Theme 3: experts and expertise: introducing a practical exercise in print media analysis

One of the aims in devising this pair of seminars was to involve students in carrying out research of their own as an element of the module. We did not believe that it would be possible, within the confines of the module and our threefold aims, to provide students with the necessary skills to understand how to conduct either quantitative or qualitative research using human research participants (each of these would have been a module in its own right). Such research would also have required ethical approval, for which there was not sufficient time or resources.[1] We therefore devised a practical exercise which required students to investigate a particular area by examining media sources - the internet, newspapers, professional journals and academic specialist journals.

The pair of seminars examined the role that experts and expertise play in legal arenas, particularly within the court setting. Alongside this, the aim was also to introduce students to the work of Michel Foucault and to those who have been influenced by his work. We chose to examine expertise within the legal arena of the court, a subject with which students would have some familiarity, in order to introduce this fairly difficult theoretical perspective. The seminar used Foucault's (1983) essay, 'The subject and power' as a means to examine the ways in which subjectification/objectification operates in the exercise of power. Through Foucault's understanding of 'dividing practices', we could begin to examine how people are 'made up' as experts, by themselves and by others. This allowed students to look at the way experts are used in the court setting as a 'dividing practice', where one set of experts can become divided from another, and experts from lay persons as inexperts. In the second seminar we hoped that students would be able to deploy Foucault's perspective as a lens to examine a particular case where expertise was called into question - the role of Roy Meadows as an expert (medical) witness in numerous cases involving the cot deaths of babies (see Box 2).

  • [1] Note how this issue was overcome in the family law module discussed in Chapter 3 bysetting a single exercise for which the lecturer obtained ethical approval.
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