Rethinking Expertise
by Harry Collins and Robert Evans
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Cloth: 978-0-226-11360-9 | Paper: 978-0-226-11361-6 | Electronic: 978-0-226-11362-3
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226113623.001.0001


What does it mean to be an expert? In Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans offer a radical new perspective on the role of expertise in the practice of science and the public evaluation of technology.

Collins and Evans present a Periodic Table of Expertises based on the idea of tacit knowledge—knowledge that we have but cannot explain. They then look at how some expertises are used to judge others, how laypeople judge between experts, and how credentials are used to evaluate them. Throughout, Collins and Evans ask an important question: how can the public make use of science and technology before there is consensus in the scientific community? This book has wide implications for public policy and for those who seek to understand science and benefit from it.

“Starts to lay the groundwork for solving a critical problem—how to restore the force of technical scientific information in public controversies, without importing disguised political agendas.”—Nature

“A rich and detailed ‘periodic table’ of expertise . . . full of case studies, anecdotes and intriguing experiments.”—Times Higher Education Supplement (UK)


Harry Collins is distinguished research professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science at Cardiff University. He is the author of, most recently, Gravity’s Shadow and, with Trevor Pinch, Dr. Golem, both published by the University of Chicago Press. Robert Evans is reader in sociology at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences.


“The way forward is no longer paved by single discipline experts. In Rethinking Expertise, Collins and Evans map out the interwoven expertises of science, technology, public policy, and decision making, illuminating the reality of modern leadership and the new expertise.”

— Gary H. Sanders, Project Manager, Thirty Meter Telescope Project

Rethinking Expertise is a groundbreaking contribution to the sociology of knowledge: it skillfully defends a shift in analytic focus from propositional knowledge to expertise; it meticulously classifies different forms of expertise in a ‘periodic table’; it impressively highlights the significance of the hitherto overlooked category of interactional expertise; and, perhaps most importantly, it convincingly demonstrates that sociology can make highly fruitful and surprising use of the experimental method. Rethinking Expertise will be required reading in the social sciences and philosophy.”

— Martin Kusch, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

“This revolutionary book shows how science studies can contribute to understanding the contents of expert knowledge, not just the process by which experts are given that status by society. The authors create a novel taxonomy of types of expertise from which they derive normative recommendations concerning public debates about science. For all readers, this volume will be provocative; for some, it will also be revelatory.  I highly recommend it.”

— Michael E. Gorman, Professor of Science, Technology & Society and Systems Engineering, University of Virginia

"Collins and Evans put their points vividly, with elegant language and diagrams....Their book starts to lay the groundwork for solving a critical problem—how to restore the force of technical scientific information in public controversies, without importing disguised political agendas."
— Robert P. Crease, Nature

"The book offers a rich and detailed 'periodic table' of expertise, ranging from the kind of beer-mat knowledge useful only in pub quizzes to the levels of skill that enable people to make a contribution to cutting-edge science. It considers wine buffs and art connoisseurs, hoaxers, journalists and pseudoscientists. It looks at deep philosophical issues of 'embodiment'—whether you need to move around in the world to acquire a language or the jargon of a specialist field— that have major implications for the study of artificial intelligence and computer learning. It is full of case studies, anecdotes and intriguing experiments. But at its heart are questions arising directly out of the authors' work in the sociology of science and the challenges of scientifically literate public decision-making."
— Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education Supplement

"What makes an expert an expert? The answer has often been epistemologically grounded. Experts were experts because they possessed special training, methods, and analytical strategies that better enabled them to 'be in the truth' relative to lay reasoners. However, in the wake of science and technology studies, postmodern theory, and a growing distrust of expert assessments, such a realist treatment of expertise seems epistemologically flawed and politically naive. Collins (Cardiff Univ.) and Evans (Cardiff School of Social Science) seek to provide an account of expertise that does not fall victim to a postmodern leveling of all distinctions between the expert and nonexpert in terms of the traditional version of expertise described above. To accomplish this new 'sociology of expertise,' the authors put forward what they refer to as the Periodic Table of Expertise. The Table differentiates between different types of expertise and the contexts in which these types are most useful and effective. Such an approach grounds expertise not in its special methodological features but in the tacit, socialized knowledge that individuals gain as members of specialized groups. The authors believe this approach can lead to a new way of sorting out the contributions experts make to decision making in society."
— Choice

"A stimulating read for philosophers and general readers."
— Tim Thornton, Metapsychology Online

"Densely packed with new ideas, some intuitive and some decidely not. . . . This book would make a terrific textbook, certainly in philosophy and also in sociology and psychology. Scientists and engineers will find it fascinating."
— Margaret Bennington-Davis, Psychiatric Services

"Knowledge is about doing, not talking. Collins and Evans suggest that a lesser form of expertise, which they dub 'interactional expertise'—the province of journalists and science-studies ethnographers—can master the talk but that it brings one no closer to walking the walk like contributory experts, those who are actually specialists in a particular area....There is no doubt that Collins and Evans capture something interesting about the self warranting nature of expert knowledge."

"[Collins] and Evans advance into his liminal territory through a multistaged assault, progressing through excising logical extensions in the manner of philosophers, eschewing the inconvenient but potentially germane complexities posited by those who linger amid the thorny thickets of case studies."
— Technology and Culture


List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments


ONE / The Periodic Table of Expertises 1: Ubiquitous and Specialist Expertises

TWO / The Periodic Table of Expertises 2: Meta-expertises and Meta-criteria

THREE / Interactional Expertise and Embodiment

FOUR / Walking the Talk: Experiments on Color Blindness, Perfect Pitch, and Gravitational W

FIVE / New Demarcation Criteria

CONCLUSION / Science, the Citizen, and the Role of Social Science

APPENDIX / Waves of Science Studies