- First of all, could you tell us how you came to work on epistemic injustice and the path that led you to develop your two main categories of testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice?
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford (1985-88) in Philosophy and French (– I wish more of my French language had stayed with me since those days, but I am working on it!). In my philosophy courses, we studied standard topics of analytic philosophy, which tends to ask only the most abstract questions divorced from the social world (Do we really know anything? What is truth? Why be moral? What is it for one event to cause another?...) and there was nothing that identified itself as feminist philosophy. I however became very interested in certain lines of feminist thinking, and went on to do an interdisciplinary Masters degree in Women’s Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury (1989-90). It was there that I first read some feminist philosophy, and it was especially the feminist epistemological work that brought me back to do a doctorate in Philosophy back at Oxford.
The reason I applied to return to Oxford was the hope of studying with Sabina Lovibond, because I loved her brilliant work on feminism and postmodernism, and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to argue that the most relativistic lines of postmodernist thinking—in particular the idea that a true belief or a piece of knowledge only counts as true or as knowledge relative to the specific standards of the culture and time--were a false friend to feminism, on the grounds that anyone serious about social change—or even just serious about theorizing it in a realistic way—needs a rationale for saying that a given representation of reality that is delivered by the powerful and may count as knowledge in the culture is nonetheless false, or ideological, or otherwise distorted. (Think of the times when it was generally accepted as true that ‘Women are less logical than men’. This was false! even though it was generally considered to be true at the time.) And I felt that any epistemology – i. e. any theory of knowledge - that took away our commonsense idea of social fact as different from mere social construction was a ‘false friend’ in the sense that it appeared to be an exciting deconstructive tool, when in fact it was only good for deconstruction and no good for reconstruction. Feminist goals, I argued, needed tools of reconstruction that would enable us to say ‘the realities of women’s lives are very different from the ways they are depicted, and we demand more justice’. I believe the same fundamentally realistic modes of philosophy are also required to do a good job of thinking about poverty and its impact on people’s lives. It is essential to be able to say ‘this is how the experience/decisions/needs of poor people are commonly perceived, but our reality is different from that, and we demand more justice’.
- In your book Epistemic Injustice, you elaborate your reflection from examples and works that refer to racist or sexist discriminations essentially. In your opinion, is there a specificity of epistemic injustice that affects people living in poverty?
Yes, my working assumption was (and is) that all forms of social powerlessness carry significant risks of epistemic injustice, whether it’s related to race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, old age, or poverty, and so on. Of course, these categories intersect, creating many complex and overlapping modes of disadvantage or marginalization.
Given that Testimonial Injustice, as I defined it, is a matter of a prejudice depressing the level of credibility that a person’s utterance receives on a given occasion, and if we assume that any form of social powerlessness will tend to be subject to prejudice, then it follows that being poor is likely to be characterized by experiences of Testimonial Injustice.
One example of such prejudiced perception is the common idea that poor people typically ‘make bad decisions’ in relation to diet. They are sometimes perceived as failing to eat simple healthy foods like fresh vegetables. But this outsider’s perception may be prejudiced by ignorance of the constraints and pressures on people who may not own a functioning refrigerator, or whose unpredictable work hours mean they cannot reliably plan when they will eat, let alone cook using high-cost energy, so that fresh vegetables (if they are not, in addition, simply more expensive than processed foods) are at high-risk of being wasted. This is just one example of the hidden rationality of some styles of decision-making that can be misperceived by outsiders, where their ignorance of what it’s like to live without enough money to meet basic needs prejudices their perception of another human being and what they say.
If we think now about Hermeneutical Injustice—the other kind of epistemic injustice I characterize in the book—the connection with poverty is perhaps even more direct. Hermeneutical Injustice happens to me in a situation where I belong to a social group that under-contributes to the generation of shared concepts and social meanings (in relation to one or more areas of social experience), and where this under-contribution is so not by choice, but rather because of the operations of power. This situation I label ‘hermeneutical marginalization’. Now imagine me trying to describe an experience of mine, but where I am unable to bring the other person to understand it, because they do not share one or more of the necessary concepts. This is a case of Hermeneutical Injustice insofar as my lack of intelligibility across social space is no accident, and no choice on my part, but rather the result of my wrongfully elevated risk of unintelligibility, given the fact that I am hermeneutically marginalized.
