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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Culture of Knowledge: Constructing “Expertise” in Legal Debates on Marriage and Kinship for Same-Sex Couples in France and the United States

  • Author(s): Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, Michael
  • Advisor(s): Saguy, Abigail C
  • et al.

This dissertation asks how and why American and French decision-makers—and those striving to persuade them—use specific kinds of “experts” and “expertise” when debating if same-sex couples should have the right (or not) to marry and found families. To answer these questions, I analyze archival, interview, and ethnographic data to study “expertise”—conceived broadly—in media, legislative, and judicial debates on the U.S. state, U.S. federal, French, and European levels from 1990 to 2013. I find that, despite addressing the same issues, decision- makers draw on divergent categories of “experts” mobilizing types of knowledge that follow systematic cross-national patterns. For instance, French institutions hear professors and intellectuals who discuss gay family rights in the abstract while U.S. institutions hear ordinary citizens whose lived experiences ground academic testimony. Furthermore, some “expertise,” such as economics in the U.S. or psychoanalysis in France, is pervasive in one context but absent in the other. I argue that nationally specific patterns in “expertise” are due to embedded institutional logics, legal structures, and knowledge production fields that impact how information is produced, made available, and rendered legitimate nationally and historically.

Chapter 1 identifies the people U.S. and French newspapers cite and what they say. U.S. reporting prioritizes ordinary citizens and advocacy organizations using personal experience and legal expertise. In contrast, French reporting prioritizes intellectuals and professionals using psychoanalytic and anthropological concepts. Chapter 2 finds national differences in people testifying before legal and political institutions. In contrast to French legislatures, which draw on famous intellectuals, state agencies, and other elite actors, U.S. legislatures hear more ordinary citizens and activists. Courts, which are central to advancing gay rights in the U.S. but not France, combine personal testimony with empirical science from “expert witnesses.” Chapter 3 describes how these patterns are partly the result of the way lawyers and legislators navigate cultural and institutional constraints as they organize testimony. Chapter 4 explains how knowledge availability also depends on power and resource distribution in fields where academics and professionals work. Finally, Chapter 5 describes how experts’ access to decision- making institutions depends on the relationships they forge with organizations and lawmakers.

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