Rethinking Expertise. Harry Collins and Robert Evans. xii + 159 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2007. $37.50.
This slim book by Harry Collins and Robert Evans offers a conceptual typology of "expertises." The authors invent a plural form of the word to suggest that more than one type exists. They also identify a core or central type—contributory expertise, which they define as the possession of sufficient skill and tacit knowledge to participate fully in an activity; the prototype is the ability to perform experiments in a specialized science. This picture of expertise relies on Collins's long-running sociological research on controversies in experimental gravitational-wave physics.
The book's central focus is interactional expertise—a "parasitical" form characterized by an ability to "talk the talk" without being able to "walk the walk." The prototype of the interactional expert is Collins himself. Through his study of scientists searching for gravitational waves, he has acquired an ability to discuss that subject in a way that passes for expertise, even though he is unable to perform the relevant experiments or work through the mathematics. Collins and Evans's major insight is that interactional expertise sometimes proves adequate for practical communicative purposes. In other words, it is sometimes possible to know (or at least to speak in a way that seems knowledgeable) without possessing the relevant know-how.
Taken by itself, this insight might seem unremarkable, but it does have implications for public and organizational efforts to understand, regulate and manage specialized knowledge. It also can shed light on methodological problems that sociologists and anthropologists face when they study practices with which they are initially unfamiliar.
Many modern social institutions rely on expertise, and difficulties can arise when nonexperts are charged with making important legal, political, medical or economic decisions on the basis of expert advice. Jurors, government officials, voters, consumers, patients and, at some point, all of us can be puzzled about what to think or do when faced with confusing, often contradictory, expert claims about environmental and safety hazards, climate change, healthful diets, possible remedies for disease, and many other personally and politically consequential matters.
Collins and Evans suggest that the attainment of interactional expertise provides a possible way to gain adequate knowledge when we lack the time or capacity to acquire contributory expertise. Although this is a promising insight, it does not tell a juror, political official, voter or medical patient how to decide in any given case which substantive fields of expertise are relevant, which experts or bodies of experts can be trusted, or just how much interactional expertise might be adequate. The devil is in the details, and the devil remains well hidden in the book's abstract treatment of "expertises."
Collins and Evans make a point of saying that theirs is a "realist approach" and that their book "is meant to increase the chance that the process of coming to be called an expert will have more to do with the possession of real and substantive expertise." They insist that (authentic) experts possess genuine capacities or abilities, which are more than mere credentials: Contributory expertise involves real embodied skill acquired through immersion in a practice. They contrast their realist theory with "relational" theories, which they quickly dismiss for reducing expertise to subjective attributions. By doing so, they sweep under the rug what is most sociological about expertise—its embeddedness within social-institutional relations—and their realism becomes a variant of what sociologist C. Wright Mills once lambasted as "abstracted empiricism": an empiricism of constructed categories that never quite touches the ground. They pay little attention to specific cases of expertise in specific organizational contexts, because their schema treats expertise more as an individual ability or cognitive capacity that is acquired through membership in social groups.
Although Collins and Evans undertake the laudable task of distinguishing among kinds of expertise, their typology conflates expertise with commonplace competencies and normal capacities. They classify ordinary competencies, such as speaking a first language, as "ubiquitous expertises," and they treat the ability to drive in traffic as a common, but not quite ubiquitous, form of contributory expertise. Anything that involves skill and tacit knowledge is, by their reckoning, an expertise. In a series of rather strange experiments, they even go so far as to treat normal perceptual capacities, such as the ability to see the colors that color-blind individuals do not see, as modes of contributory expertise. Expertise thus loses any sense of being an institutionally accredited entitlement or activity-specific mastery beyond ordinary levels of competency.
They also use the word contributory in a restricted, and sometimes opaque, way. For example, one might wonder about "contributions" to a scientific innovation. Should one include only the authors of publications (who often work in different specialties and have variable distance from the hands-on experimental work)? Or should one also include as "contributors" the technicians who operate the equipment and calibrate instruments, the clerical staff who help file the records and assemble the publications, the lawyers who help with patent applications, the critics in the field at large who press the authors to modify their initial claims, the panels of "experts" that review grants for funding agencies, the colleagues who cite and give credit to the authors, the administrators and faculty committees who review the authors for promotion, and so on? Determining just what counts as a contribution can be a contentious issue within the organizations that produce and regulate scientific research. Indeed, focus on this issue is a constitutive feature of life in such organizations.
Contentions over what counts as expertise also arise in legal disputes. For example, in the thousands of lawsuits over possible teratological side effects of the morning-sickness drug Bendectin, which culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1993 landmark ruling Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. , judges were faced with deciding which areas of expertise to include as contributions to the deliberations: epidemiology, animal experimentation, structural chemistry and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. One lesson that can be derived from examining actual cases in science, law, politics and many other fields is that expertise is a contentious and valued social phenomenon that is subject to distinctive organizational and institutional processes, tests and judgments. This lesson can lead one to consider how expertise is interactional , but in a very different way than is specified by the typology of Collins and Evans. Their conception of expertise makes sense when a single specialty has unquestioned relevance for a problem at hand, but it does not apply so well when many specialties, specialists and mediators are in contention with one another.
Although the authors present the book as a (social) scientific theory, decorated with "proof of concept experiments" and a "periodic table of expertises," Rethinking Expertise is largely an exercise in philosophy. As philosopher Peter Winch noted a half-century ago in another slim volume, The Idea of a Social Science , social and psychological theories frequently turn ordinary words into odd and confusing "technical" concepts, leading to what he called "misbegotten" modes of philosophizing. Winch is one of the few philosophers whom Collins and Evans cite favorably, but they seem not to have heeded his main lesson, and they pursue their philosophizing as though in a void (all too frequently citing Collins's own publications for examples and authority). Their theory of expertise has been extensively discussed and criticized in the six years since they first published and posted their earliest writings on the subject, but for the most part they have studiously insulated the theorizing in their book from criticisms and case studies that might well have led them to rethink Rethinking Expertise .
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