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The independence of experts in question

L'indépendance des experts en question

Toward a new political sociology of health expertise

Pour une nouvelle sociologie politique de l'expertise sanitaire

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Published on Monday, January 13, 2014 by Luigia Parlati


Le colloque international « L’indépendance des experts en question. Pour une nouvelle sociologie politique de l’expertise sanitaire » marque la fin du programme de recherche INDEX (L’indépendance des experts et ses problèmes dans le champ de la santé publique) financé par l’Agence nationale de la recherche de 2011 à 2014. Il est organisé conjointement par les laboratoires SAGE (UMR CNRS, université de Strasbourg), PACTE (UMR CNRS, université Pierre Mendès-France) et CSO (UMR CNRS, Sciences Po) avec le soutien de l’IRISSO (UMR CNRS, université Paris-Dauphine) et de la Maison des sciences de l’homme Alsace. Il est placé sous la responsabilité d’Emmanuel Henry, professeur de sociologie à l’université Paris-Dauphine avec Claude Gilbert, directeur de recherche au CNRS, Jean-Noël Jouzel, chargé de recherche au CNRS et Pascal Marichalar, chargé de recherche au CNRS.



In the past few decades, scholarly studies of expertise in the fields of sociology, science studies or law have deeply challenged the idea that expertise could be « purely scientific », impervious to any political or economic interference. In fields related to health or environemental issues, they have showed in particular the shortcomings of procedures designed to create a boundary between the scientific evaluation of risks on the one hand, and their political management on the other. They have underlined the fact that expertise situations are always « hybrid » and continuously embedded in public decision processes.

In a context of abundant controversies questioning the capacity of State and public institutions to protect public health and the environment, political actors have also confronted these interrogations. In France, one possible answer has been the creation of health agencies, in charge of organizing scientific expertise, and the adoption of procedures dedicated to prevent conflicts of interest and to promote the objectivity of expertise.

Recurring crises (in the area of pharmaceuticals, nuclear energy, the management of pandemics and the use of pesticides or GMO’s…) as well as public debates involving the medical profession or scientific research have shown that these responses have not brought responses to all the problems related to the exercise of expertise. Since 2011, a group of social scientists gathered in the ANR-INDEX program on the independence of experts has tried to renew the the thinking about expertise, by going beyond the normative debate concerning the nature of a « good » expertise. This group promotes approaches studying situations of expertise as they unfold in practice, paying attention to their social and institutional contexts and to the diverging interests and unequal resources of actors involved in these expertise processes, or who bear the burden of their consequences. It is currently writing a critical dictionary of expertise. Its main findings will be released in a final symposium held in Strasbourg in May 2014 and which will address two main sets of questions.


1. Expertise for what? Challenging the independence of experts

The topic of independence and conflict of interest prevention is everyday more central in the reflection on expertise, to the point of keeping other areas of the debate in darkness. This focus of public debate on conflicts of interest does not answer all the questions entailed by the independence issue, which will not disappear with the public declaration of conflicts of interest, or with the recording of expert committees.

The aim of this part of the symposium is first to study to which extent expertise processes are themselves determined by the structuration of scientific knowledge, very much upstream. Contrary to shared belief, scientific knowledge is not built in a linear way, from ignorance toward increasing knowledge. The development of scientific knowledge rather depends on the relative interest which is bestowed to certain fields of research, according to dynamics that are specific to the scientific community or to economic and socio-political interests that are linked to them. All of this explains a difference in relative interests to promote a specific research, or to develop a specific academic discipline, more than an other. To this, one must add the strategies of private (e.g. industrial players) or public (e.g. governmental bodies, research institutes…) actors trying to slow the development of certain areas of knowledge, or to promote artificial controversies.

Thus, in many cases, the structuration of knowledge and ignorance, upstream from the expertise processes themselves, strongly influences what experts will be able to see, as well as the points that will be difficult to reconsider. Hence, if one wishes to bias an expertise process according to one’s interests, one often does not need to control it as such, because the biased nature of the structuration of knowledge limits the spectrum of questions that can be asked and that can be answered.

The limits of procedures and instruments aiming at guaranteeing the objectivity of expertise will also be discussed. Expertise has long remained an amateur practice, or at least, a practice which could be carried out in different ways, and sometimes quite informally, if one considers the choice of experts, the kind of request bestowed upon them, the way the expertise was to be carried out or the ensuing publicity given to results. Today, expertise seems to unfold in a more rigid frame created by public institutions, with rules disclosed to all. Specific institutions have been created, procedures have been made explicit, interests and reports are to be made public, and must follow formalized blueprints, etc.

These processes of specialization/professionalization/transnationalization of expertise have been well described, however too little attention has been given to their effects. Yet normalized expertise processes, by focusing on aspects of health and environmental issues which have been defined as « manageable », have the problematic side-effect of making other consequences of these problems less visible.

