Transnational Expertise: Response to David Cohen
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
It is a privilege to be invited to engage Professor Cohen's suggestive, intriguing, sophisticated, and sometimes downright cryptic position paper on constituting international expertise. I do not know whether I have read it in the way he intended, but I will try to respond by reflecting on some of its implications for a university engaged in a self-conscious process of increasing its commitment to ``internationalization.''
I take Professor Cohen's essay to be both celebratory and cautionary in its analysis of a rapidly expanding post-Cold War transnational ``civil society'' of experts in such fields as human rights, environmental protection, and debt conversion. The celebration is, I think, largely implicit—that is to say, one cannot help but juxtapose, to their advantage, these fields of expertise with such Cold War favorites as counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare. The caution, I gather, rests in his awareness of the dangers of what one might call ``totalizing discourses'' or all-purpose meta-theories of development or population control or survey research or environmental management. I refer to them as totalizing discourses because of the presumption that they are applicable, with a modicum of fine tuning, all over the world. Their friends might refer to some of them as mainstream social science.
There seem to be two fairly obvious counterweights to these totalizing discourses that we can point out. The first, and it is the favorite of those of us who work in area studies, is the call for greater familiarity with the history, language, and culture of a given region. This heartfelt, if moderately self-serving, appeal aims to avoid the errors that can arise, for example, from the application of a survey instrument, mechanically translated from one language to another, in an unfamiliar cultural context. Area specialists generally look askance at the claim that once such results have been tallied and added to a database, one has actually carried out comparative research. (Perhaps ``look askance'' is the wrong phrase; we in fact delight in pouncing on such instances as evidence of the perils of conducting research without us.)
A second corrective or counterweight to totalizing discourses, expressed with particular urgency by anthropologists, is the effort to understand the dimension of power that is both implicit and explicit when researchers from a relatively secure and resource-rich academic environment encounter informants and colleagues from relatively insecure and resource-poor environments. The resulting abuses and distortions can be subtle or extreme. We all recall the dramatic instances in which data gathered by North American social scientists in Latin America and Southeast Asia were appropriated in campaigns of counter-insurgency, resulting in the exposure of trusting informants to the repressive force of the state. Even scholars who exercise extreme care while doing research in places like Guatemala are faced with the continual realization that they will themselves prosper while the subjects they study will suffer. Careful, critical examination of these asymmetries is now a hallmark of anthropological training at places like the University of Michigan.
Universities, it appears, are particularly good places for the development of the kind of all-encompassing expertise that undergirds the new civil society of experts that Professor Cohen has discussed. Mercifully, they are also quite good places for the development of the first two correctives—intensive studies of history, language, and culture on the one hand, and critical reflection on imbalances of power and their consequences, on the other.
But I am still a little worried about how reassuring this should be. The North American graduate student, new Ph.D., or tenured ``expert,'' nicely armed with specialized training and a good dose of skeptical reflexivity, may still be something of a bull in a china shop when the time comes to intervene in politics or discourse that directly affects other peoples. Expertise and reflexivity are still framed within asymmetries of power and perception that highlight certain concerns and shadow others. Spilling mercury into the Amazon as a result of wildcat goldpanning is an unqualified disaster from the point of view of the environmentalist; from the point of view of the miner, gold panning in the Amazon is hard work that provides a subsistence and an alternative to utter unemployment in the urban areas. ``Expertise'' enables a North American scientist to predict an outbreak of mercury poisoning if the panning is not stopped; it in no way prepares her to envision how a social movement might be developed in a particular Brazilian political environment that could both stop the panning and find employment for the panners.
Do we, then, have some means of going a step further in developing a responsible expertise, one that is, in Prof. Cohen's intriguing phrase, both ``confident and. . .productively skeptical''? The next step, I think, in guarding against the arrogance of heavily metropolitan expertise, is the early, thorough, and reciprocal incorporation of multiple voices from precisely those regions where the uniform application of general theories is likely to appear, again in Professor Cohen's words, ``threatening [and] intrusive.''
We do have multiple—if underfunded—mechanisms for this in such institutions as visiting professorships, international partnerships, visiting scholar appointments, summer institutes, and the prospective new graduate fellowships for students from rapidly developing areas. The point would be to develop and expand these with the precise intent of enlarging the range of participants in the conversations through which we develop expertise. In other words, we should try to conceive of expertise as transnational right from the start, rather than only in application.
Let me give just one example. Scholars at Michigan as elsewhere are struggling to develop an expertise on population and fertility control that is neither counter-productive nor culturally offensive to those to whom it is offered. At the same time, we have a prospective graduate student who is a Nicaraguan physician with ten years of experience in rural public health, a man whose bedrock commitment is to maternal and child welfare in a country that has suffered multiple North American intrusions. When someone like that seeks to study epidemiology and population planning at the University of Michigan we have an opportunity to expand the community of scholars, transforming expertise even while we transmit it.
Obviously, taking this perspective requires that we relinquish the metaphor that a Michigan education is a ``product'' that we provide to select ``customers.'' Instead, it means envisioning education in much more interactive terms. It may be the University that provides the fellowship, but it is the student who helps make the expertise into something worth transmitting. Moreover, it also implies a subtle change in our admission criteria: that we look not only for students who are adept at learning what we propose to teach, but also for students who will bring other understandings of the material and, implicitly or explicitly, challenge that which is being presented to them.
I'd like to conclude by invoking a historical antecedent to what is now seen as expertise in international human rights. Contemporary ``rights talk,'' as Professor Cohen calls it, has a parallel over one hundred years ago in the powerful current of Anglo-American abolitionist and anti-slavery thought. Constituted as a totalizing metropolitan discourse, abolitionism had very mixed results, stimulating slave emancipation in some areas, while being used to justify expanded British colonialism in others. With time, however, this discourse entered into direct dialogue with specific local groups with a powerful interest in its formal goal—the end of chattel slavery—but also their own much more expansive notion of the meaning of freedom. It was only then, as slaves and free people of color themselves joined the discussion—often in a context of war—that the broad ideal of slave emancipation took on its full transformative power, becoming one that encompassed notions of citizenship, autonomy, and proprietorship as well as formal legal freedom.
It may thus be that the rigidity but also the all-encompassing character of ideologies of expertise will draw forth their own interlocutors and challenges. The struggle will probably not be carried out primarily in the halls of North American universities. But those universities that choose to bring the outside inside and carry on the dialogue right here will, I think, be the ones whose expertise will more likely be humane and effective, and whose role in constituting international expertise will ultimately be deemed most honorable.
Rebecca Scott is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.