Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing

In preparation for Carter School Peace Week, I read Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Fricker is  current a Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The book provides an ethical philosophical argument for one of the most important aspects of sensemaking- allowing people to describe and interpret their experiences themselves. 

Before I get into the discussion on Fricker’s conception of justice, I’d like to provide a little background of why the ethical argument interests me. Around this time last year, I wrote a long blog with some reflections on how to achieve social justice in the United States. The post was a reckoning with my position within systems and trying to grapple with what was the morally right thing for me to do with my time. You can read that post here. Part of my critique of some social justice movements in the United States now is that they take a liberal approach. The theory of change is about educating people so that they can recognize their internal bias, and then decide to behave better once they know how systems of oppression work. This is where Fricker’s argument ends, and where I’m hoping to improve it through complexity-informed conflict methods aided by SenseMaker. Alongside this theory is the idea that to resolve things like racial conflict, the narrative of activists has to be ‘centered’ or universally adopted. This has largely been successful, as large companies have begun to co-opt #blacklivesmatter branding. However, what is unclear to me is if conditions- both material and cultural- have actually become better. Adopting the aesthetic and narrative of social justice has become the metric for success in some circles, but saying the right words doesn’t get you far enough in my opinion. I’m glossing over some nuances here for the sake of the blog format.

The complexity-informed conflict resolution approach seeks to contribute to social justice, but through an alternative theory of change. However, to be clear, just because I’m taking an alternative approach doesn’t mean that other work is not important or that I don’t think that changing people’s minds are important. I’m searching for ways to bake in concepts like epistemic justice into the participatory sensemaking process, so that people are behaving ethically by nature of participating. In this sense, by designing the process ethically is meant to ensure that people are acting within ethical constraints. I hope to get the following results: 

  1. People share experiences based on whatever is important to them in their lives and get to interpret their story without researchers adding an additional layer of interpretation. 
  2. People who share their experience get to view their story in context with other people in their community and get to use the SenseMaker.
  3. By creating a new avenue for knowledge creation through peoples’ self-interpreted experiences, decision-makers take marginalized groups more seriously and, most importantly center experience in decision-making.

Fricker defines two types of epistemic injustice: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. Here is the definition: “Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.”[1]

To sum up, there are two types of injustice- one where the speaker is not taken seriously because of their social identity, and another when inequality of resources means that people are deprived from making sense of reality. From these injustices, people are harmed because: 

  1. We miss out on truth and there are “blockages in the circulation of critical ideas”[2]
  2. Being trusted to know things is an essential human value, and it is dehumanizing when society believes you ‘do not know things’[3]
  3. Prejudice and stereotypes that cause testimonial injustice can create a casual loop (like a self-fulling prophecy) because the speaker might lose confidence in ‘their truth’ or beliefs and cease to share their knowledge. [4]This is called Stereotype Threat.
  4. People cannot understand/communicate things about the ‘concrete situation’ that would be in their interest to understand. 

Because Fricker is a philosopher, she creates corresponding virtues that would mitigate this epistemic harm. In her eyes, hearers need to recognize systemic inequalities, and train their own “sensibilities” so that they can “neutralize the impact of structural identity prejudice on one’s credibility judgement.”[5] As I said at the beginning of the blog, the theory of change with this position is either educating people so they can be better or increasing the experiences they have that cause them to be more virtuous (in situations of testimonial injustice). 

From the structural perspective, the more interesting concept to me is the harm of hermeneutical marginalization (not having the resources to understand reality), which reminds me of the work of liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró who wrote about how public opinion surveys can grant people access to reality free from distortions that secure the power of dictatorships like in El Salvador.[6] Getting a grip on what is happening in reality is important! In Chapter 5 of the book, Fricker develops this idea of the state of nature and why knowledge creation is important for human society in the first place. She summaries into three points: 

  1. Need to possess enough truths (and not too many falsehoods) to facilitate survival
  2. The need to participate in epistemic practice whereby information is shared and pooled
  3. The need to encourage dispositions in individual that will stabilizes relations of trust.[7]

It’s a few weeks since I initially read the book, and it has become more interesting to me as I’ve mulled over the relationship of the ethical dilemma to the virtue that arise out of the state of nature- Accuracy and Sincerity. [8] What we can start to do is align the ethical imperative for justice with the methods for knowing. Part of what I hope to provide with complexity-informed conflict resolution is the argument that diversity and equity are actually essential to survival (in the grand sense) and that taking marginalized groups’ experiences seriously by letting people interpret their own experiences is not only morally right, but also central to making better decisions and navigating complexity. In simple language, I’m putting energy into creating a way for people to share their experience, say what it means for them, and ensure that the resulting database can be used by everyone (regardless of social identity) to get a better grip on what is going on. Next week, the blog will be on Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making approach from the field of communication. In that post, I plan to draw back to some of the critiques that lead to Dervin’s methodological innovation and tie it to the overall project of achieving justice through sensemaking approaches.

Sign up for Carter School Peace Week

If you’d like to learn more about how I’m applying these concepts with SenseMaker at the Carter School Peace Engineering Lab, sign up to attend my Peace Week event on Thursday at 10:00AM EST. We will be designing SenseMaker questions around racial conflict in the United States in an interactive emergent design format. 

Sign up with Eventbrite here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/spring-peace-week-sensemaker-design-workshop-achieving-epistemic-justice-tickets-144734098585

[1] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, 1st edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 1. 

[2] Fricker. 43.

[3] Fricker. 55.

[4] Fricker. 55.

[5] Fricker. 173.

[6] Ignacio Martín-Baró, Adrianne Aron, and Shawn Corne, Writings for a Liberation Psychology, 2. print (Cambridge, Mass. London: Harvard Univ. Pr, 1994). Chapter 11- Public Opinion Research as a De-ideologizing Instrument [translated by Jean Carroll and Adrianne Aron]. The third section of the book talks about the role of “de-ideologizing” reality. Thanks to Nick Sherwood for recommending me this book!

[7] Fricker. 109-111.

[8] Fricker. 116.