Thinking about social roles

Flooded field near the Port Meadow

While sitting in Starbucks and walking home – the cold seems to have frozen my bicycle lock – I have been thinking about three social roles relevant to my thesis; I shall call them the ‘Pure Advocate’, the ‘Pure Expert’, and the ‘Hybrid’ roles. Each type of actor has an important part to play, in the determination of policy, and each treats information and preferences in ways conditioned by their social role. For the purposes of this discussion, they are ideal characters who reflect only their assumed or assigned roles and not their own interests in any other way.

Legitimacy and the Pure Advocate

The Pure Advocate (PA) represents the ‘legitimacy’ side of my thesis. By necessity, they have one or more principal, for whom they serve as an agent. It is important that they are more than just an amalgamator of preferences. Having a Member of Parliament is not the same as having a robot who conducts polls and then votes in accordance with the wishes of constituents. The reasons for that are several:

  1. No advocate can simultaneously serve all the interests of their principles
  2. Advocates engage in activities that transcend a single decision. Voting the party line most of the time, for instance, may be an action necessary to be performed in order to become or remain an effective representative
  3. Principles may not have the time or ability to actually identify their preferences with regards to all issues.

The PA defends their autonomy on the basis of some kind of system of auditing. Most straightforwardly, this involves periodic re-evaluation by the principals, in the form of something like an election. It is the maintenance of uncoerced support in such trials that establishes the effectiveness with which a PA is cleaving to their role.

The Pure Expert

The Pure Expert (PE) has no principles: their role is not representative. Rather, the PE has understanding of a corpus of knowledge to which most people have either limited or no knowledge. Examples of such bodies include law, military strategy, or environmental science. One important difference between the PA and the PE is that the PA is permitted to be strategic: they are allowed to manipulate information and situations so as to benefit their principals, constrained only by the need to remain an endorsed representative.

As with the PA, the extent to which a PE conforms to a social role is determined through a process of auditing. Here, however, that process depends upon rules, methods, and procedures that are developed and evaluated in an ongoing way by a community of PEs. This is as true for jurisprudence as it is for scientific knowledge.

Just as the PA plays a role well or badly vis a vis the perception of principles, a PE plays a role well or badly as viewed by a community of peers. While, in some cases, the views of that community may bear relation to externally verifiable phenomena (such as empirical facts of nature), that need not be the case.

Hybrid roles

This is the interesting one. For an example, think of a lawyer. A lawyer has one or more principals and bears a special obligation towards them. A lawyer’s role centres around duties that are assigned, with regards to their conduct on behalf of a principal. At the same time, lawyers are part of a community of peers with certain important standards. It is not legitimate to destroy evidence or physically threaten judges, so as to obtain a benefit for your client. As such, those in Hybrid roles are subject to both of the forms of auditing presented above.

Doctors and, more relevantly, politicians fall into this camp. In a democratic system predicated upon the rule of law, it is not legitimate for an elected representative to secure benefits for constituents by illegal means, even when doing so secures no personal benefit. Among doctors, it is illegitimate to kill one patient, even if organs could be harvested that might save several, because those actions overstep the boundaries of appropriate conduct that are embedded in the social role.


Naturally, I am thinking about global environmental policymaking, in the formulation of the above model. There are a number of ways whereby the particular conditions of environmental policymaking complicate the formula above. The two biggest have to do with uncertainty and the interests of future generations.

Uncertainty plays a part in both the PA and the PE role. The PA faces uncertainty about what the preferences of principals really are, or would be if conditions arose that required them to form. The PA also faces uncertainty about the effectiveness of their own actions in securing outcomes that correspond to those preferences. Finally, the PA faces the problem of conflicting preferences: especially those involving near and certain costs that attach to distant and uncertain benefits. Faced with a preference for economic growth today and environmental integrity in the future, how does a PA reach a balance?

Uncertainty for the PE is likewise somewhat multifaceted. In situations where expertise relates to real phenomena (like the tensile strength of metal alloys), there may be uncertainty about the quality of understanding within the PE community or the ways in which different elements of a system will affect one another. A PE faces uncertainty about the effect the melting of the north polar ice cap would have upon rainfall and agricultural production, for instance. Then, both PEs in areas relating to real phenomena and those working with constructed phenomena (like law) can face uncertainty about the “rules, methods, and procedures that are developed and evaluated in an ongoing way by [their] community of PEs.” This becomes particularly acute when there are agents who are working to distort or manipulate those structures for their own benefit.

