Experts and Expertise in Pre- and Early-Modern Societies: A workshop presented by the International InstituteSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The following paper is a summary of a workshop held October 6-7, 2001 at the International Institute that assembled specialists of different world regions to interrogate the meanings of "expertise" in various historical settings prior to modern times. The workshop was sponsored by the Ford Foundation's program on "Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies." Hitomi Tonomura, who served as workshop convener, is an associate professor of history, women's studies, and Asian languages and cultures, and is director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan.
Among the "Crossing Borders" projects, our workshop was unique in its non-modern orientation. Participants brought their specialization to illuminate, for example, how different societies conceptualized "expertise" and defined "experts;" how political authorities appropriated, exploited, or abused experts; or how the knowledge of expertise could promote the holder's social status and authority. Though every society had people with specialized knowledge, skills and practice, not all societies acknowledged experts as a category of recognition. During the two days discussion, concepts of "experts and expertise" at times seemed porous and unstable, but increasingly analytically potent and useful.
In the first session, "In Search of Expertise," Sabiha Ahmad offered an important link between specialized knowledge and approval, in this case, from a membership of peer experts. Ahmad's paper cites Cassio in The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, who praises Othello's fitness to endure the storm on his journey from Venice to Cyprus: "His bark is stoutly timber'd, and his pilot / Of very expert and approv'd allowance" (2.1.48-9). This form of expertise, meaning "proven or tried by experience" according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was closely associated with the accounts of the New World. Raymond Grew, in establishing a field of inquiry into the definition of expertise, noted that other examples given in OED suggest chronological progression in how the term "expert" was understood. Grew reminded us that not all societies had a need to recognize experts as a concept, for example, when an occupation was suggested by its very title that also embodied function, status and name of the person (e.g., "baker"). A shift to specialization within an established occupation may lead to a stronger concept of expertise.
The social recognition and existence of experts is also a condition that is eminently subject to manipulation by "false experts." The "confidence men" described by Kristin A. Olbertson were such people who, in colonial British America, claimed expertise, education, family background and even a fake name. Posing as a businessman or a doctor, the confidence man graciously shared his knowledge and enjoyed the accompanying status and privileges. The confidence man inspired much anxiety and challenged the self-definition of "real" experts. This situation resulted in a need for a formal recognition of experts. Institutions such as church, state, school and guild would emerge as the instrument to approve and validate experts and expertise.
But the existence of expertise was not always publicly or equally appreciated, as was demonstrated in Session Two, focusing on "Law, State and Society." Warlords of the law in early Iceland and the men of amateur ideals in classical Athenia democracy, described by Elizabeth Khalil and Adriaan Lanni respectively, demonstrated apparent paradoxes in the operation of justice. Thomas Keirstead summarized that Iceland, while lacking both a central government and written law, nonetheless greatly admired lawyers and appreciated them precisely for their very lawyer-like passion for the arcana of legal procedure. In contrast, in Athens, the laws were inscribed on stone stelae and placed in public areas, yet lawyers and lawyering were regarded as shameful. Legal expertise had to be hidden from view, and referring to the laws in a legal dispute was held to be in bad taste.
For their part, Iceland's procedural wizards seem a vital supplement to a society based in blood feud where affronted honor demanded violent retribution, which was itself the seed of further violence. Law and legal chicanery could offer means of regulating the violence. Ancient Athenians' aversion to legal experts stemmed from a 'commitment to contextualized and individualized justice, from a belief, 'profound[ly] root[ed] in the architecture and discourse of Athenian democracy,' that laws ought not to override a common sense of justice. Iceland and Athens represent different ends of a continuum, different strategies for dealing with a similar situation. What did it mean to organize society according to expertise? What might it mean to call attention to "experts" not simply as the possessors of anomalous talents (Iceland), but as characteristic of everyone (Athens)? What lines of affiliation does expertise suggest? What kinds of authority does it sanction? Why is there a need to hide expertise? What value might be competing with the notion of expertise?
Diane O. Hughes commented on two papers dealing with "Episteme and Authority," the first situated in medieval Japan and the second in Enlightenment Europe. Thomas Conlan's experts were esoteric masters of ritual magic who created a new sort of legitimacy in fourteenth-century Japan. Shingon Buddhism as the source of transcendent political and ritual knowledge replaced precedent as it was transmitted in courtiers' diaries. This was a situation akin to epistemological break and its cause was the actual change in the military conflict of civil war. Thomas Broman examined "expertise" as a distinctively modern linkage made by certain occupational groups—for example, physicians, engineers and social workers-between theoretical knowledge, as proved by the sciences, and social practice. Broman argued that the Enlightenment ideology featured both an exaltation of empirical science as the key to discovering reliable truths about the world and the programmatic conviction that such knowledge should be "universally accessible to enlightened human reason," and put to work in combating prejudice, reforming morals and thus creating a better society. But the concept that developed out of this ideology was built upon two claims that seemed mutually contradictory. While the scientific knowledge on which expert practices are based was claimed to be universally accessible to enlightened human reason, experts reserved for themselves alone the right to create, evaluate and proclaim that knowledge.
