Assembling exclusive expertise | Anna Leander

26 November 2018

Recently, Ole Wæver and I published the results of a collective project that ran over four years studying conflict resolution expertise. The ambition with the book, originally, was to reflect on the relationship between the academic research we were conducting at the Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts in Copenhagen and political practices.

This question seemed important to us, to our funders, but also much more generally to a context marred by fake news, alternative facts and a steadily deepening distrust of experts; academic ones in particular. As most books, this one is the result of a process in which ideas take shape, evolve and are moulded into something articulable. In our case this involved workshops with the contributors, and discussions in a range of professional and academic fora.

Eventually, we came to the conclusion that the relationship between (our) academic research and practice was best conceived of as an assembling of expertise. We also came to think of expertise as exclusive in the dual sense of the fashionable, the sophisticated that counts and also to the exclusion of some people or views. We therefore gave our book the title Assembling Exclusive Expertise: Knowledge, Ignorance and Conflict Resolution in the Global South and chose a cover that reflected the golden glossiness of this assemblage that is both dominating and empowering. Here I want to share my reasons for why by introducing the first part of this title.

Book cover courtesy of Routledge. Image: Exclusive Expertise - An Assemblage. Alg, Berlin 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Why discuss expertise?

Is expertise not defunct Michel Callon argued a decade ago, or so profoundly compromised with power-knowledge practices that it is better to stay clear of it? Is Rushdie not correct when he points out its repelling at present?

- Now the person you think is lying to you is the expert who actually knows something. He’s the one not to believe because he’s the elite and the elites are against the people, they will do the people down. To know the truth is to be elite….

- I don’t want to be elite. Am I elite?

- You need to work on it. You need to become post-factual.

- Is that that the same as fictional?

- Fiction is elite. Nobody believes it. Post-factual is mass market, information age, troll generated. It’s what people want. I blame truthiness. I blame Stephen Colbert.

(The Golden House)

Perhaps expertise is indeed defunct, compromised and repelling. Yet, it is not only useful but important to focus on it when thinking about the link between academia and political practices. One reason is pragmatic: expertise has a significant role in connecting researchers to politics. Expert committees, expert opinions and expert statements are a staple in many (most) political processes. Simply steering clear of the term, wishing it away is hardly going to change that.

Therefore, and second, from my perspective, it is important to grapple with what expertise is and specifically what role research has in making and unmaking it. Contrary to many who have recently picked up these questions, I do not think the best way to do so is to embrace the idea that the critique has gone too far and is co-responsible for the dire situation of researchers, science and experts. All we need is the reestablishment of firm foundations for genuinely scientific expert authority. On the contrary, I see no option but to deepen critique. A return to firmly grounded, uncontested, expertise/science authority is impossible and undesirable. We cannot simply forget what we know about power-knowledge. The work of post-colonial 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 experts “actually know something” as Rushdie reminds us, we need them. In the natural sciences we have no choice but to rely on them. But in the social sciences and humanities we need active engagement to resist their replacement by the “post-factual mass market, information age, troll generated” where fiction is too elite. We obviously need more not less critical work. 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. Perhaps this requires rethinking critique, focussing it more on alterpolitics (Ghassan Hage) or on resonance (Hartmut Rosa). But the fact remains, critical engagements with expertise specifically are of essence.

The references to how experts are made and unmade underlines that scientists and researchers are neither magically nor automatically experts. An expert is not only “someone who knows something” to cite Rushdie again. Rather, an expert is someone whose knowledge becomes authoritative to 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 anthropologists who can tell us all about Ghouta. The expert is the person whose knowledge becomes authoritative in relation to the events. “The ‘expert’ is the person/object making the link, who/that communicates, represents, packages and conveys relevant knowledge (that is, produces ‘expertise’)” as we say in our book. Sometimes s/he may be a scientist, sometimes someone interpreting science. However, s/he may be someone with practical experience or someone from a think tank or a company. It might not be a person at all but a thing; a database, an app, or a work of art. This takes us to the second word of the title.

Why focus on assembling?

