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FRIDAY SEMINAR SERIES | Theoretically rebooting how we talk about power and expertise



Start Date

18 Mar 2016 1:00 pm

End Date

18 Mar 2016 2:00 pm

Institute for the Study of Social Change logo

An Institute for the Study of Social Change and School of Social Sciences seminar

Presented by

Dr Darrin Durant, University of Melbourne

This seminar will be chaired by Dr Stewart Williams, School of Land and Food, UTAS

It has now become a staple of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to argue that science and politics cannot be separated, because in fact they are inextricably intermingled. This 'intermingling thesis' makes perfect sense as both the motivation for and object of empirical demonstrations of the relation between the technical and the social. Indeed, if something like 'political interest' is constitutive of knowledge, it makes no sense to have some global thesis about disentangling what is inextricably intermingled. But is there any sense to saying there can be a local disentangling of politics from science? If not, it is possible expertise just evaporated on the spot. To avoid this outcome, in this talk I suggest we explore what it means to say there is actually a strong and a weak intermingling thesis. Moreover, I suggest that much of our haggling about the politics of expertise is actually a battle between rival weak intermingling theses. Each rival is actually a social bet about the governance of knowledge, but this gambler status is obscured because the currently dominant weak intermingling thesis – the view that politics can never be separated from expertise – confuses itself with a strong intermingling thesis. This trail of confusion gets its legs from a theoretical sleight-of-hand, where everyone blithely assumes that to say 'politics cannot be separated from expertise' is the height of theory. To bring some light to this whole debate, we need to wind the clock back a bit and revisit what the positivists said in the 1930-1950s and what was outlined in Barry Barnes' mid-1970s sociology of knowledge. Using that theoretical reboot, I make suggestions about what the democratic management of expertise might mean once we acknowledge we are working with weak not strong intermingling theses. It turns out 'power' no longer slips from our theoretical grasp, but neither does 'expertise'.

Dr Darrin Durant is a lecturer in Science and Technology Studies in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Dr Durant's research focuses on disputes between experts and publics, and he has published widely on controversies involving nuclear waste management, nuclear power, public policy about energy options, and more recently is investigating climate change policy-making. Dr. Durant's general approach asks questions about the different contributions made and roles played by experts and lay publics. In democracies, we face a challenge. Concerns about procedural legitimacy result in demands for public involvement in policy-making about social issues involving expert knowledge. But procedure can only go so far, because in a democracy we are also concerned to get it right, so there is a reciprocal demand for expert input. It is too simple to say we just have to balance the two, because expert and lay public input are often about different questions, different weightings to what kinds of errors to be concerned about, and even different assessments of what factors deserve most attention in trying to figure out what is right. Instead, we have to make tough choices about who to listen to, and that might mean we have to think through exactly where expert and lay public input is best directed.

Recent publications include:

  • Durant, D. 'Simulative Politics: the case of nuclear waste disposal.' Environmental Politics 24(3) 2015: 442-460.
  • Durant, D. 'The Undead Linear Model of Expertise.' In Michael Heazle and John Kane (eds.), Policy Legitimacy, Science and Political Authority: Knowledge and action in liberal democracies (NY: Routledge Press, 2015), 17-38.
  • Durant, D. 'Collins on Experts: Gangnam Style STS'. Metascience (2015) DOI 10.1007/s11016-015-0025-x

Friday 18 March 2016

1.00pm to 2.00pm

Law 132 Seminar Room, Faculty of Law Building, Sandy Bay Campus*

* Please note change of venue

All welcome. For more information or directions to the venue please contact Dr Louise Grimmer.

Event Flyer (PDF 460KB)


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