2. Expertise for whom? From lay expertise to conflicts between forms of « situated » knowledge

One of the major issues in the reflection on expertise in the past decades has been that of the boundary between legitimate scientific knowledge, produced by professionals that follow scientific methods, and « lay » knowledge brought together by people who are potentially affected by a risk. This discussion has focused on the best way of involving these « lay » experts in public decision making. However, contrary to research on the proceduralization of expertise, this has resulted in few institutional innovations, even though one of the objectives of the creation of public health agencies in France was to tackle the issue of hybrid knowledge and public participation.

This discussion, though fruitful, has grossly underestimated the lasting structural effects of the unequal capacity of social groups to influence the priorities of scientific research. Yet, as has been suggested earlier on, scientific knowledge is often all the more developed when it is matched by industrial, economic or political interests. To the contrary, research issues which echo the claims of social mobilizations are more likely to end up as « undone science », that is, responses to questions that although important from a health or social perspective, are not matched by actors powerful enough to develop them and transform them into scientific knowledge which would be strong enough to structure expertise processes.

Hence one can ask to what extent expertise which draws on such scientific knowledge which is lastingly biased, even though claiming its « objectivity », is not itself entrapped in the relations of domination which it sometimes tries to fight.

One radical conclusion which will be discussed during this symposium consists in redefining expertise, considering the latter no more as a process mainly involving the scientific community and political actors, which attemps to end controversies in the name of knowledge, but, to the contrary, as a process which draws on forms of « situated » knowledge to reopen as possible what has been deemed impossible. These forms of « situated » knowledge are rooted in the social realities involved in the expertise process, and are thus incomplete and biased. Expertise processes would then have to be analyzed as processes trying to objectivate oppositions between social groups, as well as to shed new light on problems which were until then hidden or rendered difficult to apprehend (as a result of routine production of knowledge). The aim of an expertise process would then be, not to end controversies, but to strive toward the minimization of the effects entailed by the unequal resources between the actors involved. Expertise would bestow upon the latter at least minimal resources in order for them to be able to formalize and defend their point of view, and confront their counterparts with equal arms.


15 mai, 10h-18h

10h // Accueil des participants

10h15-10h30 // Introduction du colloque

  • Hélène Michel, directrice de SAGE (sous réserve).

10h30-13h // Session 1 : Toward a new political sociology of expertise. An assessment of the four year ANR Index collective research program

  • Emmanuel Henry (IRISSO, Université Paris Dauphine) / Claude Gilbert (PACTE, CNRS) / Jean-Noël Jouzel (CSO, CNRS) / Pascal Marichalar (Iris, CNRS)

14h-18h // Session 2 : What does expertise depend upon?

Président : Olivier Borraz (CSO, CNRS) // Discutants : Soraya Boudia (LATTS, Université de Marne-la-Vallée), François Dedieu (SenS, INRA)

  • Scott Frickel (Washington State University) : « Organizing expert activism »
  • David Demortain (SenS, INRA) : « Experts’ adaptive models for expert decision-making. Risk analysis 1983-2009 »
  • Daniel Carpenter (Harvard University) : « Preventing Regulatory Capture »
  • Boris Hauray (Iris, INSERM) : « Conflits d’intérêts et contrôle des médicaments »

16 mai, 9h-17h30

9h-12h // Session 3 : Table ronde – Expertise between science and politics : the case of pesticides and occupational health

  • Pierre Lebailly, épidémiologiste (Grecan, Université de Caen) / Alain Garrigou, ergonome (HSE, Université de Bordeaux) / Giovanni Prete, sociologue (Iris, IUT Saint-Denis) / Nathalie Jas, historienne (Ritme, INRA). Animation : Jean-Noël Jouzel.

13h-17h // Session 4 : Expertise for whom?

Présidents : Daniel Benamouzig (CSO, CNRS) // Discutant : Renaud Crespin (Crape, CNRS)

  • Sezin Topçu (IMM, CNRS) : « Devenir expert pour quoi faire? Leçons politiques du militantisme associatif dans le domaine de l’énergie nucléaire »
  • Barbara Allen (Virginia Tech) : « Industrial Transformation Through Environmental Health Activism: A Comparative Study of Lay Science in the U.S. and the EU »
  • Christine Dourlens (Triangle, Université Jean Monnet) : « Entre diagnostic, pronostic et jugement moral : l’expertise des demandes de réassignation sexuelle »
  • Ilana Löwy (CERMES3, INSERM) : « Diagnostic prénatal: une innovation ‘qui va de soi’ et des experts invisibles »

17h-17h30 // Conclusion du colloque

Emmanuel Henry


  • Maison des sciences de l'homme Alsace - MISHA - Salle des conférences - 5, allée du général Rouvillois
    Strasbourg, France (67)


  • Thursday, May 15, 2014
  • Friday, May 16, 2014


  • expertise, santé publique, sociologie, action publique


  • Emmanuel Henry
    courriel : altexpert2016 [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Carole Cordazzo
    courriel : carole [dot] cordazzo [at] misha [dot] fr

Information source

  • Emmanuel Henry
    courriel : altexpert2016 [at] gmail [dot] com

To cite this announcement

« The independence of experts in question », Conference, symposium, Calenda, Published on Monday, January 13, 2014, https://calenda.org/273892

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