Defining expertise and legitimacy


in M.Phil thesis, Oxford, Writing

I am presently working on the draft introduction for my thesis: Expertise and Legitimacy: the Role of Science in Global Environmental Policy-Making. Given the title, it is essential to get the definitions of ‘expertise’ and ‘legitimacy’ right. Here’s what I have so far:

‘Expertise’ and ‘legitimacy’ are terms in need of further discussion. For the purposes of this thesis, each is being assigned a specific meaning less exhaustive than the full range of connotations in normal language.

‘Expertise’ is taken to mean: “the possession of skills that allow for a greater ability to understand the nature of the world, particularly in ways that allow it to be more effectively altered. The latter criterion is important because it distinguishes science – which ultimately allows for the development of new technologies – from endeavours like philosophy, which may yield greater understanding of the world, but do not do so in ways that generate new ways of physically interacting with it.”

‘Legitimacy’ is taken to mean: “the property of being seen as empowered to take decisions that impact others, on the basis of their active consent, a theoretically based political authority, or a combination of the two. The possession of legitimacy is necessarily both subjective and normative in character.”

In brief, when asked to justify their seats at the negotiating table, those with expertise will do so with reference to what they can reveal about the world and how human beings can act within it; those with legitimacy will do so with reference to the people they are representing, the theory that justifies such delegation, and material demonstrations that their theoretical support is manifest in practice (for instance, through elections).

One thing that I mean to do in the introduction is flag the most important contested terms and either provide a brief explanation, like the one above, or refer to the place in the thesis where I will do so. For instance, the idea of an environmental ‘problem’ is being discussed at the beginning of Chapter 2: “Problem identification and investigation.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 27, 2007 at 6:46 pm



a. Expert opinion or knowledge, often obtained through the action of submitting a matter to, and its consideration by, experts; an expert’s appraisal, valuation, or report.

b. The quality or state of being expert; skill or expertness in a particular branch of study or sport.


Of a government or the title of a sovereign: The condition of being in accordance with law or principle. Now often, with respect to a sovereign’s title, in a narrower sense: The fact of being derived by regular descent; occas. the principle of lineal succession to the throne, as a political doctrine.

Conformity to rule or principle; lawfulness. In Logic, conformity to sound reasoning.

Scott Davy January 28, 2007 at 12:38 am

Ah legitimacy in IR, the bane of my apparently constructivist existence…
Two great books on the subject listed below. I was sent on a similar quest a couple weeks ago.
The classic work on the term has got to be Thomas Franck’s The Power of Legitimacy Among Nations (which judging by your working definition you may have already read, since it is fairly similar to that which he provides on p: 24 of the 1990 edition)
I was also referred to Ian Clark’s Legitimacy in International Society and could write both author’s working definitions but it wouldn’t do justice to the books which, if you have time, are vital reads.
Sounds like you’re doing some great work, keep it up!


Anon @ Wadh January 29, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Is ‘expertise’ simply the possession of skills, or is it important to be part of a specialist community?

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