Think of someone trying to bring up two children on their own under conditions of acute food insecurity. Perhaps she is living on state benefits, or UN aid. This is someone it would be appropriate to characterize as in a hermeneutically marginalized position, insofar as she does not contribute to shared social concepts and meanings equally with members of other groups, who may do so through their jobs as, let’s imagine, journalists, medical professionals, business people, or through social media. She just doesn’t have normal levels of opportunity to have this kind of micro-influence on the terms in which we all interpret the social world. And so when she tries to explain to the doctor that it is not possible for her to get more fresh vegetables into her children’s diet, and the doctor looks at her uncomprehendingly, this may be a case of Hermeneutical Injustice: her lack of intelligibility to the doctor is because the doctor does not share the set of social meanings necessary to understand her claim and her experience of compromised decision-making under food insecurity.
- In France, several studies show that people living in poverty, migrants for example, are faced with a constant injunction to tell their story; this can be violent and lead to the implementation of hyper-normalised scripts of existence. They thus increase a sense of dissociation with oneself - which characterizes many dominated subjectivities. This is, for example, an experience that people living in poverty in France regularly have in their relations with social workers. Do you think that these injunctions to tell one's story can produce epistemic injustices?
Yes, I think the example above about the mother trying to feed her family under conditions of food insecurity is perhaps an example of exactly this. If we imagine her now trying to explain her experience to a social worker, or a teacher at her children’s school, and we factor in the cultural differences of dietary needs and customs that an immigrant might have, then the possibilities for unfair hermeneutical disadvantage multiply. Once again, we are imagining her in a situation of trying to render her experience intelligible to someone who does not share enough of the same concepts and social meanings, and where this fact is in turn explained by her multiple hermeneutical marginalization. The result is an unfair deficit of intelligibility as she tries to explain herself, and there may be further practical negative results for her further down the line too – like being judged a negligent mother, which could be disastrous for her prospects within a system of social security, let alone for her own self-esteem and sense of social recognition. If she has solidarity in a community of her own, in which her experiences are well-understood because there are plenty of local or in-group concepts and interpretative ideas that enable her to share those experiences in the group (and perhaps share her communicative frustrations too), then she has some positive resources for self-esteem and confidence in her own ways of making sense of her life. But where this is not the case, where a person is isolated and lacks community, she may risk losing a firm sense of who she is. Hermeneutical isolation can be very challenging for anyone, but where it intersects with other kinds of powerlessness and disadvantage it magnifies the hardships of poverty in a manner that may be profoundly undermining to a person’s sense of self.
- What is your understanding of epistemic justice today? What forms should institutional changes take to promote it? Do you think that participative research, such as the merging of knowledge and practice promoted by ATD, can contribute to institutional changes in the fight against epistemic injustices, especially those affecting the poorest?
I think we should be pluralists about how best to increase epistemic justice in different institutional settings. Different situations may call for very different remedies, correctives, and precautions. Sometimes ideals of individual epistemic virtues can play a role—for a social worker, or a teacher, or a medical professional, the skills of listening and resisting patterns of prejudicial credibility attribution, for instance, are surely essential. (Ideally we possess such skills not merely in the moment but reliably through time and across different contexts because they are guided by good character traits; and when skills are stabilized in these ways, they count as virtues.) But more importantly, institutional procedures and processes need to be designed so that they nurture sound epistemic interactions.
The sort of participative research that you mention is surely essential to coming up with improved institutional design, and better services to those whose needs are greatest. An understanding of what it is like to live with poverty in one or another cultural context, and what the psychological pressures, emotional traumas, and deliberative constraints really are on the ground, cannot be imagined from the outside. The requisite understanding needs to arise from the involvement of the people who are living those lives, so that—without simply overburdening them further—they have the opportunity to be participants in the conversations that may lead to valuable changes.
In itself, this kind of interaction exemplifies both a moment of Testimonial Justice in which people come to be heard without prejudice; and it is also therefore a moment of ameliorating Hermeneutical Marginalization, since in being heard without prejudice they are able to introduce new concepts and modes of social understanding into the local conversation, and (who knows?) perhaps ultimately into the store of social meanings and understandings that is shared by all.