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Title: Online challenges to institutional expert authority: the cases of English Heritage and The Royal Society
Authors: Mikhailov, Danil
Advisors: Degen, M
Sharma, S
Keywords: Digital;Socio-technical authority;Algorithm;Algorithmic authority;Online communities of practice
Issue Date: 2018
Publisher: Brunel University London
Abstract: Academic experts are increasingly challenged online due to rapid advances in communication technology. Their role as gate-keepers to knowledge is seemingly being usurped, and their authority appears to be undermined by new players, such as bloggers, activists and online communities of practice. This thesis investigates challenges experienced online by two UK expert institutions, English Heritage, the public body with responsibility over historic buildings, and the Royal Society, the national academy of sciences. Participant observation and qualitative interviews with nine key individuals from these two institutions allowed for a detailed picture of online contests between the experts and their rivals to be built; from social media crises, to attempts by the institutions to wrestle with unfamiliar platforms and establish a rapport with online communities. I used a conceptual framework grounded in Foucault’s (1976, 1977) notion of knowledge and power networks, and Bourdieu’s (1972) account of the exchange of cultural and other types of capital across fields, to give shape to the empirical data. The focus in existing literature on the experience of individual researchers online, rather than that of expert institutions misses out much of the public engagement role of the latter, which means that institutions find themselves locked in to contests online where individual experts may avoid them. This leads to different patterns of behaviour not well covered in existing literature. Examining the behaviour of institutional experts therefore allows this thesis to address a gap in current understanding of the ways expert authority can be challenged online. The key contribution this thesis makes to scholarly debate is the identification of a range of new forms of capital that have far more efficacy in supporting expert authority online than traditional forms of capital like qualifications and number and quality of publications. These new forms of capital include: algorithmic capital, determining findability of information; time capital, determining the speed of exchange, and; an online version of social capital, determining the success of engagement with online communities. Being in possession of this new capital online lends an expert or their challenger a new kind of authority that I term socio-technical authority. The thesis concludes that this new socio-technical authority will accelerate the disruption of the industry of expert knowledge production. It will enable new groups to claim rival expertise and possibly take control of the experts’ original role as gate-keepers to knowledge for the general public. However, institutional experts can respond to the challenge by learning to make use of socio-technical authority themselves.
Description: This thesis was submitted for the award of Doctor of Philosophy and was awarded by Brunel University London
Appears in Collections:Sociology
Dept of Social and Political Sciences Theses

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