Knowledge, Activism, and the Liberal State in the Golden Age of the Expert

AHA Session 62
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Washington Room 4 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University
Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

During the twentieth century, discourses of expertise, whether in medicine, social science, or popular culture, intersected with politics and public policy in numerous and sometimes conflicting ways.  On one hand, political theories that disparaged the public as uneducated and irrational privileged the role of experts in government, contributing to a democratic elitism that narrowed the role of citizenship to voting rather than active participation in policy formation and governance at all levels.  Yet claims of special knowledge also proved an effective tool for activists seeking to gain a public hearing, to frame political policy, and to bring resources to desperately needy communities.  Furthermore, activists claimed authority in novel ways, arguing that collective experience or local knowledge was a valuable guide in democratic change and could expose both the power and the limits of scientific claims. This panel explores expertise as both catalyst and contested terrain among democratic activists’ conceptions of the power of the liberal state in the mid decades of the twentieth century—the supposed golden age of the expert. 

Collectively these papers cover a broad geographical, political, and professional spectrum and will be of interest to a range of scholars studying democratic practices, activism, or Cold War liberalism and the state.  Robert Johnston’s paper examines anti-vaccine sentiment nationally, illustrating that no single political agenda drove the movement.  Fueled by opponents on both the left and the right, the movement reeled from assaults by organized medicine.  Medical and scientific professionals sought to delegitimize the claims of vaccine opponents characterizing them as dangerous cranks, rather than recognizing the real political and medical concerns they raised.  In this case, a narrow paradigm of scientific knowledge supported existing public health policy and contributed to rather undemocratic practices designed to stifle debate on the value and safety of vaccines.

In the hands of some activists, however, scientific paradigms were used for humanitarian purposes, as Linda Sargent Wood’s paper shows.  She discusses how Philip Pallister, a doctor armed with medical knowledge and desire for humane care for the disabled, helped transform public health policy and practices throughout Montana and laid the groundwork for the disability rights movement in the state.  Her paper demonstrates the possibility of expertise when wedded with activism and the liberal state.   Across the nation in Appalachia, Highlander Research and Education staff also used a paradigm of expertise, but one that posited expertise in deep local knowledge and collective experience of communities and sought ways to wed it with research.  Laura Westhoff’s paper explores the shift to participatory action research at Highlander, placing it within a longer history of political projects that worked toward participatory democratic alternatives to the elitist and undemocratic tendencies within the culture of expertise and its influence within the liberal social welfare state.  By illuminating shifting practices of activism, cultural debates over legitimate knowledge, and political struggles over the role of science in a democracy, these three historical examples offer a more nuanced lens onto the golden age of the expert and debates over the liberal state.

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