Carnegie Mellon University

Greening the Technical: An Analysis of Expertise in a Deliberative Democratic Forum

Author: Laura Schmidt
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2013

As environmental issues become increasingly complicated, increasingly dependent on advanced technology, and increasingly global in scale, rhetorical theory and environmental rhetoric have begun to deal with the challenges to democracy posed by these complex issues. Because deliberations on these issues often involve experts who have a privileged voice and position in the public sphere, investigation into the functions of expertise in deliberation on environmental topics can illuminate the role citizens can play in deliberations that involve technical topics and how citizens can find a voice and make decisions in technical deliberations. My study looks at how participants in an environmental deliberation construct expertise and the technical in a situation where experts are not explicitly defined. Specifically, I examine the deliberations of a group of Unitarian Universalists participating in a Green Sanctuary Committee (GSC) who are trying to make their church building and congregation more environmentally sustainable. I draw on discourse analysis and environmental rhetoric’s current theories of expertise to first examine how the GSC manual sets the stage for deliberation and recognizes certain forms of expertise, and then I analyze how participants construct expertise through interactions and handle the invocation of institutional expertise in their deliberations.
Using discourse analytic techniques to identify how expertise is constructed in this setting, my study enables a ground-up understanding of the use of expertise in local deliberation, providing a strong basis for environmental rhetoric’s theoretical views of expertise. I argue that these local deliberators constructed expertise either narratively or non-narratively and both with and without reference to institutions. Looking at expertise as it is constructed along these two axes may help to both understand and avoid the potentially negative rhetorical implications of expertise on democratic deliberations: expertise’s potential to shut down deliberation, to disenfranchise citizens without access to technical expertise, and to increase the voice of institutions at the expense of citizens.. My study of this GSC group suggests one possible method by which citizens without access to institutional expertise might craft for themselves a voice that is recognized and taken up in deliberations. Narratives that establish expertise could be used, in situations where inequalities inherent in the structure of deliberation are surmountable, to construct experience-based expertise through deliberation.