Experts and Cultural Cognition

Dan Kahan‘s blog at the Cultural Cognition Project makes some conjectures about whether experts think in similar ways to non-experts. Specifically he wonders whether experts exhibit the kinds of cultural biases already demonstrated by non-experts. Do experts use cultural cognition?

My observation is that there would need to be care taken to avoid something like the fundamental attribution error. That is to say, being an ‘expert’ in a given field is strongly conditioned by situation. So the very choice of who the experts are may be conditioned by unacknowledged cultural bias. My conjecture is that experts therefore say what their audiences and sponsors expect them to, otherwise they would be unrecognizable as experts. In situations where the message is critiqued, so is the messenger’s status as an expert. In situations where the message is positively received, the messenger’s status as expert is regarded as obvious.

Three possible examples:

Who is an expert in local economic development? Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, tends to have a strongly Egalitarian outlook on the world. He recently complained that the ‘growth as usual’ mindset of local council officers called into question their competence as expert in their own field. His position is that true economic development experts would take into account peak oil, economic crises and climate change and allow for the possibility that economic growth, as it has been understood, may be a thing of the past.

Second example: Climate science has its experts and it is an open question as to whether the geologist Ian Plimer is one of them. At one level he is not an expert in climate science since that is not his area of professional competence. However, he has written a book on the subject and since he is a ‘climate sceptic’, there are some people who wish to present him as an expert in climate change. His new book for students was launched by a former prime minister of Australia.

The third example is that of US judges, experts in legal deliberation, many of whom are appointed on specifically political grounds. Voters have a sense of the liberal and conservative candidates for office and they vote accordingly. To those of us living in places where the judiciary is appointed on merit rather than elected, this appears strange indeed. After all, what could be less political than judgements concerning the facts?

In these examples the kinds of statements made by ‘experts’ are received not on the basis of whether the person in question actually has qualifications or professional standing, but on whether their words fit with a particular cultural bias. That is to say, each cultural bias already has its own experts, who are brought into the argument in order to cast doubt on the competence of the other side’s supposed expertise.

So before we can identify how experts behave it’s necessary to create a definition of expert that is broadly acceptable across the conflicting cultural solidarities described by Cultural Theory. The three examples given above show that this may be quite difficult.


Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark

Hedeby, probable site of the first school in Denmark

Further reflections on the concept of horizontal and vertical teaching methods.

A recent edition of the journal Social Analysis (55.2, 2011) is entirely devoted to the contrast between hierarchical and egalitarian pressures on Danish Society.

The introduction begins with a discussion of the work of the anthropologist Marianne Gullestad (1946–2008). Gullestad developed a theory of Scandinavian social life based on the two dichotomies of hierarchy-equality and individualism-holism , which she derived from Louis Dumont (Dumont, Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard, 1977). It continues:

“Our ethnographies suggest that simple dichotomies between egalitarianism and hierarchy or between individualism and holism do not hold.” (p.13)

One of the articles, by Karen Fog Olwig, focuses specifically on education in Danish kindergartens: ‘Children’s sociality: the ‘Civilizing’ Project in the Danish Kindergarten’.

These kinds of analysis would benefit from a consideration of the Cultural Theory typology in which besides hierarchical (vertical) and egalitarian (horizontal) approaches to education there are also Individualist and Fatalist institutional arrangements.

More generally, it’s possible to be suspicious of comparative national analyses which reify types of behaviour and then seek to apply them to national population groups, as though distinctive national characteristics were so easily demonstrated in this manner.

My concern here is that analyses which identify national characteristics do less to clarify those characteristics than they do to reinforce a kind of nationalist essentialism. This reassuring thought – that we’re doing the right thing when we organise along national lines – seems to me to have had its high point in the mid to late Nineteenth Century with the development of modern nation states, and then another peak after the Second World War with the rise of post-colonial independence movements. It is getting another airing in our time as part of a collective anxiety about globalisation. Most recently, the decline of European currency forces a rethink of national economic arrangements. The national is being renegotiated and redefined.

I’m arguing here that the process of identifying national characteristics is at least partly born from a certain cultural anxiety regarding national identities in an era of globalisation. So to argue that some nations have particularly ‘vertical’ teaching methods and that this impacts on governmental effectiveness, as do the authors of the study previously mentioned, reveals something about the context and preoccupations of the research itself. There is a market for clients (broadly construed) who are interested in reinforcing their ideas about the social reality, the solidity, of nation states.

Analyses inspired by the Cultural Theory approach of anthroplogist Mary Douglas instead start from the assumption that cultural differences are to be found as much within social groups as between them. That is to say, the cultural biases inherent in institutions operate at all scales, from the household (Gullestad’s ‘kitchen table society‘) to the global. This is not to deny the possibility of empirically observable national characteristics, but to contextualise them in a series of nested (Hierarchical), or competing (Individualist), or incompatible (Fatalist), or wholistic (Egalitarian) scales. An interest in identifying the dominant scale (natonal, supranational, something else?) reveals a Hierarchical cultural bias.

Where can Cultural Theory aid these kinds of investigation?

First, as mentioned, it identifies, parsimoniously, a further two ‘ideal types’, beyond ‘horizontal’ egalitarianism and ‘vertical’ hierarchy.

Second, it allows for a questioning of national characteristics as particularly national.

Third, following on from this, it renders visible contesting social forces within societies and institutions. So for example, where Hierarchical approaches to social organisation appear dominant, Cultural Theory can show how they may not be quite as dominant as seen at first sight (because they fit within a dynamic of contested worldviews), and it can show where the possibilities of change lie in already existing institutions and relationships.

To end on the idea of anxiety about national identity in an era of globaliisation, two books are particularly helpful on this:

David Held and Henrietta L. Moore, eds (2008) Cultural Politics in a Global Age: Uncertainty, Solidarity and Innovation. Oxford: Oneworld.

 Henrietta L. Moore (2011) Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions. Cambridge: Polity.


Bruun, Maja Hojer; Jakobsen, Gry Skrædderdal; Krøijer, Stine (2011) Introduction: The Concern for Sociality—Practising Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark, Social Analysis, Volume 55, Number 2, Summer, pp. 1-19. []

Louis Dumont (1977) Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard.