Legitimacy of expertise

This is a short post before I go on holiday to signpost where I currently am. I’m beginning to dig deeper into particular areas of literature, and first I’m looking at expertise, which I explored from a performance/performativity perspective in a recent presentation I gave at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research seminar. Now I’m mapping the shape of the field of expertise and have quickly picked up on one particular aspect which I hadn’t really thought about before – mass media and the legitimacy of expertise.

Experts have been receiving increasing recognition through the mass media, which some have argued contribute to a de-legitmisation of expertise (Beck, 1998; Luhmann, 2000; Arnoldi, 2007). Michel de Certeau (1984) articulates this usefully in terms of authoritative discourse and ‘tactics’, arguing that the increased public recognition of experts mean that their discourse needs to be tailored for audiences and spheres outside of their specialised field. He argues that with further accumulation of authority through such discourse, knowledgeable discourse is compromised; they “pronounce with authority a discourse which is no longer a function of knowledge, but a function of the socio-economic order” (p.8).

So if expertise is argued to be de-legitimised through increased exposure to mass media, how does social media play into this? Arnoldi (2007) uses Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic and cultural capital to demonstrate how expertise is cultivated outside of academia and through mass media, however as he points out, Bourdieu’s concepts do not give enough consideration to the autonomy not only of individual academics and experts, but also insititutions. Experts are seemingly ‘selected’ by journalists to offer their ‘objective’ and legitimate opinion, a legitimacy afforded from academia. What isn’t given enough consideration is that these experts can always say no, and reject mass media exposure.

Arnoldi’s focus is on academics, however the question of legitimacy remains the same, especially when considering expertise in other forms of mediated, mass exposure, such as social media. This is especially worth consideration because the individual is responsible for what they post about themselves; they are not ‘selected’ and asked set questions by a journalist. How does this play out in a situation, and on a platform, where the individual appears to be completely responsible for what they put out there, and may receive mass exposure? Does social media use also ‘de-legitimise’ expertise?

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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