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Interactional expertise

June 24, 2012

Apologies for the lack of posts in the last week; I’ve been otherwise occupied. I still don’t have anything special prepared, but here’s an interesting article about interactional expertise:

In the words of sociologists, what they’re now studying is called “interactional expertise.” The easiest way to understand what interactional expertise entails is to contrast it with a more common idea, contributory expertise. Contributory experts are the typical array of professionals (physicists, chemists, lawyers, economists, musicians etc.) who develop specialized knowledge and skill through formal education and long experience.

Interactional experts, by contrast, are not primary practitioners. They learn about a field primarily by talking with the people who have acquired contributory expertise. The new claim is that linguistic socialization enables interactional experts to acquire enough tacit knowledge to see the world from a contributory expert’s perspective. Their existence defies the cliché that understanding a person necessitates walking a mile in his or her shoes. Interactional experts can do more than talk the talk — they can ‘walk the talk’ or, really, ‘talk the walk’ by offering authoritative technical judgments, making inside jokes, and raising devil’s advocate questions that revolve around ideas normally known only to specialists.

There’s a difference between interactional expertise and being an expert in the field, but there’s also a difference between it and just having read one book on the subject. I don’t see myself wanting to be a contributory expert in most fields, but I would like to have some interactional expertise in a few more. Perhaps it’s this that academia isn’t currently set up to provide.

I also find it fascinating how the above basically describes Cormac McCarthy. I wonder if novelists, and artists generally, aren’t often the best interactional experts. After all, they have to understand almost everything well enough to imitate it. They test for such expertise through something basically like the Turing test; artists, I guess, use a kind of artificial intelligence…

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 26, 2012 12:56 pm

    Interesting concept, many writers would fit this category for sure.

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