Hughes found the two papers' differences in the shifting relations between arcane and public conditions of knowledge. The hidden arts of power and rule are apparent in Conlan's Japanese courts, where expert ritual specialists create a field of knowledge, by bending the historical calendar and stopping time as a mark of their ritual-based expertise. Broman presents his German Enlightenment critics as opening and clarifying the framework of knowledge to make it transparent to a new public capable of responding to epistemes. In contrast to Conlan's ritualists, Broman's experts can only revive the past through its critical representation in and by the present. Conlan's past is fixed; what is fixed by Broman's experts is the present. Hence the importance among his experts and to his thesis of the role of the critic rather than the artist or the grand theorist. If a defining power of the expert is to make coherence out of incoherence, then we can define the power of the Enlightenment expert as the art of transforming past incoherence, complexity and otherness into the coherence of the present. This coherent present has to be constructed by the expert, not only historically but also socially; that is, identifiable social groups—peasants, women, merchants—must not be allowed to disrupt the coherence of this unity.
Both papers, Hughes notes, pass over lightly or in silence the conflicts that arise when a group tries to establish its expertise. How is expertise validated in the two cultures and two interpretations presented in these papers? Expertise tends to be self-validating and experts seem devoted to denying or excluding the possibility and certainly the right of others to negative observation or disproof concerning their powers. Nonetheless, the question of validation as a way of condemning expert knowledge may entirely miss the point. Expertise is not knowledge itself; expertise is rather knowledge about knowledge. In the world of experts, if not in the world of science, nothing is decided by truth, but rather by the dominance of a given discourse. If in fact the rise of experts and their expertise depends on power, rather than proof, do we not have to ask whether this power arises from events or from discourse?
Moving from episteme to "Economy and Production," the workshop appreciated the manual expertise and learned from Sean Takats about eighteenth-century French cooks who promoted a "nouvelle cuisine," which claimed to be a form of modern chemistry that was to revolutionize complex ancient cooking. Cooking, more than just an expertise with skills, formed social identity. Cookbooks disseminated ideas and taste, and the status of cooking was to rise to that of medicine.
Jeffrey R. Parsons's graphic archaeological exposition of low-status experts of the Aztec state circa 1500, drew on Tilly's question of the "problem of supplying early modern Empire" and its urban centers. Commoners underwrote Aztec economy, evidenced by the paths of new canals weaving through marshes. Answering a question regarding social reproduction of expertise that was raised earlier in the workshop, Parsons offered that among the Chinamperos, transmission of expertise from one person to another took place within family members.
Conrad Totman's environmental condition in eighteenth-century Japan showed that the problem of riparian damage and response to it led to the formation of "a community of expertise:" rulers, local officials, itinerant scholars, woodland property holders, lumbermen and other merchants who together published and relied on silvicultural literature. But in the new Meiji regime, German silvicultural notions were introduced and rapidly led to the promotion of new "cutting edge" expertise. The government's Forest Agency established the Forestry Association of Japan, a new version of the same "community of expertise" based on the same spirit of collaboration and purpose.
In discussing the three cases, Paolo Squatritirecharged, among other concerns, the workshop's earlier inquiry about the definition of experts, and broadened it to consider the experts' social position within the parameter of economic needs of the particular society and political sponsorship of expertise. Looking beyond the obviously economic explanations for the work of "experts," Squirtiri pointed to the cultural, literary, ideological and political motivations in promoting and recognizing expertise on the part of the experts themselves and the users or audience of their product.
Gottfried Hagen, Alexei V. Postnikov and Michael Bonner, together with the discussant, Victor Lieberman, positioned expertise in relation to broad global concerns for "History and Geography," the organizing theme for the fifth session. In both the Ottoman Empire and Russia, described by Hagen and Postnikov respectively, there was a movement away from generalized knowledge imbedded in amateur lay or religious culture towards more specialized, often professional forms of knowledge, with a more secular, deductive and empiricist orientation. Hagen saw in the Ottoman Empire changing meanings of expertise held by court historians: from a focus on Islamic cosmography (15th c.), recurrent political processes (15-16th c.) and historical regularities (16-17th c.) to an unbroken sequel of empiricist chronicles (18-19th c.), all in the context of the Empire changing worldly orientation. As geography increasingly emphasized sciences of the universe, experts themselves developed into educated and independent scholars.