With this embarrassment of choice of potential experts, there is no need join sides with those who see life as striven by competition and conflict to discern that disagreement will thrive. Traditional ways of thinking about such disagreement is to locate it in situated and evolving but relatively stable contexts. Abbott’s sociology of the professions, Bourdieu’s study of fields, Foucauldian work on subjectivation, or Jasanoff’s focus on institutionalized cultures of expertise have all provided ways of thinking about how experts/expertise is made and unmade. However, for general reasons that are reinforced by specific characteristics of conflict resolution in the Global South (but that I will not go into here), thinking in terms of assembling is a more promising way of coming to terms with the (un-)making of expertise.

First, expertise appears ever more diffuse, multifarious and heterogeneous and correspondingly less anchored in specific fields of knowledge. As the reference to sarin-gas bombings of Ghouta illustrates, a wide range of different kinds of scientific, practical experience based, but also socio-technical knowledges embedded in e.g. sensor-technologies, databases, or algorithms can potentially be turned into expertise. The bounded relatively stable, fields, cultures or subjectivation processes offer poor guidance for understanding how this is simplified and expertise made and unmade. Different kinds of experts assert their own superiority and significance according to the criteria and rules they have themselves elaborated for doing so. Yet, a “cunning uncertainty” weighs on the processes through which often “transgressive” expertise is made (to borrow from Nowotny’s expressions). 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, not to say disposable. A shift in the temporal character of expertise therefore reinforces the previous point. Novel information, other scientists or forms of knowledge unsettle, contradict and disprove experts. They do so at an accelerating pace. Research institutions such as our own, are expected to enthusiastically embrace the resulting pressure to update their knowledge and innovate. Their governance structures are adjusted to encourage and support this valuation of change and innovation with far reaching consequences for the place of knowledge in society as pointed out by thinkers as diverse as Sheldon Wolin, Philip Mirowski, Isabelle Stengers or Rosi Braidotti. In the process, expertise has become ever more “provisional” to borrow Jaqueline Best’s expression. The stable is replaced by the ephemeral reinforcing the appropriateness of assembling for conceptualizing the process.

Finally, as a consequence of becoming provisional and multifarious expertise is also becoming “disenchanted” as David Kennedy puts it. Not even the experts themselves believe in the transcendence and durability of expertise has persuasively shown. Rather, 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 the own well-tried knowledge can stand alone, and does not require to be updated to a changing world or enriched by interdisciplinary insights and preferably collaboration. In my contribution to our volume Donatella della Ratta and I reflected on what happens when creative expressions is turned into conflict resolution expertise as a consequence of these development.

Perhaps obviously (?), the reaction of many experts to this multifarious, provisional and disenchanted form of expertise is to assert a Walter Lippmann view on expertise, that also affirms their own position. No need for assembling. Experts are clearly identifiable and authoritative. Their fields are alive and well. This is how Bill Zartmann—an established mediation and conflict resolution expert—responded to our volume. He framed this suggesting that our argument lacked connection to (his) practice. Ironically, precisely the encounter with practice led us to the conclusion that expertise is a matter of assembling. Focussing on the stable expert field—for example of Bill Zartmann—misses the fundamental point that the pertinence of this field itself for expertise is up for grabs. For this we need to turn to assembling. Christian Bueger’s account of his own shifting status as a piracy expert is an excellent illustration of the point. This has far-reaching implications for how we think about the link between expertise and domination as I will now discuss with reference to the third word in our main title.

Why use the qualifier exclusive?

As I mentioned at the outset, in our collective work we agreed that the qualifier exclusive was a suitable one for expertise as it highlights its valuable, treasured, indispensable character but also its hierarchical, discriminatory and ignorant dimensions. To many this choice will appear odd not to say frankly problematic. Why not simply call a spade a spade and use a qualifier such as exclusionary, exploitative, oppressive or dominating for expertise? The short answer is that exclusive introduces nuance into the binary picture associated with these alternatives. 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. Instead exclusive opens for the at least potentially empowering, transformative, performative character of expertise. To convey this, consider how knowledge of the Global South is assembled into expertise.

