Saturday, August 18, 2007


The ongoing debate over the merits of the "foreign policy community," excerpts from which you can read here, here and here, has recently been invoking the idea of "experts" and "expertise." It seems worth remembering that while those terms do convey a sense of knowing an undetermined amount more about a topic than a well-informed average person, there's still a wide range of forms and styles for "expert knowledge."

Just sticking to the world of academia and think tanks, you have on the one hand people who focus on a particular region of the world, such as the Middle East or Central America, and others who do comparative work across regions on one or more topics, such as democratization or occupation. There are also debates between theorists, who study societies through the lens of models and concepts from sociology, political science, or whatever, and empiricists, who prefer to just focus narrowly on their sources and observations, often drawing their conceptual framework from that specific research. And then, of course, people within all these intellectuals traditions can disagree with each other if, for example, they follow radically different theories.

My sense in the lead-up to the Iraq War was that, while the neoconservatives were strongly in favor of it, and some other scholars in the world of theory also provided support, scholars specializing on the Middle East were strongly against it. The exception, interestingly enough, were Iraq specialists like Juan Cole and Peter Sluglett, who while not precisely signing up in support of it, didn't mind the idea of attacking Iraq all that much either, largely on humanitarian grounds. That said, that doesn't mean area studies specialists should henceforth and forever always be deemed right. My sense is that if you ask most Middle East experts if they think the U.S. can, not only encourage democracy in the region, but have a good chance of getting results, they would say no, whereas democratization specialists would have plenty of ideas they think would work.

Ideally people from both trends could get together, with an idea that democratization folks would have a perspective not limited to the experience of one region, but the area studies people determining not all of those perspectives formed from other places are relevant to the specific problems to which they are being considered for application. That said, making judgments about these matters involves far more than simply listening to a supposedly monolithic block of "experts."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home