Miranda Fricker proposed the concept of epistemic injustice in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2009). In this book she presents epistemic injustice as a concept that can help us understand the persistence of bias, with particular attention to its impact on our shared social knowledge. She presents the concepts of testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice as distinct but interrelated problems that have pernicious exclusionary effects and thereby significantly impact on our shared social knowledge.
Testimonial injustice occurs when members of certain groups are not taken seriously as “knowers”, when what they express as their knowledge is discounted as flawed and inaccurate not due to internal contradiction or countervailing evidence but simply due to who they are.
You may remember Elisabeth Warren’s response to the question whether she thought sexism played a role during her run as US presidential candidate in 2020: “Gender in this race, you know, that is the trap question for every woman. If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, whiner! And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think ‘What planet do you live on?'”
What Warren is pointing to is the understanding shared by many women that they frequently encounter greater hurdles in being judged professionally on their own merits than males, but that expressing this experience is generally not considered a reliable testimony, regardless of supporting evidence.
Instead of being recognised as an expression that deserves to be heard and taken seriously, it is interpreted merely as a sign of being a sore loser or being weak and emotional.
Gender bias is only one bias of many; members of a wide range of different groups encounter comparable epistemic disadvantage. Fricker gives the example of Tom Robinson in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a Black man who was accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. When he stated in his court testimony how his harmless interactions with Mayella were motivated by sympathy and pity, this testimony was simply not considered believable, despite supporting evidence. It appeared inconceivable to the judge and jury due to the pervasive social hierarchies and Tom’s social position in them.
In the health care setting, prior to the more widespread emergence of long Covid, sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome similarly encountered problems in having their reports of their puzzling symptoms being taken seriously by their doctors. Despite evidence of the existence of a complex but coherent syndrome, their testimony about their symptoms was often disregarded and reinterpreted as evidence of mental health difficulties instead.
While in testimonial injustice, the knower has a clear sense of their knowledge but encounters disbelief when expressing this knowledge, in hermeneutic injustice the lack of societal attention to certain phenomena goes one step further.
Persons may be left unable to even make sense of their experience because society has not developed relevant conceptual resources to capture that experience accurately. The absence of such concepts is even more deeply disempowering, insofar as they may be left with a deep sense of unease, suffering and anger, but struggle to find a description that captures its meaning in an understandable way.
The fact that there is no social attention to this phenomenon is likely to be closely related to testimonial injustice: those groups whose testimony is discounted even if they express it with clarity and solid evidence, are also likely to find themselves less supported in getting heard and being taken seriously when trying to make sense of their experiences, especially if clarifying this experience would not be to the advantage of those in power.
Fricker illustrates hermeneutic injustice with the example of the concept of sexual harassment. In the absence of a shared social understanding that unwanted sexual advances in work contexts constitute sexual harassment, a woman who is sexually harassed by her boss may be told that she should understand this as just harmless flirtation.
The power of socially shared conceptualisations is such that she may struggle to explain not just to others but even to herself why she isn’t flattered but left feeling disrespected, off-balance or even afraid.