The Global South is all over the place in conflict resolution knowledge and expertise. It imposes itself. In our project, this was true quite literally as half of the contributors were based in the Global South, most international conflicts take place in and/or involve the world beyond the West. But more generally, in discussions about expertise in conflict resolution, the Global South occupies a pivotal position. 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. All conflict resolution expertise is obliged to engage the local. The pertinent question is therefore not if local/Global South plays a role in the assembling of conflict resolution expertise but how the local is engaged and given space. To simply qualify expertise as excluding, dominating, oppressing or similar therefore simply is not good enough. 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. Mechanisms of exclusion are anchored in language, culture and institutional practices. In spite of decades of critique directed at general, abstract blueprint, the Global South is often engaged on the terms of outsiders. Lessons learned from elsewhere are omnipresent. Flash visits by policy-makers, international experts, or celebrities are brandished as proving involvement of the authentically local. At the same time this local tends to be squeezed into standardized categories, models and indicators. Being too close to it is suspicious. It generates bias. Going native jeopardizes judgement. Speaking local languages, adopting local categories and world views is a sign of incompetence (the inability to translate the vernacular). Exclusive has the advantage that it can acknowledge these (more subtle?) processes of exclusion and domination without denying the presence of the Global South or indeed the ways in which this presence may also be empowering.

Indeed, even when all is done to fit the local into pre-established categories, its presence messes up the neatness of objective indicators and general processes. Processes, organizations and indeed understandings of conflict resolution are hijacked, deviated and tainted as “the local”—in the guise of people, objects, arguments and conflicts— moves in an occupies the terrain. In the process, 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. While these changes occur in unintended, mundane, non-planned manner, they are still of momentous significance. They transform expertise, generating exclusions, oppressions, dominations and exploitations but also privileges. They do so along lines defying any simple binary such as North/South. Exclusive helpfully conveys this transformative potential of expertise.

Finally, the qualifier exclusive, signals that there is space for local agency. The Global South is not merely passive; something observed by, distorted into, and inevitably messing up expertise. It is also active. The Local / Global South (this sounds just as weird to me as it does to you!) 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 the politics of assembling expertise by change who and what are turned into expertise. They are also redesigning its exclusivity.

Image: Os Trópicos exhibition poster, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Courtesy of MADAI.

In sum, as this brief excursion into the place of the Global South in the assembling of expertise testifies, attaching the qualifier exclusive to expertise is both appropriate and politically important. It is a reference to ways in which expertise indeed is at the same time valuable and empowering for some/ things and excluding and oppressing for others. It is also underscoring that where the lines between the excluded and the included cannot simply be presumed but needs to be explored. Exclusive in other words opens for view viewing North-South relations in non-originary, diasporic ways to borrow Stuart Hall’s formulations. In so doing, it also opens for view on the Global South that “provincializes Europe” when it is warranted. It paves leaves open the possibility that “visions from the centre of the globe” as the title of the exhibition Ostrópicos put it may be central. This matters politically. It returns both agency and responsibility to the Global South.

Why bother?

I have just retaken the title of our edited volume to make the points that discussing expertise, focussing on the process of assembling it, and using the qualifier exclusive for it is import for coming to terms with how academic work relates to practice but also more generally. The above gave the reasons why. I will not annoy you by repeating them. Instead, to conclude I highlight some of the practical implications of this for experts, for institutions and for politics of knowledge.

For me and you (I assume anyone who is still here is interested in turning their knowledge into expertise), what I have just been saying is both discomforting and empowering. It underscores the instability of expertise and hence the fragility of the expert positions we may occupy/aspire to as well as of the uncertain knowledge foundation of any such position/aspiration. However, and at the same time, this instability and fragility is also a potential. It underscores that the game is open and that there is scope for agency, even if we are of the Global South.

For institutions, the 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 how indicators, processes, and procedures—the own and those of others—fashion the assembling. It is also, more importantly a responsibility to ensure that these processes retain the valuable, indeed indispensable role for the “person [or technology] who knows” and avoid that they contribute to their displacement through the anti-elite, anti-fiction, mass market, information age, troll generated to return once more to Rushdie.

Finally, for the politics of knowledge, the implication of what I have just been suggesting is that much is to be gained by moving away from big bombastic generalizations and instead focusing on the political possibilities opened up by detailed plain specificities and the fissures, failures and fractures they show indicating where there is scope for politics.

[Blogpost received 29 August 2018; published 26 November 2018. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author.]