

The volume’s argument is a nudge in the direction of a more responsible, reflected and reflexive engagement with the processes (un-)making expertise. Expertise is not just somehow there, ready to be consulted. It is assembled. Institutions have the power to fashion this assembling. With power comes responsibility. Here it is a responsibility to tend to indicatorsand procedures to ensure that they retain the valuable, indeed indispensable role for the “person [or thing] who knows” and avoid contributing to their displacement through the anti-elite, anti-fiction, mass market, information age, troll-generated – to return to Rushdie.

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Full citation of the book:
Leander, Anna, and Ole Waever. Assembling Exclusive Expertise: Knowledge, Ignorance and Conflict Resolution in the Global South. London: Routledge, 2019.

With chapters by:
  • Thomas Biersteker, “SanctionsApp as Expertise (and Exclusionary Ignorance) in a Global Policy Setting”, pp. 153–69;
  • Keith Krause, “Bodies Count: The Politics of Assembling War and Violent Death Data Expertise”, pp. 129–52;
  • Anna Leander and Donatella Della Ratta, “Art as Expertise? Creative Expression in the Syrian Conflict Resolution”, pp. 189–212;
  • Anna Leander and Ole Wæver, “Introduction”, pp. 1–19.

This is an abridged version of a blog that will be published by Gloknos (to be launched in October 2018).