Privileging the Few: Boundary Work and the Multiple Roles of Expertise in Environmental Decision-Making

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 16:30
Oral Presentation
Valerie BERSETH, University of British Columbia, Canada
Although environmental governance and decision-making has conventionally been the exclusive domain of scientific experts, several Western countries have experienced a “participatory turn” that has opened government and scientific institutions to greater participation of non-experts. Recent work in environmental sociology has emphasized the need to examine the power dynamics of expertise that frequently privilege a narrow definition of legitimate knowledge. In this paper, I draw on scholarship on boundary work (Gieryn, 1983) to examine how divisions between experts and non-experts were constructed and reinforced in the 2009-2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry. Following record-low returns of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River in British Columbia, the commission held public forums and gathered evidence from 179 “expert” and “non-expert” witnesses to determine what factors caused the decline and made policy and management recommendations to the Canadian government. Experts were overwhelmingly scientific researchers, while non-expert participants included First Nations and Canadian government representatives, local fishers, NGOs, and fishing industry members. Through an analysis of the procedures, transcripts, and final reports from the inquiry, I find that although public engagement was a key objective of the inquiry, participants designated as experts were substantially more involved than non-experts in both the design and the content of the inquiry, which elevated the importance of scientific knowledge and knowledge-holders in the decision-making process. In addition to understanding expertise as performative or relational, I argue that institutionalized boundaries between experts and non-experts can undermine efforts to support public participation in environmental governance.