The interests of future generations are problematic because they do not have any direct bearing on policymaking. While people undoubtedly care about the welfare of their descendants, and perhaps even that of strangers who will subsequently inhabit the planet, they may not manifest those preferences strongly enough to adequately represent the interests of future generations. Also, since the interests of future generations cannot be directly known, present decisions can perhaps be better seen as either opening up greater possibilities for them to make their own choices, or constraining those possibilities by locking them into decisions we make now.

Social roles can be defined and combined to make systems more perfect than would be attainable using undifferentiated actions. The criminal legal system is a prime example: by making people act as prosecutors, jurors, judges, expert witnesses, and defense attorneys, we achieve a more rigorous and effective mechanisms for achieving certain ends that would be possible using an equal number of people given less defined (but identically motivated) roles. How roles can be established and balanced to deal with global environmental questions is something to which a great deal of thought should be directed.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Thinking about social roles”

  1. The following is a bit of a corollary to this post:

    Is there a formula anyone can think of that will give the number of people who will live over a time period, based on the following?

    Initial population size
    Mean births per unit time
    Rate of change in mean births per unit time
    Mean lifetime
    Standard deviation of lifetime

    I am trying to work out approximately how many people will live in the next 100 years. It would be useful to be able to say something like: “More people will live in the next X years than in all the history of humanity so far.”

  2. The notion of a “pure expert” is a bit of a straw man, another reason why the lack of phil of science will hurt your thesis.

  3. Tristan,

    All three are straw men. The purpose isn’t to be an effective representation of roles people actually play, but rather an idealization of such roles, so as to begin the discussion.

    The main purpose of this is to come up with robust definitions of ‘expertise’ and ‘legitimacy’ to use in the introduction.

  4. But by 2002, Dr. McBean had crossed that self-imposed boundary and become an advocate, one of a growing number of scientists whose warnings about the dangers of global warming have become more passionate — and more personal.


  5. Should scientists act as advocates on [the climate change] issue?

    MacCracken: If you want to avoid dangerous or catastrophic kinds of consequences such as the loss of Greenland, you’ve to get on a path where emissions from developed countries are going down by around 80% by 2050. You have to do that. And we’ll have to get developing countries to go along as they can, and go down further after that. So I think scientists need to speak out very clearly on the exact details of what the policies are.

    Pershing: I think that the scientific community has been under-represented in the dialogue and has taken a pass when it should have taken a step forward. It has basically proposed that others know better as to what should be done, and that’s not evident. If we take the past 20 years where there has been complete and total inaction, the scientific community in the first IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] assessment report laid out explicitly the nature of the problem and made proposals as to what ought to be done. Twenty years later, very little has happened. So I suggest the scientific community needs to be much more aggressive.

    Braithwaite: I think in an ideal world, they shouldn’t have to be advocates; their voice should be heard anyway. When their voice isn’t being heard, then that’s a different situation. I’m not going to comment on the United States, but in the United Kingdom, I think if we tried to put together public policy without basing it on the best available science, we’d get ourselves into trouble very quickly.

    Grumet: The one other point that I will make is that, in our system, there is such a profound notion of there being two sides to every issue. I think where the scientific community finally rose up with some outrage — and outrage among scientists is kind of modest annoyance among the rest of us — was when the real scientific community was fully convinced of the basics of the ecological reality, but there were one or two folks out there pushing a different [sceptical] side. Yet the situation would be consistently set up as one scientist thinks this and the other scientist thinks something different. And finally I think about a year ago the scientific communities kind of got fed up with that.

  6. “Back in 2000 my friend and colleague Mark Lynas asked a simple but highly relevant question at a public meeting addressed by Professor Mike Hulme, the head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. “If, as you have argued, the Amazon may burn down adding a further 3 degrees to global climate, that’s curtains for all of us, isn’t it?” This is exactly the kind of question one is never supposed to ask, and Hulme responded energetically to deflate it. “I do not think it is appropriate or useful for us to bang our drum about this- we need to use this information to generate a dialogue about our future options”. He didn’t answer the question because, dialogue or no dialogue, Mark was right. It is curtains, and scientists are remarkably unwilling to ever say this even when the conclusion could be solidly supported by their own data.

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