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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2018

4 - Recurrent Themes in the Theory of Experts



Several themes and issues recur in past discussions of experts. While these themes overlap, it may be helpful to briefly consider them under separate headings.


Thinkers who view experts as unreliable will generally fear expert power. Only those who view experts as reliable are likely to endorse increasing expert power. The more “powerless” nonexperts are in the sense of Table 2.1, the greater is the threat posed by expert power.

As we have seen in Chapter 2, Foucault (1980, 1982) sees “disciplines” as sources of power. When some people can impose knowledge on others, we have a power relationship in which those imposed upon are oppressed at least in some degree. Turner (2001, pp. 123–9) says that Michel Foucault and others in the tradition of “cultural studies” tend to the view that expert actions and categories “constrain” consumers “into thinking in racist, sexist, and ‘classist’ ways” (p. 126). This remark fits many scholars who cite Foucault favorably. Foucault himself, however, was subtler than Turner's remark suggests. It nevertheless seems fair to say that Foucault tended to work in grand categories that are disconnected from both the individual meaning structures described carefully by Berger and Luckmann and the social processes that give rise to them.

Foucault's excess reliance on grand categories reflects his conception of his “problem” as “a history of rationality.” He has said, “I am not a social scientist.” He was examining not “the way a certain type of institution works,” but “the rationalization of the management of the individual” (Dillon and Foucault 1980, p. 4). He thus emphasized the imposition of unitary knowledge schemes on populations such as prisoners and students.

The issue of expert power is important to figures generally considered “left,” such as Foucault (1980, 1982) and Habermas (1985). It is also of concern, however, to liberal thinkers, who are sometimes dubiously considered “right.” Easterly (2013) is a good representative of this strain of concern over expert power.

Easterly (2013) repudiates the “technocratic illusion,” which he defines as “the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements” (p. 6).

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