Expertise and Society

Up to now, I have discussed only what might be called “objective” accounts of expertise. These try to explain the essential features of expertise without reference to how others think about experts. But it seems plausible to many that what others think of experts matters for whether someone is an expert.

How Society Makes Experts

If other experts don’t judge that you have expert-level competence, you may not be granted a terminal degree, be published in a journal, or be accepted into a professional society. If novices do not think you are an expert, you may be cursed like the ancient Greek Cassandra: Even when what you say is correct, no one will trust you.

Perhaps even worse is when someone is accepted as an expert—for example, appointed to serve in a professional role or granted a coveted credential—when they lack what other experts regard as expert-level competence. Alvin Goldman (2018) calls such people “reputational experts.” The problem with allowing experts to be determined by reputation is that competing groups can create experts apart from any objective criteria.

Even if we find that sort of epistemic relativism distasteful, some sociologists argue that it’s just how things are. Even the most seemingly objective sciences, they argue, can be described as inherently social projects (Barnes and Bloor 1982). Which questions are asked, what language is used to describe findings, what methodologies are excluded, which projects get funded, etc. all depend on decisions by people with a variety of subjective interests.

Beyond Reputational Expertise

But not all social role accounts of expertise depend on arbitrary or idiosyncratic choice. Groups may also call someone an expert because that person solves a widely recognized problem in a systematic way. And identifying experts on those grounds seems an appropriate role for society.

Sociologists who reject reputational expertise claim that criteria for “success” in a domain can be objective even if we need a group of interested researchers to formulate and adjust them. Markers of time (seconds, minutes, etc.) may be socially devised, for example, but the fastest runner will still finish first. Similarly, those who believe in paranormal activity are often eager for their evidence to meet classic scientific standards (Gilovich 1991).

This suggests that a way of thinking of expertise as social that avoids epistemic relativism. On this approach, expertise is an objective matter of competence, but part of explaining that competence includes the social structures by which it is acquired. Expertise is not merely having knowledge or a certain level of skill. It is, instead, a way of having them that emerges through training in that domain. In other words, expertise emerges through what sociologist Harry Collins and Robert Evans call “linguistic immersion” (Collins and Evans 2007).

The Social Acquisition of Tacit Knowledge

Collins and Evans have done more than anyone to develop and defend a social role account of expertise called the “social acquisition of tacit knowledge.” Like the Dreyfuses, Collins and Evans agree that expertise is largely comprised of tacit knowledge cultivated through practice. But instead of claiming that tacit knowledge is integrated into the expert’s body, they claim it is integrated into the way they talk and think. Becoming an expert requires being immersed in the language of people who work in a domain.

This integration requires time and work. For some domains, such as learning your natural language and basic moral principles, almost everyone is engaged in that work. Collins and Evans call this kind of competence “ubiquitous expertise.” The more specialized a domain, the more specialized its language and the more work required to be an expert. Those who achieve sufficient linguistic competence to contribute to that domain through research and practice have “contributory expertise.” Those who develop just enough competence to understand the work of contributory experts, even though they couldn’t do it themselves, have “interactional expertise.”

Is expertise inherently social?

On the Collins/Evans view, expertise is inherently social because it is only through engaging with other experts that can one become an expert. Experts are made by other experts. Importantly, this is not inconsistent with the deliberate practice approach. Ericsson and colleagues emphasize that novices are dependent on other experts, like coaches, for feedback and for demonstrating how tasks can be analyzed in parts.

The drawbacks to the Collins/Evans account are primarily in the issues it does not address. How exactly does linguistic immersion cultivate expertise? Collins (2014) acknowledges the role of deliberate practice in the cultivation of expertise. But that reopens questions about the limitations of that account that we saw in my last post.

Further, the idea that all experts can “talk” about their domains equally well seems empirically problematic. Even if a world-class concert pianist can speak competently about music, that ability may have nothing to do with how well she plays. And there is little reason to think she should be able to do that just because she plays well.

In my final post tomorrow, I draw together the insights from the accounts I’ve discussed this week. I contend that these suggest a new account that calls out for interdisciplinary research.


Barnes, B. and D. Bloor (1982). “Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge.” In M. Hollis and S. Lukes, eds., Rationality and Relativism 21-47, Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Collins, Harry (2014). Are We All Scientific Experts Now? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Collins, Harry and Robert Evans (2007). Rethinking Expertise, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gilovich, Thomas (1991). How We Know What Isn’t So, New York: Free Press.

Goldman, Alvin (2018). “Expertise.” Topoi 37 (1): 3-10.

Jamie Carlin Watson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR and author of Expertise: A Philosophical Introduction.

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