Social Justice Usage
Source: The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition, p. 1.
Epistemic injustice refers to those forms of unfair treatment that relate to issues of knowledge, understanding, and participation in communicative practices. These issues include a wide range of topics concerning wrongful treatment and unjust structures in meaning-making and knowledge producing practices, such as the following: exclusion and silencing; invisibility and inaudibility (or distorted presence or representation); having one’s meanings or contributions systematically distorted, misheard, or misrepresented; having diminished status or standing in communicative practices; unfair differentials in authority and/or epistemic agency; being unfairly distrusted; receiving no or minimal uptake; being coopted or instrumentalized; being marginalized as a result of dysfunctional dynamics; etc.
New Discourses Commentary
The term “epistemic injustice” originates with Miranda Fricker in 2007, although the concept it belongs to, the belief that some people are unjustly denied credibility or systematically misunderstood, is much older. Fricker sought to explain various ways that members of marginalized or oppressed groups are unjustly devalued in their status as knowers and thus not taken seriously. She argued that this can occur in all areas of life and, when in education, can cramp people’s self-development and prevent them from becoming who they really are. Epistemic injustice is considered particularly serious and relevant to Critical Social Justice in terms of how marginalized people share information that is relevant to their lived experience of marginalization or oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism/disableism, homophobia, fatphobia, or transphobia).
According to Fricker, epistemic injustice occurs any time a member of a marginalized group fails to be considered authoritative because of their identity or positionality, so the presence of “identity prejudice” is central to epistemic injustice. Further, she explains that people may not be conscious of having any bias and hold prejudiced ideas without realizing them (see also, implicit bias). They, therefore, have a responsibility to be aware of this probability and consciously mitigate it (see also, critical consciousness and antiracism). Fricker outlined two specific types of epistemic injustice: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. These have since been adapted by black feminist and Theorist Kristie Dotson in her work on epistemic oppression (see also, epistemic violence).
Testimonial injustice (see, testimonial injustice) occurs specifically when such a person’s testimony about their lived experience is not considered authoritative, for example when it is answered with something like, “that’s just your interpretation of the experience.” Hermeneutical injustice (see, hermeneutical injustice) occurs when the set of interpretive tools is considered too poor to allow members of minoritized groups to properly make sense of their own lived experience. For example, being forced to explain sexual harassment before that term was properly introduced to the English-speaking lexicon would constitute a form of hermeneutical injustice because the shared means of interpretation (our vocabulary) didn’t have a term that clearly expressed the problematic experience. That is, women were put at a further disadvantage because it was difficult or impossible to explain their important lived experiences. Another example might be asking members of minoritized racial groups to explain racism through data and science (say, rather than through experience, anecdotal storytelling, and emotion—see also, counterstory), which is sometimes considered within the Theory of Critical Social Justice to be a specifically white, male, Eurocentric, Western tool, might be considered a form of hermeneutical injustice (although this example is more likely to be considered a form of irreducible epistemic oppression—see below).
Though the concept of epistemic injustice has been profoundly fundamental in many regards in terms of shaping Critical Social Justice scholarship—especially epistemology—through the 2010s, and though it has been drawn upon by many other significant scholars working in these realms of thought, it is also considered a problematic concept in its own right because of the way Fricker formulated it. Fricker, and also José Medina following her, described the concept mostly in terms of individuals doing injustice to other individuals this way and sought to counter these problems by encouraging the development of certain epistemic virtues that could correct for the problem. This solution is, of course, both too individualistic and practical for Critical Social Justice, which demands that all problems of this type be thought of in terms of group power dynamics and to be broadly incurable. In fact, the very idea of cultivating epistemic virtues to counteract the problematics of epistemic injustice is itself problematic, as it suggests that individuals can see outside of their own prejudices and engage with them intellectually, thus diminishing the power of lived experiences and dominant discourses. This is unacceptable in Critical Social Justice today.
In 2014, black feminist Kristie Dotson “corrected” for this problem in the Critical Social Justice epistemological literature with her concept of epistemic oppression, which is far more pessimistic. Dotson, drawing on a complexified interpretation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, argued not only that the fundamental “problems” with testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice are ultimately systemic in nature, but also that these two types of injustice fit within a broader constellation of three “orders” of epistemic oppression. Testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice, rendered more definitely systemic in nature in Dotson’s formulation, constitute the first and second orders of epistemic oppression, respectively. The third order is considered “irreducible” by Dotson and believed to be a fundamentally unjust feature of the “knowing field” itself. This essentially makes the claim that those in marginalized, oppressed, or minoritized groups cannot be understood by those in dominant groups because the epistemic system does not allow for it, thus demanding a revolution in the entire epistemic system that unmakes this problem (see also, disrupt, dismantle, and deconstruct).
Ableism; Antiracism; Bias; Black feminism; Counterstory; Critical; Critical consciousness; Deconstruction; Disableism; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Eurocentric; Fatphobia; Hermeneutical injustice; Homophobia; Identity; Implicit bias; Individualism; Injustice; Knower; Lived experience; Marginalization; Minoritize; Misogyny; Oppression; Positionality; Privilege; Power (systemic); Problematic; Racism (systemic); Science; Sexism (systemic); Social Justice; Testimonial injustice; Theory; Transphobia; Western; White
Revision date: 7/13/20