The Rhetoric of Expertise

E. Johanna Hartelius

In American culture, reliance on expertise has become so commonplace that it is virtually impossible to avoid. It is the way we delegate the contents of our busy lives and defer authority in the interest of being efficient. Conventional wisdom defines an expert as someone who knows more about a subject or can perform better than the average person. However, expertise is not simply about one person's skills being different from another's. It is also fundamentally contingent on a struggle for ownership and legitimacy. Thus, it is subject to rhetoric. S/he who succeeds in persuading the public that s/he is an expert and that s/he is a better expert than any alternative, earns credibility, acknowledgement and power. Experts argue for the legitimacy of what they do. They articulate their experiences persuasively and always in the context of a rhetorical contest. The public ultimately validates one form of expertise over the other. To be an expert is to gain sanctioned rights to a specific area of knowledge or experience.

Rhetoric of Expertise investigates how expertise is negotiated as a function of the rhetorical situation, its participants and constraints. It addresses important questions like, What rhetorical strategies do different groups employ to compete for expert authority and legitimacy when they conflict with one another? Each chapter focuses on a particular context-politics, history, medicine, and information. By demonstrating that expertise is managed through argumentation, The Rhetoric of Expertise informs a number of practical issues: how the nation's political world is run, why some forms of medical expertise are deemed credible while others are derided, what the differences are between historical scholarship and the memory of lived experience, and why new information producers are causing such a stir.


“E. Johanna Hartelius offers readers an exceptionally rich and lucid account of the theory and practice of the rhetoric of expertise. Her scholarship is wide-ranging and her analytical and critical talents are first rate. The Rhetoric of Expertise is one of the most instructive and clearly written assessments of the topic that I have ever read.”

—Michael J. Hyde, Wake Forest University