Between Autonomy and Engagement

Performances of Scientific Expertise



Interdisciplinary Conference

Leuven (Belgium), 21-23 May 2012


Abstract deadline: 30 January 2011

The word limit for abstracts is 250 words. We welcome contributions from all relevant fields, from the history of science and technology to the history of ideas, sociology and philosophy of science.

Please send your abstract to:

[email protected]



Key notes (confirmed):

Harry Collins (Cardiff University), Graeme Gooday (Leeds University), Frank Huisman (Descartes Centre, University of Utrecht), Raf de Bont (University of Maastricht), Martin Kohlrausch (Dortmund/K.U.Leuven)


In Science Studies, problems of scientific expertise have drawn tremendous attention in recent years. The emergence of expert authority within ever more fields of human activity has often been associated with the emergence of a new type of expert knowledge that evolved in the late nineteenth century. This knowledge, it is argued, related to the growing scientification of the economy, of society and even of politics. At the same time, this expert knowledge resulted from the increasing recruitment of ‘specialists’ by the state in order to back up ever more policy measures in a context of expanding state intervention.

During this conference, we wish to focus upon the complex performance of expertise that came along with this scientification of society. More specifically, this conference will elaborate upon the careful negotiation between two potentially conflicting dynamics of this performance – an ever growing autonomy of expertise, on the one hand, from which experts gained their presumed abilities to overcome social conflict; and an ever increasing engagement of experts with ‘the political’ on the other hand, in order to consolidate their position in a competitive market of knowledge.

We welcome contributions about such distant fields as expertise in public policy (e.g health policy or agricultural policy), courtroom expertise (e.g expert witnessing) and economic governance expertise (e.g business administration).

1. In order to explore this performance of expertise, we wish to focus in the first place upon the newly emerging social roles that were performed by scientific experts and their counterparts, as well as the cultural meanings that were ascribed by them to these roles. To what extent did state recruitment of scientists, profound urbanization and democratization of society put traditional self-representations of scientists under pressure? In order to lay bare these new roles, the genealogy of expertise as a concept should be focused upon as well. Did new performances tap in into older meanings of expertise that were held up by practitioners such as physicians and craftsmen, rather than by laboratory scientists? Whereas nineteenth century experts seemed to present themselves as distanced observers in the first place, could other notions of expertise being a matter of personal implication and experience still survive? What did this mean for the expert’s autonomy and engagement on a social level?

2. We also wish to focus, in the second place, upon the construction of the different fields of expert knowledge by experts and their counterparts. To what extent did scientist help to conceptualize these fields of intervention, building likewise upon their perceived autonomy and engagement? In order to conceptualize the shaping of these fields by scientific experts and their counterparts, focus could be put upon medical and engineering models such as ‘sanitation measures’ in health policy, Malthusian and other concepts in agricultural policy, scientific management and efficiency models in economic governance, or criminal anthropological concepts in scientific expert witnessing in the court room.

3. We wish to elaborate, in the third place, upon the backfiring of this expertise engagement within the scientific community. How did experts and non-experts alike evaluate the fate of autonomy and engagement in the age of expertise? To what extent did the rise of expert knowledge imply the persistence of an autonomous field of scientific inquiry, both as a contrasting image and as a necessary condition for the performance of expertise? We especially welcome contributions about the failures of expertise as perceived within scientific communities. Here again, the fragilities of expertise should help to lay bare expertise as an open ended performance,  rather than as a ready made tool of a fixed ‘technocracy’.


4. In the fourth place, we wish to focus upon the interdependent meanings of scientific expertise and politics. How did experts conceptualize the political sphere, and how did  notions of ‘expert governance’ and ‘technocracy’ influence that sphere? We do welcome contributions about the embedment of expertise within the political cultures of progressive liberalism, newly emerging socialism and reinvented conservatism. At the same time, however, we wish to dig deeper into the continuous use of older concepts such as social physics, social mechanics and social engineering. These concepts had been at the core of political thinking from the early nineteenth century onwards and therefore could be studied as complementary, highly respectable points of reference for newly emerging experts.



[email protected]

[email protected]



Leuven Interdisciplinary Platform for the Studies of the Sciences (LIPSS) & Research Unit Cultural History since 1750 University of Leuven, Blijde Inkomststraat 21 Box 3307 BE 3000 Leuven Belgium