April 1, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

The well-informed citizen

Last week Greg Hollin sent me an interesting article by Charles Taylor on Latour and metaphor which was an enjoyalbe read, as it sparkles with word play from the title onwards. However, this is not what I want to write about. When reading the article I happened to glance at a footnote mentioning an old article by Alfred Schütz entitled ‘The Well-Informed Citizen’ (1946). I have written about the joys of reading old stuff before (especially Ziman and Bronowski), so this post ties in with that theme. I have also written about conceptual issues around citizens, publics, citizen science and scientific citizenship. So my post ties in with these themes as well.

But first, an admission: I had not heard about this article before, which belies my sociological ignorance! I would like others to avoid this gap in their knowledge; so what I’ll be doing here is extract some highlights from the article. I recommend though that people read the whole article themselves. It is written in language that anybody can understand and has no footnotes or other extraneous embellishments. The article is important I think, as it provides insights into issues around knowledge, expertise and citizenship which might be forgotten in the more modern literature on the relationship between science, politics and publics.

“The well-informed citizen” (1946)

Alfred Schütz (1899-1959) was a social scientist and philosopher of social science who wrote about the mundane ‘life-world’ or world of lived experience which was changing drastically during his life-time; changes that also affected the nature of knowledge and expertise. (When reading the following extracts, please keep in mind that this was written in 1946! I have boldened some key passages)

The article begins with a thesis that is even more relevant now than it was in 1946: “The outstanding feature of a man’s life in the modern world is his conviction that his life-world as a whole is neither fully understood by himself or fully understandable to any of his fellow men”.

Schütz works from the assumption that knowledge is socially distributed and that “the mechanism of this distribution can be made the subject matter of a sociological discipline”. He sees his article as “one modest step in this direction. Its purpose is to investigate what motives prompt grown-up men living their everyday life in our modern civilization to accept unquestioningly some parts of the relatively natural concept of the world handed down to them and to subject other parts to question.”

He distinguishes between three ideal types which have however very fuzzy boundaries and people can switch between these at any time: the expert, the man on the street and the well-informed citizen. What distinguishes them in terms of knowledge, access to knowledge and the use they make of that knowledge?

The expert

“The expert’s knowledge is restricted to a limited field but therein it is clear and distinct. His opinions are based upon warranted assumptions; his judgements are not mere guesswork or loose suppositions.”

The person in the street

“The man on the street has a working knowledge of many fields which are not necessarily coherent with one another. His is a knowledge of recipes indicating how to bring forth in typical situations typical results by typical means. The recipes indicate procedures which can be trusted even though they are not clearly understood.”

The well-informed citizen

The well-informed citizen “stands between the ideal type of the expert and that of the man on the street. On the one hand, he neither is, nor aims at being, possessed of expert knowledge; on the other, he does not acquiesce in the fundamental vagueness of a mere recipe knowledge or in the irrationality of his unclarified passion and sentiments. To be well informed means to him to arrive at reasonably founded opinions in fields which as he knows are at least mediately of concern to him although not bearing upon his purpose at hand.”

Interactions between the ideal types

“All three types thus roughly outlined are, of course, mere constructs devised for the purpose of the present investigation. As a matter of fact, each of us in daily life is at any moment simultaneously expert, well-informed citizen, and man on the street, but in each case with respect to different provinces of knowledge. Moreover, each of us knows that the same holds good for each of his fellow men and this very fact codetermines the specific type of knowledge employed. For example, for the man on the street it is sufficient to know that there are experts available for consultation should he need their advice in achieving his practical purpose in hand. His recipes tell him when to see a doctor or a lawyer, where to get needed information and the like. The expert, on the other hand, knows very well that only a fellow expert will understand all the technicalities and implications of a problem in his field and he will never accept a layman or dilettante as a competent judge of his performances. But it is the well-informed citizen who considers himself perfectly qualified to decide who is a competent expert and even to make up his mind after having listened to opposing expert opinions.”

The relation between government executive, technical adviser and public opinion

“Many phenomena of social life can be fully understood only if they are referred to the underlying general structure of the social distribution of knowledge thus outlined. This resource alone makes possible a sociological theory of professions, of prestige and competence, of charisma and authority, and leads to the understanding of such complicated social relationships as those existing among the performing artist, his public, and his critics, or among manufacturer, retailer, advertising agent, and consumer, or among the government executive, his technical adviser, and public opinion.”

The well-informed citizen thus becomes a mediator between the domains of science and politics, overcoming the limitations of both. To achieve this, the well-informed citizen needs to acquire ‘socially approved knowledge’.

Socially approved knowledge

Socially approved knowledge is the source of prestige and authority; it is also the home of public opinion. Only he is deemed to be an expert or a well-informed citizen who is socially approved as such. […] Polls, interviews, and questionnaires try to gauge the opinion of the man on the street […]. His opinion, which is public opinion as it is understood nowadays, becomes more and more socially approved at the expense of informed opinion and therefore imposes itself as relevant upon the better informed members of the community. A certain tendency to misinterpret democracy as a political institution in which the opinion of the uninformed man on the street must predominate increases the danger. It is the duty and the privilege, therefore, of the well-informed citizen in a democratic society to make his private opinion prevail over the public opinion of the man on the street.“

Implications for democracy

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out, this has implications for how modern societies deal with expertise: “Paradoxically, as modernity’s rationalization processes heighten anonymity, modern technology also brings everyone within reach, as the nuclear arms race demonstrates, and Schutz suggests as a solution that citizens become broadly informed rather than succumb to the narrow dogmatism of the man on the street or the short-sighted specialization of experts. In becoming well-informed, one depends on knowledge socially derived through the consultation of eyewitnesses, insiders, analysts, and commentators, depending on their access to facts […]. Schutz, usually the value-free describer of social reality, in his conclusion endorses a normative notion of democracy in which it is a duty and a privilege, frequently not available in non-democratic societies, for well-informed citizens to express and defend opinions that often conflict with the uninformed opinions of the man in the street.”

Is all this relevant for discussions about science and politics, experts, knowledge and publics? Let me know what you think!


Image of expertly crafted cakes spotted at the Covered Market, Oxford, before Easter 2015, taken by myself.




Posted in citizen sciencePoliticspublicsScience and Government