Honest brokers: The politics of expertise in the "who Lost China?" Debate

Gary Alan Fine*, Bin Xu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Complex social systems require knowledge specialists who provide information that political actors rely on to solve policy challenges. Successful advice is unproblematic; more significant is assigning institutional blame in the aftermath of advice considered wrong or harmful, undercutting state security. How do experts, operating within epistemic communities, preserve their reputation in the face of charges of incompetence or malice? Attacks on experts and their sponsors can be an effective form of contentious politics, a wedge to denounce other institutional players. To examine the politics of expertise we analyze the debate in the early 1950s over "Who Lost China?," the congressional attempt to assign responsibility for the fall of the Nationalist regime to the Communists. Using a "strong case," we examine political battles over the motives of Professor Owen Lattimore. For epistemic authority an expert must be defined as qualified (having appropriate credentials), influential (providing consequential information), and innocent (demonstrating epistemic neutrality). We focus on two forms of attack: Smears (an oppositional presentation of a set of linked claims) and degradation ceremonies (the institutional awarding of stigma). We differentiate these by the critic's links to systems of power. Smears appear when reputational rivals lack power to make their claims stick, while degradation ceremonies operate through dominance within an institutional setting. Policy experts are awarded provisional credibility, but this access to an autonomous realm of knowledge can be countered by opponents with alternate sources of power. Ultimately expertise involves not only knowledge, but also the presentation of a validated self.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)593-614
Number of pages22
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2011


  • China
  • Communism
  • Expertise
  • Politics
  • Reputation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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