Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Listening and Epistemic Injustice


So I’ve written a couple of posts about listening. I love that I was writing simply about listening. And honestly, to a great extent, it was about listening. But a couple of conversations on Twitter helped me realize I am really also alluding to some deeper philosophical ideas. And I should capture this while I can so that I can come back and dig deeper later. As I read more about these… I realized the ideas apply to a lot of what I think and talk about in terms of practices that could learn more from feminist and postcolonial and decolonial ways of knowing. And surprisingly, really shockingly, what Virtually Connecting is and can do. Bear with me.

First, someone I don’t know mentioned my comments in 2018 on how I think Women’s ways of knowing should be applied to digital literacies to approach it differently. Thanks to him (Steve Covello) he introduced me to this approach called Legitimation Code Theory

From what I understand, LCT is about making explicit some of the implicit ways knowledge is legitimated… and it seems to also be challenging some of the more traditional ways it is (but I need to read more. The language is confusing but I get the drift).

I got more interested, though, in Miranda Fricker’s notion of Epistemic injustice. Which is not new to me as a concept (first heard of it through Thomas Mboa I think, and have used it loosely) but I was not aware of Fricker per se

So I downloaded a sample book and here is a quick rundown of what blew my mind.

Epistemic injustice is all about hearing/listening and about how some people don’t get heard because the hearer has prejudice against their credibility or because social systems have made it more difficult for them to be understood (hermeneutical epistemic injustice).

  • Examples of testimonial epistemic injustice are police not believing someone coz they are black. My examples: journals editors never passing a paper for review altogether because it comes from Egypt – yes this happens- or academics not considering someone’s views because they don’t have a PhD or are at a community college
  • Examples of hermeneutic injustice given in the book are women experiencing sexual harrassment but not having the language to express it or be understood in the culture they’re in. My examples relate to being a postcolonial scholar and being unable to express exactly how or why some Western theory doesn’t apply to my experience and how difficult sometimes it is to convey this to a Western audience without being deemed lazy or sub-intellectual. Also things like how entire culture’s knowledge is not considered because it does not exist in written form. Or how narrative research building on people’s lived experience is (in some contexts) considered less scientifically valid/valuable than “objective” research by outsiders. Or how much of published knowledge about Africa is created by non-Africans such as for an African to publish about Africa they need to cite those non-Africans, in Western languages, in order to get heard.

This is my interpretation of it. A lot of what I have been saying about listening here and here is about developing a sense and sensitivity of epistemic justice. A lot of what I have been writing about over time related to academia becoming more inclusive of global South scholars and marginal scholars relates to these two things. A lot of what I have been saying about Wikipedia needing to not reproduce epistemic injustice can be explained by these two things *which I have been saying for a while* (who is credible on Wikipedia and has power to decide who else is credible? And what social systems result in Wikipedia’s criteria of what is credible and how does it reproduce inequality and power by using existing knowledge systems that are inherently power imbalanced). It also relates to how I mention things like Women’s ways of Knowing and building both empathy, awareness of bias, and a sense of equity to our critical approaches – because epistemic justice would entail a sensitivity to the ways traditional epistemology and rationality are blinding us to understanding the experience and legitimating the knowledge of others who may have something valuable to add but have historically been marginalized and cannot express their experiences in traditionally framed ways. Not because they have a problem with expression but because the systems were created without their participation…so the systems need fixing.

Let me back up and give some quotes I highlighted from the book sample. So this is just from the intro.

testimonial injustice is caused by prejudice in the economy of credibility; and… hermeneutical injustice is caused by structural prejudice in the economy of collective hermeneutical resources.

(Emphasis mine. Kindle location 28 in sample)

I think this separation at individual and systemic levels is important and our awareness of them (like the difference between bias and othering, maybe?) Is important for how we strive towards righting the injustice.

Another really important quote

power is affecting our functioning as rational subjects; for it eradicates, or at least obscures, the distinction between what we have a reason to think and what mere relations of power are doing to our thinking. (Location 44 in Kindle sample).

I think what I had been thinking of in terms of bad listening relates to this somewhat. Systemic knowledge structures makes it difficult, particularly for the dominant, but also for less conscious once-dominant others to fit radically different ideas into existing schemas for many reasons: they don’t appear in a form or language familiar or considered credible to them. They simply don’t appear frequently enough or in connection to other familiar things, so they don’t stick even if we intend to listen to them.

The book, Fricker, also talks about the importance of situated approaches not just abstract theory. We need to look at how our epsitemic practices create injustice. Situated analyses allow us to look at the interplay of power and epistemic authority.

I want to give more situated accounts of how I interpret all this but I do not have time right now. I will add a couple of quotes before I hit publish, though:

Any claim of injustice must rely on shared ethical intuition,

And for me this is a crucial thing. Nuilding this shared ethical intuition is not easy and requires participation from diverse people in our lives. Something i have argued for for many years.

More on hermeneutical marginalization:

the unequal disadvantage derives from the fact that members of the group that is most disadvantaged by the gap are, in some degree, hermeneutically cally marginalized-that is, they participate unequally in the practices through which social meanings are generated.

our collective forms of understanding are rendered structurally prejudicial in respect of content and/or style: the social experiences of members of hermeneutically marginalized groups are left inadequately conceptualized and so ill-understood, perhaps even by the subjects themselves; and/or attempts at communication made by such groups, where they do have an adequate grip on the content of what they aim to convey, are not heard as rational owing to their expressive style being inadequately understood.

I need to also go an read this book I got earlier last year Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni


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