Elevate Difference

Epistemic Injustice: Power & The Ethics of Knowing

In Epistemic Injustice, Miranda Fricker identifies and explores the role of identity prejudice (based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) in producing both systematic and incidental epistemic injustices or injustices against people in their capacities as speakers, informants, or participants in the community’s sharing of knowledge. Fricker also carefully traces the injurious practical and epistemic effects these injustices can have on those who are stereotyped by identity prejudice. Finally, she attempts to define the joint intellectual-ethical virtues that may help “hearers” identify and counteract identity prejudices in their interactions with the victims of these injustices.

Fricker’s primary focus throughout the book is on testimonial injustice, a deflation in the credibility granted to a speaker based on identity prejudice. Using the theoretical framework of epistemology, a State of Nature model, and both literary and real world examples, Fricker carefully differentiates instances of credibility deflation resulting from true injustice from those that constitute mere bad luck and shows how testimonial injustice relates to and often causes discrimination against, objectification of, and dehumanization of the powerless. Although the vocabulary of epistemology is foreign to many of us, most members of marginalized minorities will probably recognize the real world incidents and structures that produce testimonial injustice as well as the very real effects that it has on our lives. Women, specifically, would understand the lack of credibility afforded to women and the damage that can cause both professionally and personally. Whether it is being ignored, underestimated, or undermined in the workplace or having to fight against the “no really means yes” stereotype that permeates the rape culture, we have experienced testimonial injustice and its effects first hand.

Secondary to testimonial injustice is hermeneutical injustice, a gap in hermeneutical resources (or social vocabulary/means of communicating) that prevents the victim from making sense of or giving voice to his or her experiences. As with testimonial injustice, Fricker draws on a variety of resources to explore the injustices perpetrated when there simply are no words for what someone is experiencing or when the manner in which he or she communicates ensures that the hearer will neither understand nor attempt to do so. In one of many examples provided in a rather powerful exploration of hermeneutical injustice at work, Fricker examines the difficulties women had of making sense of and combating unwanted “flirting” in the workplace prior to the coining of the term "sexual harassment." It may seem alien to those of us who grew up in the wake of second wave feminism, but there simply were no words for many of women’s experiences and this often placed women at a tremendous disadvantage in even understanding what was happening to them and even more so when it came to doing something about the problems they faced in a male-dominated world.

This brief summary, I’m afraid, does not fully encapsulate Fricker’s detailed examination of all of the epistemological and practical implications of identity prejudice in the epistemic relationships built around the community‘s need to share knowledge. Nor, I’m afraid, does it do the book much justice. Although Fricker does tend towards academic language, she does so less egregiously than most and her liberal use of clear, concrete examples makes her ideas relatively easy to follow even for someone with no background in epistemology. Overall, Epistemic Injustice is an exciting examination of a widespread problem that is rarely discussed in such terms so that it can be understood and communicated and perhaps, someday, solved.

Written by: Melinda Barton, December 25th 2009

Thank you very much for the compliment.

Thanks, Melinda, for this fine review of an apparently difficult book. I just love reading words such as "epistemic," "hermeneutical," and "epistemological" early on a Saturday morning! I'm so glad that you took on her complicated ideas and provided a coherent, specific example, that of women's inability (for lack of an episteme) then to name sexual harrassment for what is was/is at the time. I remember having long and complicated conversations with my mom over this many years ago; as I was beginning to specialize in gender studies and feminist theory, I was asking her about her life, and she was recounting even the most blatant examples of sexism in the work-place in the most bland and unconcerned way, including "gifts" that salesmen would give her.

What a brave book on her part. I hope that your review leads people to read it.


Lawrence Hammar