What is ‘Real’ Knowledge for the State?

QUERY | June 7, 2012     

What is ‘real’ knowledge for the 21st century state?‘Wicked’ modern policy problems and the need to re-imagine the role and legitimacy of experts

For the modern state – or the ‘rational bureaucratic state,’ to use Max Weber’s terminology – founded on the rule of reason, advancement based on merit, and national decision-making based on specialized advice, expertise has, for at least the past three centuries, been almost coterminous with legitimacy. But this new century is uncontroversially seeing increased pressure on expertise as the dominant currency of legitimacy in states.

There are two paradoxes at play here. The first paradox consists in the idea that the modern state was, as an organizing framework, consolidated – capitalism oblige – through early communications technologies. Ideas circulated in print, giving populations – for the first time – the capacity to imagine themselves as national communities of interest and values, and allowing for the elaboration of the modern state through tax-collecting bureaucracies and cadres of experts with mastery of the basic tools of statecraft. Those who could wield these tools, or who otherwise had access to print, to ink or to expert knowledge, would thrive as ruling elites – variously religious, administrative and literary. The paradox lies in the fact that the circulation of ideas – first through print, then through a variety of media, and then in exponentially larger quantities and at blinding speeds through electronic media like the Internet and social networks – carried with it the very seeds of the eventual questioning of expertise and, by implication, of legitimate authority.

The second paradox turns on the inverse relationship between trust and legitimacy, on the one hand, and the increasing complexity of the policy and programmatic demands placed on modern states, on the other. This is evidenced by the accelerated and domino-like crises – financial, economic, political and strategic – of the past few years: as state decision-making and the role of the ‘post-Weberian’ state become ever more complex, the very value of the expert and his or her expertise is called into question. Indeed, the traditional expert – the technocrat or professional – may well be perceived as at once the source of all evils and an essential remedy thereto. The reactions – bordering on hysteria – initially provoked in Europe when ‘technocratic’ governments took over in Italy and in Greece are a brilliant illustration of the bind in which experts find themselves: in both countries, experts – perceived as non-partisan or cross-party – were alternately seen as the saviours of wrecked economies, as the wreckers themselves and, finally, as a potential source of further backlash and resentment given their centrality in the administration of extremely bitter medicine.

How to understand and then refashion the relationship between the 21st century state and expertise? The answer lies in tackling some vexing, interconnected issues.

First, there is the rise of the ‘amateur expert.’ Over the past couple of decades, it has become commonplace to argue that ‘everyone is an expert.’ Because everyone can have a blog, take part in an online discussion, or ferret away in the darkest reaches of government websites and piece together information, the illusion of public expertise has come easily: more information available to more people – and instantly – has given rise to the claim that knowledge is no longer the privilege of the few, but indeed the birthright of the masses. But rapidity of communication, access to information, open-source code and social networking have together not only given rise to social activism, citizen journalism, as well as demands for transparent decision-making; they have also overwhelmed traditional gatekeepers – good and bad – and processes of quality control – legitimate and illegitimate. The breaking down of the barriers and the ousting of the gatekeepers is a victory for democracy and for access; but it is also – to be sure – a nightmare for those trying to make sense of complex issues. This is because information (often untraceable and ‘sourceless’) is very often not easy to evaluate, and because ‘good’ sources of knowledge have had to scream louder to be heard at all.

Second, and relatedly, there is the breakdown in the legitimation of expert knowledge. If modern states have to date been able to use experts and their expertise as the main sources of their legitimacy, then this has had much to do with the status granted to the claims made by such experts. This was not – or perhaps only partly – about the amount of information that these experts had, but rather about the kind of knowledge claims that could be made by experts: claims that were ascribed ‘legitimacy’– as it were – because they were perceived to be rooted in a form of experience, education and specialized tradecraft deemed to be of superior quality, or of peculiar rarity. Today, the process that legitimates such knowledge is in disrepair. This is sometimes for good reason: publics are less automatically deferential than in the past, and are therefore more likely to hold policy-makers to account. More regrettably, though, the devaluation of experts and their knowledge has roots in another one of the modern state’s great attributes – meritocracy; that is, skeptical publics may be seeing experts as members of privileged elites who do not warrant deference in a world in which the meritocratic spirit is, at least in theory and principle, supposed to predominate.

What is to be done? If expertise is to survive as a key regulator of policy, then expertise will arguably have to undergo a fundamental transformation from closed to shared. At present, we are in a transitional period that could be described as the worst of all worlds: expertise is at once increasingly the true preserve of the few, and the illusory preserve of the many.

Some of this may quite simply have to do with a complete failure to educate the general public about how the Internet works: for instance, many people still arguably think that Google pages appear in order of accuracy. A complete reliance on such tools, coupled with a complete ignorance of their true structure and their genesis, means that the public is deprived of the capacity to evaluate sources – a key marker of expertise.

Expertise will fail or survive depending on whether it is capable of creating its own systems for the sharing of knowledge and information that will renew its claims to legitimacy. We have moved from questions about who the experts are, to where expertise comes from, and finally to connecting different types of experts; that is, those who have a wealth of experience, those who have a wealth of knowledge, and the people – not actual experts – who have the large quantities of on-the-ground information that experts require. Health systems, for example, will need the cooperation of well-informed, collaborative patients in order to tackle the kinds of chronic health problems that modern societies face; or environmental policy will need mass buy-in from the public on a grand collaborative scale in order to become effective. Collaboratively produced knowledge stemming from a range of experts – and including an informed end-user – will be the basis upon which solutions will need to be elaborated. In this respect, the systems that will structure the way in which appropriate types of expertise are wired together will need to become a full part of what we consider to be expert knowledge. New forms of expertise will need to be valued on the basis of their capacity to bring together disparate but complementary forms of knowledge and information – rather than exist as isolated specialisms. In other words, if expertise is to rediscover its ‘unique selling proposition,’ then that proposition will have to acquire a capacity to connect.

The challenges ahead for the 21st century state are all about ‘wicked’ problems – those that appear intractable because they exist on a colossal scale and are hyper-interrelated: among other things, food distribution, environmental challenges, critical infrastructure and population growth; or, at the national level, the contradictory dynamics between housing shortages, environmental protection and access to services. Because of this combination of scale and connection, the role of policy-makers at both the national and international levels will be about linking experts, brokering expert conversations in the inevitable context of intensifying disagreement, and ensuring that publics are sufficiently informed and educated in order to elicit compliance and collaboration. This balancing act between brokering and compliance ought to be the basis of 21st century state expertise.


Catherine Fieschi is the director of the UK research and advisory group Counterpoint.

(Illustration: Noah Woods)

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