Are you a scholar or a subject matter expert? Some thoughts...

Lord Shiva Statue in Murdeshwara (Photo by Vivek Urs / CC BY-SA).

Recently I've been struggling with academic seminars where people are subject matter experts in health or refugees or some other specific topic. Not that there's anything wrong with this, but it struck me how little scholarly content there is now in "academic" presentations.

I have always had an interest in the use of the general versus the particular and how scholars often use these approaches interchangeably to suit their purposes. I am fascinated by such rhetorical tactics but I must admit that I have not seen much of this sort of debate in academic circles for some time. Is it a case of the short-termism that has arisen in academia?

Reading the Siva and Yoga Sutras had me thinking back to the concept of "varieties of particularism" that I developed in my doctoral thesis. Strange as it may sound, the idea came to me in a dream. To explain the concept (and to remind myself), I quote at length from my thesis (de Percy 2012, p. 28, Box 1.3):
A major finding of this research is that, in an era of technological convergence, providing a single technological solution to solve various connectivity problems is slower in addressing the diverse connectivity-related issues associated with various communications technologies in the near term. Similarly, grand, long-term approaches overlook regional and local opportunities and, in the pursuit of standardisation or quality/equality of service, ‘lock-in’ users to a technological solution designed to solve yesterday’s communications problems. Over time, the process of central control prevents the development of community expertise, or cultural capacity (see Hughes 1993), which leaves citizens as passive recipients of communications services, rather than being an integral component of these systems.
In his study of electricity systems in Germany, the US and the UK, Hughes (1993 : 405) found that local conditions resulted in distinct technological styles, defined as ‘the technological characteristics that give a machine, process, device or system a distinctive quality’. Hughes defined the local conditions external to the technology as cultural factors: ‘geographical, economic, organizational, legislative, contingent historical, and entrepreneurial conditions... factors [that] only partially shape technology through the mediating agency of individuals and groups’. However, electricity systems are passive networks where users have limited choices about how the network is deployed or used, whereas modern communications systems provide suppliers and end-users with a variety of choices about the means of delivery and the use of such networks respectively. For the purposes of this thesis, the various ‘cultural factors’ (as defined by Hughes) and the various connectivity requirements of users present particular circumstances which must be taken into account to enable greater penetration of a particular technological function.
In the absence of a term to describe the connectivity problems dictated by the varieties of particular individual, organisational, geographic, demographic and infrastructure situations that policy makers may need to address (while attempting to predict the current and potential uses of communications technologies in such various conditions), the term ‘varieties of particularism’ is adopted here to encapsulate these diverse circumstances. The term is borrowed from moral philosophy where it is used to explain a form of morality where particular circumstances dictate particular approaches to morality, on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to a single moral principle that dictates all action (see Sinnott-Armstrong 1999).
During the present period of institutional disruption (created by technological convergence), attempts to address these varieties of particularism have been referred to elsewhere as technological neutrality, where the technology used to achieve a particular function is left to supplier or consumer choice, rather than being predetermined or directed by the state. In Australia, however, the policy preference for delivering communications technologies over time has been to offer centrally-controlled, limited technologies in an attempt to create a sense of universal, standardised service. Canada, on the other hand, has attempted to achieve universal service through a mix of technologies devised and deployed at the regional and local levels to work within the regional and local varieties of particularism. Further, Canada’s approach provides greater access for citizens to the political process at the provincial and local levels, whereas state and local politicians in Australia have limited ability to influence centrally-controlled communications technology systems. This leaves citizens waiting until the federal government enables the deployment of infrastructure, as is occurring with the NBN today. 
Hughes (1993: x) found that the policy issues in deploying electricity networks were more regional than national in three different national contexts. The present study finds that the same principle applies to communications networks. Therefore, a major explanation for the divergent communications technology outcomes in Canada and Australia, and indeed, for Canada’s faster speed in achieving greater penetration of new technologies over time, is that decentralised institutions are better able to address the regional and local varieties of particularism, hence providing greater citizen involvement in the policy process and faster penetration of new communications technologies.

The above was a major finding, but it was readily dismissed by subject matter experts at the time who continue to provide political explanations for shortcomings of the NBN. Technical experts using politics as an excuse. Where is the scholarly thought in such explanations?

Consider scientific reasoning in the utility of the universal versus the particular (or in this case, local) from Shapin (1998, p. 5): philosophers were willing to acknowledge that the production of scientific ideas was thoroughly bound up with the psychologically idiosyncratic and the culturally variable, they nevertheless insisted that the context of justification - the transformation of idea into knowledge - was a matter of context-free reason and logic.

