Expertise is political, not neutral

In a globalised world with complex governing problems, experts are understudied but essential players. Examining their role in security helps us understand how issues are designated important, and why only certain kinds of knowledge are perceived as expertise. Such study, writes Gabriella Gricius, also helps us challenge the notion of expertise as neutral truth-telling

The governing problems of the 21st century have become increasingly complex and technical, from climate change to nuclear arms control, and even the foreign policy affairs of the European Union. Experts have become central to the role of policymaking in the world today. Their input informs the decisions of local and global politicians, but experts as actors remain understudied in international relations.

If we don't consider why some people are labelled as experts and others are not, we miss key opportunities to see why certain worldviews are perceived as legitimate, while others are obscured

Understanding the role that experts play is important. Many perceive them as neutral arbiters of the truth. But if we don't consider why some people are labelled as experts and others are not, we miss key opportunities to see why certain views of the world are regarded as legitimate, while others are obscured.

Scholars often define groups of experts as epistemic communities or communities of practice. We have studied how they can influence governance or how they are tools for larger dynamics of power transition. But we should do more work to emphasise how expertise unveils dynamics of legitimacy and power, particularly in the case of Arctic security.

The political role of experts in security

But, some may say, surely a realm like security is exempt from the political role of experts? Many who study it see security as being in the purview of states. But the increasing technicality of security discussions is not exempt from expertise. Consider the complex discussions around nuclear arms control. Politicians need many experts to explain the way the weapons work and the complicated legal aspects of agreements within the arms control space.

But experts aren’t simply bodies who explain technicalities. They come with institutional biases and unspoken assumptions that permeate what they, and the politicians that hire them, consider legitimate knowledge. If we aren’t thinking critically about who assigns expertise to whom, we miss the implications about who has power and who does not.

The politics of expertise in the Arctic

The problems that need solving in Arctic governance and security are incredibly technical in nature. Representatives need experts to help create appropriate shipping codes for dangerous trips across the ice. Experts assist in justifying continental shelf delineations. They play important roles in creating climate and marine shipping assessments in the Arctic Council. And they also have a key part in determining climate adaption measures, from researching the increasing prevalence of wildfires, to permafrost melting.

The increasing technicality of security issues requires expertise. Experts play key roles in the security of the Arctic, and even expand our understanding of security itself

Besides this, experts in the Arctic also have an important role in expanding our understanding of security itself. For instance, research conducted by a working group of the Arctic Council led to the drafting of the Arctic Human Development Report. Its publication changed how politicians understood security in the Arctic. Now, the issue goes beyond states, to areas like societal and food security.

Indigenous expertise and governance

The important role of Indigenous people in Arctic governance is also a part of the landscape of expertise in the region. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), for example, is considered expertise – particularly when politicians analyse viable shipping routes. But while Arctic governance includes TEK, discussions of Arctic security rarely do.

This sidelining of Indigenous knowledge and expertise, despite its acknowledged importance to the Arctic, says something significant about what policymakers and scholars perceive as legitimate security.

If we studied Arctic security by looking only at state dynamics, we would understand Arctic security as the simple story of states coming together (or not) to solve trans-border issues. That may be true. But when we put experts at the centre of analysis, the story of Arctic security becomes much more nuanced and interesting.

Indigenous knowledge is sidelined in discussions of Arctic security, and traditional ecological knowledge often not considered expertise in these contexts

Such a story highlights the longstanding role of scientists and science cooperation in Arctic history. It illustrates the real impact that scientific relationships have had on expanding our idea of security. And it illuminates the legitimacy debates that have shaped state action. What's more, it opens our eyes to the ways in which some types of expertise – such as the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous people – are sidelined in favour of more traditional and technocratic explanations of Arctic security and governance.

Why should we care about experts?

Bringing experts to the centre of our discussions on global governance, security architecture, and politics broadly has important benefits. When we deliberate about this picking and choosing of expertise, we can better understand how attributing the title of expert to someone gives them power to define what is and isn’t important.

Who is chosen to be an expert also has implications for what type of knowledge is considered legitimate. It can tell us a lot about the underlying hierarchy of knowledge and its colonial dynamics. Lastly, an approach that highlights expertise challenges the underlying assumption that experts are neutral truth tellers. They, like all actors on the world stage, are not truly objective. Rather, they have their own interests, conscious and unconscious, that frame their worldview.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Gabriella Gricius
Gabriella Gricius
PhD Student, Colorado State University / Graduate Fellow, North American and Arctic Security and Defense Network

Gabriella’s research focuses on Arctic security.

In her spare time, she writes for a variety of online publications including Foreign Policy, Responsible Statecraft, and Modern War Institute.

Gabriella received her MA in International Security from the University of Groningen, her BA in International Relations from Boston University, and a Certificate in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She is fluent in German and English and working towards fluency in Russian and Dutch.

She tweets @ModernFledgling

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One comment on “Expertise is political, not neutral”

  1. This is an important insight into the role of expertise within hierarchies of power. Scholars in the west need to recognise that we are part of a system of global minority rule, as described in my book "Unravelling Global Apartheid: An Overview of World Politics" (Polity Press 1996) - much has changed since then but the core argument is even more relevant in relation to the climate crisis, resurgent debt crisis, and walls & fences being built round the US and EU.

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