The Construction of Expertise and the Case of Mesmerism in Early Victorian Britain
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This is an historical study of how expertise is constructed in discourse within the context of the controversy surrounding mesmerism in early Victorian Britain. Steven Shapin has argued that since expertise does not extend unambiguously from knowledge of the truth about the world, it is the processes and techniques through which scientific experts construct their claims as credible within particular historical contexts which should be the focus of investigation (2010). Mesmerism has been identified as a predecessor to psychology and thus as a valuable area in which to investigate issues relating to scientific authority (Lamont, 2010). This study explores the situated nature of expertise in relation to the example of mesmerism through examining primary sources relating to important figures involved within this dispute. The first case study examines John Elliotson’s and James Esdaile’s respective attempts to secure their mesmeric expertise within the professional environment of the medical institution and focuses upon how the venue of the hospital is discussed within their attempts to construct their expertise and counter opposing discourses which stressed mesmerism’s unsuitability within this setting. The second case study explores James Wombell’s painless amputation and Harriet Martineau’s recovery from invalidism through mesmerism in terms of the contrasting manner in which their lay testimonies were utilised to construct expertise. It is argued that how expertise is constructed is shaped by the dynamic of particular disputes and how such disputes are brought to a close reflects the social and historical environment in which they occur.