This is part two of a series of articles. You can find part one here.
When we think about expertise and experts, what is the primary trait we look for? Could there be degrees of expertise?
In Are We All Scientific Experts Now? and Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins argues for, yes, a strata of expertise based on the manner in which that expertise was gained. This is a finer grained approach to categorizing expertise than other techniques, such as the famous but somewhat binary “10,000 hour rule”, which, as Collins explains, has weaknesses that render it less useful than a more stratified approach:
The trouble is that insisting that every expertise must take 10,000 hours or more of self-conscious effort gives rise to a problem: under this model, what counts as an expertise will vary from place to place. I am a native English speaker and, because the 10K model is widespread, my English is not generally recognized as an expertise in England. But, if I go to a foreign country where English is not the native language, my English is recognized as an expertise!
Put another way, differing types of expertise are accepted as expertise in different contexts. There is not a single type of “expert”.
Instead, the categories of expertise are related to the amount and the quality of someone’s interactions and experience with other experts. In this view, expertise is gained socially by acquisition of “tacit” knowledge:
Tacit knowledge is the deep understanding one can only gain through social immersion in groups who possess it…Humans have an ability to develop and maintain complex bodies of tacit knowledge in social groups that is not possessed by non-human entities.
Consider the ways in which we interact with one another. Each of us are more or less experts in “getting along”. In fact, we are experts in any number of ways of interacting with other people. We speak the same language with our peers; we understand unspoken rules of engagement; and we move through our days making small choices that arise from our tacit knowledge of how to function with other people.
For example, one of the more jarring feelings of being in a foreign country is the immediate lack of that tacit knowledge. I can attest to this personally. The instincts gained from living in one’s home country don’t always apply in foreign lands. Rules of engagement that we take for granted are actually taught and reinforced unconsciously by groups interacting together, but outside of that group, the rules change.
Professional Tacit Knowledge
Now, imagine having this kind of tacit knowledge in some professional field. Collins creates the thought experiment of a city – he calls it Nobelskigrad – where everyone is a scientific expert and people grow up learning and speaking about science and interacting directly with scientists as part of their normal lives. They would become scientific experts through their upbringing, and this expertise would be ubiquitous amongst the people of the city much like language is now amongst native speakers.
We could imagine a similar world as well for music and singing. Rather than it being a skill that one develops self-consciously and the possession of some elite few, it would simply be the reality of life, much as manners and language are now. But that world doesn’t exist, and musicians must become specialists.
Let’s Break it Down
He thus divides expertise into three main categories. Think of these as the left-most header column of a table:
- Ubiquitous expertise: knowledge gained simply through living and interacting with other people. This includes manners and language skills. We are all ubiquitous experts in a variety of skills.
- Specialist expertise: expertise gained via self-conscious learning of a craft that is not part of normal ubiquitous knowledge.
- Meta-Expertise: the ability to judge expertise in others.
Each of these three are further broken down into further categories.
The most important idea to take away is this: the process of becoming an expert is inherently social. Collins further argues that this expertise is real and not just a social construct:
Expertise is the real and substantive possession of groups of experts and…individuals acquire real and substantive expertise through their membership of those groups. Acquiring expertise is, therefore, a social process—a matter of socialization into the practices of an expert group—and expertise can be lost if time is spent away from the group.
We gain real skills by interacting with one another, and if we interact with specialists, then we can gain specialist expertise, which will be the topic for the next post.
Collins, Harry (2014–03–28). Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Kindle Locations 667–670). Wiley. Kindle Edition. ↩
Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 6–7). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
Collins, Harry (2014–03–28). Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Kindle Locations 705–717). Wiley. Kindle Edition. ↩
Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 2–3). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
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