What does it mean to ‘be’ an expert? at RGS-IBG 2008

That man James Porter is busy at the Geography conferences these days. Alongside organising a session at the 2008 AAG on Private Science & Environmental Governance, he’s also organising a session at the 2008 RGS-IBG Annual Meeting on expertise and what it means to be an expert. Details below, abstract submissions are due by 16th January 2008.

I didn’t make it to the meeting last year but hope to in 2008…

Call for Papers:
(Re)Thinking Expertise: Spaces of Production, Performance and the Politics of Representation
RGS-IBG, Annual Meeting, 27 – 29 August 2008

What does it mean to ‘be’ an expert? Although social constructionism has identified similarities between science and other social practices, recently a controversial call for a “Third Wave” of science studies (Collins & Evans, 2002) has drawn attention to the problem of Extension – the infinite regress encountered when looking for techno-scientific advice if we can no-longer tell the difference between expert and lay-knowledge. Expertise has previously been understood to be the unyielding pursuit of authoritative knowledge that is honed through practice and enforced by political and academic institutions. In this sense, the professional identities presented to the outside world are carefully crafted so as to conform and exhibit ideological norms not dissimilar to Merton’s ideals. Such readings, however, arguably present an overly romantic, simplistic, and homogenous rendering of experts and their expertise. What is needed is examination of how experts’ identities are constructed (when and by whom), how they are negotiated between actors and institutions, the historical context in which they are played out, and ultimately how they function (or don’t) instrumentally to serve or suppress certain realities.

Expertise is arguably played out more visibly today than ever before, particularly with reference to the environment. Floods, hurricanes, infectious animal diseases, and a myriad of other concerns are captured graphically and broadcasted nightly into homes across the world. Each event and the subsequent response depicts the experts involved as either heroes or villains of these dramatised pieces – in both cases thrust into the limelight as representatives of their respective fields. Geographers are uniquely positioned to comment on this. They can provide theoretical depth and empirical evidence to shed light on the way expert identities are shaped, the role they serve, the impact on the democratization of knowledge, and the barriers they present to tackling environmental problems. We therefore invite papers addressing (though not limited to) the following questions:

  • Who constructs the image of environmental experts? How / where are these constructions enacted (i.e. technological, sociocultural, artefacts, etc.)?
  • Can representations be negotiated? If so, what role have academics played in shaping past perceptions and might hope to play in the future? What agency do these representations have?
  • What is the effect of these representations? Do they ever coincide or clash with the needs, understandings and views of actors (public, political, etc.)? Where are they successful and unsuccessful?
  • Do the representations come to in turn alter the landscape and shape an environment which conforms to the possible misguided representation itself? Does this lead to a snowballing of representations and hence crisis where ‘reality’ breaks?

Abstracts should be sent to James Porter (james.porter at kcl.ac.uk) and Joseph Hillier (joseph.hillier at ucl.ac.uk) by 16th January 2008.

More conference information here.

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