Postnikov also described changes in Russian cartography from simple mapping of private interests (16th-17th c.) to state-sponsored mapping by specialists (17th c.) with increasing technical expertise (18-19th c.). In the process, expertise developed in correlation with territorial conquest and administrative integration that generated widespread forms of knowledge, other social and economic elaboration and growing European contacts.
Similarly, the expansion and internal elaboration of the Middle East Caliphate in the eighth through tenth centuries, described by Bonner, clearly aided the development of the kuttab, the scribes and administrators with the knowledge of arithmetic, accounting, linguistics, tax procedures and bureaucratic organization. The second layer of early Muslim experts, ulama, were the "learned men" who monopolized religious law, theology and Koranic exegesis. Together, however, these experts differed from those in Russia and the Ottoman Empire in their theocentric orientation that combined practical action with ritual enactment.
The workshop concluded with a session on "Knowledge and Practice" that featured Dimitrios Krallis dealing with Byzantine doctors, Michael Wintroub examining representations of expertise in a French poem dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, John Chaffee presenting Chinese expertise à la (and against) Weberian interpretations and Valerie Traub, commenting on all.
To Krallis, it was the Byzantine courtly society that determined how the physicians maneuvered between practical healing and theoretical knowledge. While the Middle Byzantine's demand for sheer practicality turned medical intellectuals into efficient administrators of health, the eleventh-century period of intellectual production reemphasized the theoretical side. As the empire's fortunes waned, it was erudition that provided the social stature for the doctors who embraced the verbose theory excessively.
In Wintroub's paper, France's new civic cultural elite attempted to stabilize their liminal social positions by linking them to longstanding forms of spiritual piety and added intellectual sensibilities of mathematician, navigator and instrument-maker. The disparate forms of expertise were brought into a coherent social identity as a new kind of noble through the medium of poetry dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. According to Chaffee, Max Weber argued, in his Religion of China, that China's education system created a "cultured status group" without a "rational and specialized expert training," which lead to the creation of the Mandarin, "primarily a humanistically educated literati in the possession of benefice but not in the least degree trained for administration." This position has unfortunately obscured the degree to which experts with "special skill in or knowledge of a particular subject through professional training or practical experience" actually did contribute to Chinese society.
The three papers, to Traub, "share an interest in how expertise is constructed by the actions of specific groups and institutional formations." The influence of the court formed a civic cultural elite that is both dependent upon, and vulnerable to reconfiguration by various forms of expertise. The arguments of all three are structured, at least initially, by means of two diacritical terms—"knowledge and practice"—that functioned, for the most part, oppositionally; it is the negotiation of these terms that, in each case, provides the impulse and the means by which expertise is both constituted and, more important for Traub's purposes, analyzed.
Marking the end of the workshop, Traub expounded that, not withstanding the analytical pressure applied to the construction of expertise, the meanings of experts and expertise remain fundamentally unchanged. Each of these papers assume the desirability of expertise as a form of cultural capital. Despite asking how claims to expertise are established, through what social processes, disciplinary formations and systems of signification, we seem to have barely broached some important analytically prior questions. What is expertise, why is it desirable, what exactly is unspecialized knowledge, and is this the same thing as illicit or illegitimate knowledge? Finally who are the experts not?
However performative in its construction, however dependent upon signifiers of social status, however reliant upon official sanction or communal response, however contestatory of monarchical or state power, expertise itself seems, as a category, impervious in its boundaries and hegemonic in its status as a form of cultural capital or mode of constructing identity. It is as if the social desirability of the claim to specialized knowledge is itself self-evident. If Raymond Grew, citing OED, is right that the notion of expertise boils down to the claim to have experienced something that others have not, then the lack of susceptibility of the concept of expertise to a radical critique of the production of knowledge seems itself in need of analysis. Might there be moments, in other words, when expertise itself falls out of favor, or is not what is required?
In response to John Carson who posited that each new institutionalization of expertise generates a counter discourse, Traub added first, that counter discourses might also exist prior to the institutionalization of expertise and thus play a more complexly productive role than he implied, and second, that the role of such discourses may include the attempt to delegitimize expertise itself, and to enact alternative modes of "legitimation." Thus the workshop ended with further consideration of such counter discourses, particularly those that are not implicated in the same disciplinary formations as the modes of expertise they challenge, but that suggest other forms of knowledge altogether.