DRMacIver's Notebook

Identity and Legitimisation of Knowledge

Identity and Legitimisation of Knowledge

PSA: Posts this week are going to be especially short because I need to focus on actual writing for my PhD this week. I'll just be copying out interesting passages from random pages of random books from my "canon" and making very short commentaries on them.

From Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker, page 9:

It is easy to see that [a silencing of a woman by a man] involves an exercise of power, of of gender power in particular. But what do we mean by power? And how does gender power relate to the general notion of social power? In order to paint a portrait of testimonial injustice and to home in on its distinctive central case, we need to answer these questions about the nature of social power in general and the particular kind of social power (of which gender power is one instance) that I shall call identity power.

The "testimonial injustice" that Fricker is talking about here is a notion she introduces in this book, and is an injustice done to people in rejecting their testimony based on their identity - e.g. in the case she is talking about, rejecting someone's testimony because she is a woman.

I've just finished reading Lyotard's "The Postmodern Condition", an experience which I cannot really recommend, and in it he talks about the role of legitimisation in knowledge - i.e. if we think of a community of practice as telling each other stories about the world, what are the social practices involved in accepting some of those stories into our canon as legitimate knowledge. He argues that sciences in particular can be thought of as having a set of particularly stringent set of criteria for legitimisation, and tend to reject other modes of legitimisation as hopelessly fuzzy and informal.

Read in this light, I think one interesting lens on Fricker's work would be this: One of the roles of social power is control over the legitimisation process for knowledge. When social power is rooted in identities, this has the particularly pernicious effect of resulting in a community's canon of recognised legitimate knowledge that systemically underrepresents knowledge originating in marginalized groups.

However, as has been pointed out before by Kirsty Dotson, Fricker has badly misunderstood one aspect of the nature of knowledge in a way that this highlights: There is no single canon, but instead many loosely overlapping ones.

This misunderstanding is also present in her notion of identity power. In fact, identity power does not exist, because social power does not exist in individuals. Social power is a relationship between an individual and a community. The same identity that denies you credibility in one community may gain you credibility in another.

That is not to say that the problems of testimonial injustice she is pointing out don't exist - they absolutely do - but that they need to be more carefully contextualised. "You're only oppressed by the dominant community who controls most of the economy" is not actually any more reassuring than thinking you're oppressed in some absolute sense, but the fine grained distinction is still useful.

This is particularly significant in another book I've read recently, which is James Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance, where he introduces the idea of the hidden transcript - essentially the canon of knowledge that is present within a marginalised group and is actively concealed (possibly by hiding it in plain sight) from the more dominant group.

Putting these together, one way of looking at Dotson's notion of contributory injustice, which is the refusal of dominant groups to take on the ideas of the marginalised (e.g. white people refusing to acknowledge the idea of racism), is that sometimes the transcripts of marginalised groups are hidden by the marginalised, but equally often they're instead ignored by the powerful.