Context-free reason and logic. And here is the first issue with being a subject matter expert rather than a scholar. See how I did that? Above I argued that the particular was more important than the universal in communications technologies, but now I am going to argue that the universal is more important than the particular. Let me explain.

This is rather abstract but there's something in the argument by Stilpo of the Megarian School about the universal being separate from the individual and concrete and the Siva Sutra 1.16 about the Great Point and the One Reality which is our consciousness and universal. There's also something from James Allen (2007, p. 24) about our environment being our mirror, whereas Sutra 1.16 admits that environment can help or hinder the process of union with the divine (see Worthington 2016, pp. 27-28).

In my "varieties of particularism" explanation above, I used the techniques of scientific method in a quasi-experimental, most similar systems design comparison of Australia and Canada holding communications technology outcomes as the dependent variable with institutions as the independent variable. I also adopted a consistent method of process tracing to compare the two countries over time. I used context-free reason and logic to arrive at a conclusion. I did not have a preconceived conclusion, although I did have a hypothesis that I tested using the above approach.

Now consider the subject matter expert. All of my work is poppycock and if only the Coalition had kept the original NBN model introduced by Labor then all would be well.

Subject matter experts have their place and some subject matter experts have their place in the academy. But I am increasingly concerned that we are all being forced to become subject matter experts who can provide a simple answer to a complex problem for people who are not subject matter experts.

My point is that the bureaucratic pressures of the contemporary academy are influencing our thinking, and it is hard to resist. The three-minute thesis competition is the antithesis of scholarly behaviour. Three minutes? Please! In an era of complexity, such parsimony, or "Occam's Razor", if you will, is tantamount to the stupidity that we are seeing played out in daily global politics.

There are parts of me that want to excel and other parts that want to rebel against the system. But what am I bucking against? I keep thinking there is no temporal aspect, the past has been forgotten, the classics are but facsimiles of misinterpretations, and that scholars are pretending to be journalists. So what is it to be a scholar?

When I went searching for the "scholarly tradition", all I could find were references to Confucianism. Interestingly, the Scholarly Tradition is what Confucianism ought to be known as, but the European neologism has stuck!

I then turned to the Enlightenment Tradition, and I was surprised to find I have been fooled by the myth of the "hidden hand" (Anchor 1979, p. xii):

This myth assumed that there was a basic harmony of interests among men in the long run, and it was only necessary to release everyone to pursue freely his own self-interest in order to realize a harmonious social order, similar to that which reigned in nature... that unity resulted "naturally" from diversity...

As I tend to do, I favour Rousseau's approach (Anchor 1979, p. xvii): 

...if a man wanted a better life than he had, he could not depend upon some transhistorical agency to provide it for him; he would have to create it himself, in pain and suffering, and on behalf of a morality that honored the inner man as well as the outer.

Here I find myself getting closer to my issue with the bureaucracy. How do I honour my inner self? Is it even relevant if as a political scientist I ought to be using "context-free reason and logic" in my work?

I turn now to Emerson and the Transcendentalists:

They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe”... The transcendentalists operated from the start with the sense that the society around them was seriously deficient...

This is what I see. In architecture, the gig economy, in medium to high density living, in food production, in having to physically be at work to ensure one's mental health. I see unthinking conformity and unoriginality. 

I went on one of my most comprehensive journeys of self-discovery recently and found three things I value most: love, freedom, and learning (Dilectio Libertas et Doctrina). I think I can honour my inner self using these values as a guide.

But I can also use reason and logic to change, either myself or my perception. If success is being promoted in the current academy, then I will have to stop honouring my inner self. If I want to honour my inner self, then my perception of success must change. I have the freedom to choose!

If I were to be a subject matter expert in, for example, transport and telecommunication policy, then I would not need to travel on this journey of self-discovery. Instead, I choose to use reason and logic to dispel the myth of the "hidden hand" as a justification for the way I choose to work. I can also choose to work in accordance with my own sense of purpose.

Would a subject matter expert need to think through all that? Could a subject matter expert, using their knowledge of a particular subject, encourage transformative experiences in their students? Could they guide a student in honouring their inner self? Or would it be in accordance with their expert opinion?

I would rather be a scholar.


Allen, J. (2007/1920). As A Man Thinketh. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Anchor, R. (1979). The Enlightenment Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

De Percy, M.A. (2012). Connecting the Nation: An historical institutionalist explanation for divergent communications technology outcomes in Canada and Australia. Doctoral Thesis, The Australian National University, Canberra. DOI: 10.25911/5d514f57acdb6.

Shapin, S. (1998). Placing the View from Nowhere: Historical and Sociological Problems in the Location of Science. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 5-12.

Worthington, R. (2016). A Study of the Siva Sutras: Finding the Hidden Self. Allahabad: Himalayan Institute India.