Expertise and the politics of discipline

In the last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on a remark Susan Halford made at this event about the difference between expertise and discipline. If I understand her correctly, her point was that capacities for knowing and acting in the world (expertise) can have their reproduction organised socially in different ways (discipline) and this is crucial for understanding how knowledge production responds to novel developments. In some cases, discipline might support expertise but in other cases it might hinder it. In either case, expertise is dependent upon it because it requires a social organisation through which existing knowledge is codified, new knowledge incorporated and knowledge practitioners trained. This means that we can’t ever have ‘pure expertise’ as a response to novelty because experts are embedded, even if loosely or unorthodoxly, within disciplines. This is the problem Susan identifies with the politics of discipline generated by big data:

How we define Big Data matters because it shapes our understanding of the expertise that is required to engage with it – to extract the value and deliver the promise. Is this the job for mathematicians and statisticians? Computer scientists? Or ‘domain experts’ – economists, sociologists or geographers – as appropriate to the real-world problems at hand? As the Big Data field forms we see the processes of occupational closure at play: who does this field belong to, who has the expertise, the right to practice? This is of observational interest for those of us who research professions, knowledge and the labour market, as we see how claims to expert knowledge are made by competing disciplines. But it is also of broader interest for those of us concerned with the future of Big Data: the outcome will shape the epistemological foundations of the field. Whether or not it is acknowledged, the disciplinary carve-up of big data will have profound consequences for the questions that are asked, the claims that are made and – ultimately – the value that is derived from this ‘new oil’ in the global economy.

One response to this upheaval is to retreat into disciplinary silos and there’s inevitably a comfort to this. But not only does it cede terrain in a way which might allow narrow forms of expertise to become hegemonic, doubling down on a form of discipline unlikely to survive this transformation of expertise in its current form will inevitably be short sighted. This is how Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald describe the shifting plate tectonics of the human sciences in their book on interdisciplinarity:

The more we wander down strange interdisciplinary tracks, the more apparent it becomes to us that being disciplined isn’t playing it safe: the truth is that staying within the narrow epistemological confines of –for example –mid-twentieth-century sociology, while it may produce short-term gains, is not, in fact, the best way to guarantee a career in the twenty-first century (and we mean ‘career’ in its most capacious sense here: we are not using it with the assumption that everyone wants a permanent post at a university, but to express an idea that many would like to find some way to advance their projects, ideas, and so on). The plate tectonics of the human sciences are shifting: we here describe our own forays into one small, circumscribed niche between the social and natural sciences, but expand this horizon to epigenetics, to the emergence of the human microbiome, to all kinds of translational research in mental health, to ‘big data’ and the devices that append it, to the breakdown of the barrier between creative practices and research, and to a whole host of other collapsing dichotomies, and it becomes apparent that ‘neuro-social science’ is only one local effect of a much broader reverberation.

But there’s also a great deal of creativity in this space. It just means we have to consider projects of expertise alongside projects of discipline, mapping out these issues as neither purely matters of expertise nor purely matters of discipline. This is what I hope we’ll manage to explore in my session at the TSR conference on defending the social. It’s a Fireside Chat with Val Gillies and Ros Edwards, as well as their co-author who couldn’t make it when we recorded the podcast below.

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