A Critical Sociology of International Expertise: The Case of International Democracy Assistance

Michael Christensen


If the so-called Arab Spring taught scholars of democracy anything, it was that the dynamic processes of democratization are difficult to explain and even more difficult to predict. At the end of 2009, very few Western commentators and foreign policy “experts” publicly suggested that the authoritarian governments of Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt were in danger of being ousted by democratic revolutions, and just as the West was celebrating the “Arab Spring”, many were equally surprised by the rapid deterioration of democratic conditions in these same countries. This gap between expert knowledge and political events was not only present among academic or media experts but also among professional policy experts working in international organizations specifically committed to assisting democratic movements, including the movements in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Of course, a few years earlier, some of these same

M. Christensen (*)

Department of Sociology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada © The Author(s) 2017

F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59948-9_7

democracy assistance organizations hailed democratic elections in Iraq, Ukraine, and Georgia, only to see democracy falter in these countries shortly thereafter. Considering these apparent miscalculations, as well as the long tradition of Western governments’ ambivalence or even resistance to democratic movements in the global South, democratic activists around the world would be justified in asking whether democracy “experts” from Western countries such as the United States are, in fact, committed to a vision of democracy that best reflects the interests and perspectives of large international organizations.

This chapter examines international organizations engaged in professional democracy assistance, and the production of expert knowledge about democracy, by utilizing the tools of critical sociology that Kurasawa outlines in the opening chapter of this volume. Specifically, and in a similar vein as the chapters by Oliver and Tasson as well as Hayes, this chapter looks to denaturalize and critique symbolic mechanisms that support configurations of power in global social spaces. This critical approach focuses on knowledge production as an important source of symbolic capital, but it also understands expert knowledge itself in relational terms as a capacity to act or intervene in public (e.g. Stehr and Grundmann 2011; Eyal and Buchholz 2010). In this sense, expert knowledge is meaningful insofar as it is useful in practice. In the case of international democracy assistance, this is reflected in both the official public pronouncements of organizations that reject overly “theoretical” or “ideological” approaches to democracy, as well as the field-wide emphasis on program evaluation and other reflexive auditing practices. Such pronouncements and practices are important because they facilitate and legitimize the communication of expertise as a form of actionable knowledge and thereby function to consolidate the symbolic capital of these organizations.

The following therefore examines forms of international expertise as a type of social relationship that is situated by institutional rules, but also by cultural grammars. The term “international expertise” refers to forms of knowledge about international aid, global capital flows, intergovernmental political relations, and even world cultural norms that are institutionalized or formalized by international NGOs, inter-governmental organizations, scholars, and private sector knowledge workers (e.g. consultants, economists, bankers, etc.). International expertise can take many forms, but it always has a sociocentric ontology insofar as any mode of international expertise is always a product of collectively enacted symbolic systems. In this way, the critical sociological approach taken here avoids treating any single entity, be it a political leader or a nation-state, as an atomistic rational actor that relates to the other rational actors on an “anarchical” world stage. Instead, I assume knowledge about development or global finance or democracy is always already imbued with norms and rules that reflect global configurations of power. This is certainly the case for knowledge about processes of democratization, and by examining such knowledge as a collectively enacted form of expertise, the following also aims to denaturalize and situate the epistemic communities driving the discourse of international democracy assistance.

In basic terms, I treat Western democracy assistance organizations as unique cultural settings with no inherent relationship to the “natural facts” of democracy. Such organizations are important objects of scholarly analysis, not because they are right or wrong about how democracy works, but because they mobilize existing discourses of democracy to do things that have important effects for political actors in the countries where they work. Resisting the appeal of a simplified, pre-determined analytical framework is particularly important for democracy assistance because of the field’s proximity to sources of Western, and specifically American, power. However, the appeal of democratic ideals and the willingness of political actors to work with Western organizations toward those ideals is not simply a product of that power. The “critical” element of the sociological framework employed here therefore encourages a reflexive openness to theoretical and methodological tools that offer a wide range of explanatory options, but also locates the objects of research in a specific historical and cultural context. For international democracy assistance organizations, the everyday cultural practices that produce expert interventions “for democracy” in any given country or region is directly related to their histories and their structural positions within the broader aid industry. The following proceeds to locate international expertise (about democracy) within such contexts, first by providing a brief history of the field itself and then by describing how it relates to the much larger field of international development that Oliver and Tasson treat in the preceding chapter of this book. The field of democracy assistance provides an especially useful illustration of how cultural narratives, norms, and practices produce legitimate forms of knowledge that translate political ideals into programs of technical assistance.

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