Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
05 March 2024


Deval Desai, Reader at Edinburgh Law School and former AHCD Postdoctoral Fellow, launches his new book at the event organized by the Centre.

Today, a transnational constellation of ‘rule of law’ experts advise on ‘good’ legal systems to countries in the Global South. Yet these experts often claim that the ‘rule of law’ is nearly impossible to define, and they frequently point to the limits of their own expertise.

On 26 February, a panel discussion marked the book launch of Expert Ignorance: The Law and Politics of Rule of Law Reform, in which Deval Desai, Reader in International Economic Law at the University of Edinburgh and former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, identifies this form of expertise as ‘expert ignorance’. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, Desai draws on insights from legal theory, sociology, development studies, and performance studies to explore how this paradoxical form of expertise works in practice.

In welcoming remarks, Gopalan Balachandran, Co-Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, noted Deval Desai was one of the inaugural Postdoctoral Fellows at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy.

In his book presentation, Deval Desai noted the book was about three things: the rule of law and what it does, particularly in the Global South; expertise, and what sort of expertise is generated by experts that deny the form and content of this expertise; and how to critique a particular contemporary form of authority. How do you understand a form of expertise that proclaims ignorance about the object of its expertise? The book tells, he noted, a theoretical story about this expertise as a form of aesthetic but also a methodological one, as the expertise can experience it as a form of theatre.

Anna Leander, Professor of International Relations/Political Science and Chair of the Department of International Relations/Political Science, Geneva Graduate Institute, noted the three core chapters about how “ignorant experts project the rule of law and do politics” and asked more about the role of material actors in this.

Paige Morrow, Senior Legal Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Research Associate, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, noted difficulties in defining the rule of law, including the book’s refusal to do so, yet drew on her experience with the United Nations to note that “we know when it isn’t there.”

Neus Torbisco-Casals, Senior Research Fellow, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and Adjunct Professor, International Law Department, Geneva Graduate Institute, lauded the book’s focus on indeterminacy and pluralism. She also underlined the need to deconstruct expert ignorance as a form of “institutional humility” and an inability to grasp the incommensurability of the rule of law in a still imperialistic system.


This title is available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.

Deval Desai, Expert Ignorance Book Launch