Epistemic Injustice and Implicit Bias

This post about epistemic in justice and implicit bias by Kathy Puddifoot and Jules Holroyd is the fourth and final post of this week’s series on An Introduction to Implicit Bias: Knowledge, Justice, and the Social Mind (Routledge, 2020). Find the other posts here.

Epistemic injustice occurs when a person is wronged in their capacity as a knower. It turns out, there are various ways in which one can be wronged as a knower. In the chapter we draw on five kinds of epistemic injustice. The first three kinds of epistemic justice are: 

  • testimonial injustice, where a person is given less credibility than they deserve due to a stereotype about the competence or sincerity of those with their social identity (Fricker 2007, Collins 2000).
  • epistemic appropriation, where the contribution to knowledge provided by a person is not recognized as their contribution and is instead attributed to someone else (Davis 2018). 
  • epistemic exploitation, which occurs when members of a marginalized group are expected or required to educate members of privileged groups about injustices that are faced by those who share their social identity. This work requires significant cognitive and emotional labour and is not properly compensated, often being repaid only with suspicion and disbelief (Berenstain 2016).

These types of epistemic injustice can occur due to the operation of implicit bias. Implicit biases are associations that are unwittingly, automatically or unintentionally made between members of social groups and characteristics or affective responses (e.g. attraction or aversion). Some of the characteristics relate to the sincerity and competence of social group members, and these can be implicated in epistemic injustice. For example, where scientific expertise is associated with men rather than women, the scientific ideas advanced by women might not be taken seriously (testimonial injustice). And where women’s ideas are taken seriously they might be credited to a male colleague (epistemic appropriation). Meanwhile, where biases are implicit –  hard for perpetrators to notice and easy for them rationalise away – epistemic exploitation may be more likely. For example, white people may doubt or challenge a black person’s claim that they have been unjustly treated. This places a heavy educative burden on those trying to articulate that they have been unjustly treated. Implicit biases can therefore be implicated in epistemic exploitation.

Interesting questions also arise about the concept of implicit bias itself. Does it help to combat epistemic injustice or could it in fact be implicated in epistemic injustice? 

Consider a fourth type of epistemic injustice:

  • hermeneutical injustice (Fricker 2007; Dotson 2012). Hermeneutical injustice occurs when some people are unjustly excluded from contributing to the shared conceptual resources (e.g. concepts, narratives, scripts) that are widely used in a society. The dominant shared resources therefore capture the experiences of the dominant group members but not members of less powerful, marginalized groups, who were less able to contribute to their development. Members of the latter groups consequently struggle to articulate their experiences to others who have not had the same experiences.

It looks like the availability of the concept of implicit bias could reduce the incidence hermeneutical injustice, in particular in relation to the experiences of those who have been targeted by discrimination that is unintentional or unwitting, perpetrated by people who would disavow racism or sexism. It can be difficult to explain one’s experience of this type of discrimination to others who have not experienced it, especially when the perpetrators insist on their good intentions and egalitarian values. The concept implicit bias has the potential to facilitate conversations of this sort, providing conceptual resources that help people who perpetrate such discrimination understand it, and – one hopes – accept that they may be complicit in perpetrating such injustices. 

However, we draw attention to a fifth kind of epistemic injustice:

  • Contributory injustice (Dotson 2012) occurs when an agent is willfully ignorant in using conceptual resources that thwart the ability of others to contribute to the knowledge community. Specifically, members of non-dominant groups are prevented from contributing to the conceptual resources used in the wider population to interpret people’s experiences. 

Could the concept of implicit bias also potentially thwart the abilities of members of non-dominant groups from contributing to the shared conceptual resources in this way? 

Maybe: the concept implicit bias has been developed in a research programme in psychology. But there are other, rich sources of evidence about the unwitting, automatic or unintentional stereotyping and discrimination that is captured by the concept implicit bias. There is testimonial evidence from those who have experience of being subjected to this type of stereotyping. Where there is overreliance on the scientific construct of implicit bias and insufficient attention given to the testimony of those with lived experience, this could entrench epistemic norms that afford legitimacy to that certain ideas, expressed by certain people (e.g. white males), in certain ways (e.g. with scientific ‘objectivity’). Entrenching such norms makes it harder for those from oppressed and marginalized groups, who might use different and already marginalised conceptual resources (e.g. testimony from lived experience), to be heard and to contribute their conceptual resources to the broader epistemic community. 

One benefit to articulating these five kinds of epistemic injustice is that it shows the variety of strategies that might be needed to combat epistemic injustices due to implicit bias: from correcting tendencies to discredit, to reshaping the norms of dominant epistemic practice.

Learn more about the book, including its chapters with implications about criminal justice and policing from the recent series of blog posts over at Imperfect Cognitions.

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