Transitions in Expertise: Response to David Cohen
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In his provocative essay, "Constituting International Expertise: Who, What, Where, Why, and How,'' David William Cohen describes and evaluates the growth in recent decades of new groups of international experts in fields ranging from the oppression of minority populations to environmentalism, and then draws implications for scholars at the University of Michigan.
From Professor Cohen's perspective, the international experts —especially those in the area of human rights —are powerful social agents. These ``self-defining and self- confident international and transnational communities of international expertise'' aggregate power, are highly visible, command substantial authority, define standards for governments, investigate behavior, and are effective in their enforcement efforts. Professor Cohen discusses two cases, population control and human rights, where these experts have had perverse effects. His evaluation of these effects, I suspect, resonates with many of us. The `on the ground, just talked to so and so' experts from the West often do not understand the logic of the local culture and the powerful forces driving the behaviors that motivate their intervention. The experts, keen on developing international norms, encounter conditions that they either do not understand or are unwilling to take into account when enforcing their codes. At the heart of the trouble that Professor Cohen targets is the age-old human conflict between the desire to find and nurture commonalities with our neighbors, be they local or global, and the equally compelling interest in unique individual and communal identities.
Professor Cohen notes that the ``challenges to Western paradigms of rights have come in an era of unparalleled communication... across natural borders.'' This revealing observation suggests that the answer to the question, ``Is the world getting smaller?'' is no rather than yes. Communication allows us to see and confront global behaviors, but often the outcomes are, as Professor Cohen describes, ``extraordinary ruptures in the expectations of so many experts seeking to realize what they have fashioned as global norms.
My primary criticisms of Professor Cohen's essay are that he does not identify a clear starting point in the analysis nor, in my judgment, a satisfactory explanation of the means by which this international expertise has developed. Let me restate the second sentence of his paper to highlight the circularity that troubles me.
Such expertise is, arguably, coming to constitute itself ... with ... shared values and goals particularly in respect to the enhancement of the guilds of international expertise and to the motivation and enforcement of ``international standards''.
The balance of the paper did not help me to understand clearly what has caused the growth of international expertise. This may be a crafty trick to encourage us to ask, ``Who are these experts?'' My reading of the essay suggests that Professor Cohen is troubled by these new guilds, that he views them with some disdain, and that his views are based in part on a belief that they operate to the exclusion of most scholars. But I found myself asking the following: What exactly does he find objectionable about the new expertise? Which types of experts are the most dangerous?
Professor Cohen does begin to answer part of the very important question of how these experts have asserted themselves. First, he notes mail boxes that are overflowing with appeals from human rights organizations. A quite interesting question, however, is why do thousands give money to groups such as Amnesty International and the Environmental Defense Fund? Second, by implication at least, Professor Cohen makes the point that these experts often operate in countries that are weak economically, and, therefore, vulnerable to the threat of the quite small monetary penalties imposed directly or indirectly by various international bodies. Third, Professor Cohen discusses the globalization of certain professions —probably the most important of which is the legal profession. This globalization encourages efforts to develop international codes of behavior by individuals who are themselves are skilled in lobbying governments and making persuasive cases to broader audiences. Surely, however, there are other reasons for the ascendancy of the new international experts. I will cite three additional candidates. One, these experts address big and important issues. Two, they often operate on short cycle times, moving from one hot issue to another. Third, they are experts in getting their views represented on the increasingly important media outlets like CNN. These factors reflect, 1 think, an important characteristic of these pesky and persistent experts: they are economically driven to be relevant to their audiences and constituencies on an on-going and regular basis. Their success indicates that there is a market for their expertise.
The question of how do the new international experts gain authority is critical to Professor Cohen's closing challenge to the University of Michigan to accept new challenges in the same international arenas now dominated by less academically-oriented experts. We need to ask ourselves in this and future conversations some questions: In what ways are these experts threats? Yes, they make mistakes and probably do so on a systematic basis, but it is unclear how the costs of being more deliberate and thoughtful would compare with the benefits realized. Next, do we want to compete with them and how? Their market, distinguished by the short cycle time in generating ideas and the comparably short life of their ideas, is to a great extent distinct from ours, which, as Professor Cohen points out, puts a premium on durable ideas that meet the tests of objectivity and reproducibility. What risks, then, do we face if we alter the character of our ideas and reduce their cycle time to meet the demands of media outlets?
While I cannot answer these questions, I view the stakes as significant and agree with Professor Cohen that the University of Michigan needs to engage itself more fully. We need to take on the big issues that concern the new international experts whose analyses will depreciate within the next few weeks or months. I also believe that we should recognize opportunities to work on much shorter cycle times and thereby contribute our more revealing insights on an on-going, albeit tentative, basis.
The problems of exclusionary communities of international experts who do not meet the standards applied to academics, I would observe, are somewhat less severe for scholars in professional schools such as mine, the School of Business Administration, than for Literature, Science, and Arts scholars. We business school types, like our non- professional school colleagues, must organize our research efforts to pass muster with editors concerned with objectivity and the further development of our disciplines. But the subject-matter of professional school research concerns ``arenas of practical activity'' and so we must regularly encounter the demands of individual actors in these arenas.
Herein lies, I believe, a powerful and exciting feature of the new International Institute and the plans to hire faculty with joint appointments in traditional disciplines and professional schools. Indeed, such appointments and related programs stand to serve two purposes: (i) to bring academics in traditional disciplines into a ``more productively skeptical engagement'' with international issues and developments, and, (ii) to provide professional school scholars with opportunities to evaluate their domains from vitally important perspectives.
I would like to close with some brief words about the character of the Davidson Institute programs implemented last year in light of Professor Cohen's call to ``identify arenas of practical activity, investigation, and advocacy that lie outside the frameworks of their academic and professional training yet create opportunities for the flow back and forth of critical insight and reflection.''
The Davidson Institute's programs contrast directly with the efforts of five of the top U.S. business schools which three years ago formed a consortium to bring academics from transitional economies to teach them Western management techniques using standard materials such as Harvard Business School cases. These academics then return to their countries ready to teach local managers in Central Europe and the newly independent states the new ways of management. If one believes that U.S. business scholars have the relevant knowledge needed by managers from transitional economies, this ``train the trainers'' model is an excellent way to leverage that knowledge.
While I will not go into the details of the Davidson Institute's educational programs, our approach is decidedly different I am confident that our faculty have knowledge that is useful to managers of enterprises in transitional economies. But we proceed on the premise that we do not have the insights necessary to be impactful. Our programs, first and foremost, develop the access needed for our faculty and students to learn about economic transition at the level of the individual firm. We seek to have our faculty directly involved, constructively engaged, and attentive to developing new insights into the business and public policy problems facing firms in transitional economies. And the Institute's long-run partnership approach with a select number of enterprises is intended to create a learning system for all involved. This approach will, I believe, forward our progress toward some of the goals Professor Cohen has identified for us today.
Edward A. Snyder is Professor at the University of Michigan School of Business Administration.