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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


What specific processes produce and reproduce epistemic injustices? What strategies to co-produce actionable knowledge are most fruitful to challenge them?

By Edoardo Repetto, on 24 July 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

“From this moment despair ends and tactics begin” – probably Banksy
Picture by Andrew Davidson at English Wikipedia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

That moment in which you realize you are a racist, a patriarchist, maybe a classist, a homophobe, probably an ableist or simply a privileged detached person, at that moment you clash with epistemic injustices. Before defining what epistemic injustices are, it is important to reflect on the role of knowledge. Consider what we do with knowledge and rethink the original ethic ascribed to it thus reaching its practical consequences. First, knowledge as information is power[1], and power means opportunity. Closing the syllogism, knowledge is an opportunity.

Secondly, what you do with knowledge depends on what it is. Is knowledge a monolithic block or an open box? In the case of rigorous sciences, there is an important need to rely on the pillars raised before. However, this need has shaped patterns of vertical education that even among the social sciences reproduce a passive understanding of knowledge as “imperial gallons of facts poured into them (the little vessels of Thomas Gradgrind) until they were full to the brim”[2].

The content of the block is likely to be unquestionable and the reproduction of the system is assured. On the opposite open box side, knowledge production involves a complex process formed by multiple actors, variables and contexts influenced by bias, interests and scopes.

Third, applying ethic to the previously mentioned opportunity, one moves towards a new variation of power frequently understood as responsibility. Here is the shift from theory to practice. When a study regards the life of another, the theoretical approaches must be redefined under a situational, positioned and relational[3] awareness of the multiple expectations and needs in play.


Production humanum est, reproduction autem diabolicum

From an ethic perspective, the previous static knowledge possession switches to knowledge- making. Fricker’s epistemic injustice is built upon the concepts of testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice and hermeneutical marginalization[4]. In a nutshell, substantial social difficulties emerge from the deficit of intelligibility. In other words, the ability to communicate and understand forms of marginalization affecting someone else’s life. When marginalized social groups that “under-contribute to the common pool of concepts and social meanings”[5], feel direct or indirect frustration related to the personal or external communication of social experiences, hermeneutical injustices occur.

The problem is not the production of injustices per se, but its reproduction. The myth of modernity, against which the planet and humanity as a whole are clashing, has to be sustained by dominant social groups to support the socio-environmental unsustainable premises underpinning it. Consequently, the dominant model visions periodically change according to the requirements of different historical periods. Once the trajectory is determined in linear often hierarchical rigid systems, the identification of different and diverse needs has to face the communicative and physical violence of marginalization.


Normalization of the absurd

Normalizing is the first process of epistemic injustices reproduction such as diversified social treatments, economic conditions and different access to basic services and infrastructures. From local to global, reasons of force majeure postpone the rights’ vindication, impose different priorities to people’s agenda, press the common narrative to the acceptance of the status quo. For instance, in these days, the Black Lives Matter movement is shedding light on the systemic inequalities shaping modern society. And such movements are only the tip of the iceberg[6].

With different grades of visibility and levels of exposure, current society has normalized the marginalization and the consequential direct/indirect deprivations harming social groups from all geographical, cultural, sexual, economic, and physical perspectives. In this scenario, detachment from “the other” directly reproduces systemic injustices often based on private interests lacking long-lasting socio-environmental visions. The COVID-19 crisis shows how multinationals offering distancing services – Amazon, Microsoft, Zoom etc – are growing[7] at the socioeconomic expenses of vulnerable groups, local economies, taxpayers, and physical social services such as healthcare and education.


 Hyper connected, nano collective

After normalization comes detachment, the vision of the other as a far-from-us problem thus less manageable or irrelevant. The hyper-connectivity of our time has not been followed by hyper- collectivity and the constant passive acceptance of unjust practices deflect attention from the understanding that, in the highly uncertain present, normal is over[8].

Coming back to knowledge-making and the shift to action, co-production is strategically unavoidable in the making of cities. While in the so-called Global North cities are more likely to appear as given entities, in the Global South dwellers daily reclaim their spaces through concrete do-it-yourself building practices. Many are the cases of informal organization and bottom-up action showing the success of such practice both in terms of housing and socio-political recognition. The built environment daily produces and reproduces epistemic injustices and vice-versa is capable of interrupting such reproduction.


Collective city making is future shaping

Fruitful processes altering perceptions and behaviors are part and parcel of the direct democracy experiences of city-making. Do-it-yourself urbanism, although frequently ascribed to northern practices based on the wrong premises of state-failure and the citizens’ capacity to act, is everyday matter in global informal settlements. Through the collectivization and organization of such practices, in a local to global understanding involving both Global North and Global South realities, urban trajectories can move from external master plans towards locally designed spaces meeting the needs of the population.

The urban and environmental justice lenses are based on the principles of participation, recognition, and distribution[9]. To assure inclusivity and tackle epistemic injustices both civil society and local governments must enhance these processes towards horizontal and multifaceted participation. Forms of late vertical consultation must be avoided in favor of participatory planning and understanding. Recognition of diverse actors from both bottom-up and top-down processes empower marginalized groups and enhance civil action. Planning for the known, the average, for the visible, for the data majority, reproduces marginalization and unequal access to opportunities. Distribution is the new imperative to tackle present challenges towards cities made by and for the people.

To conclude, it is not necessary to be a racist, patriarchist, classist, homophobic, ableist or privileged detached person to reproduce epistemic injustices. Let’s challenge normalization and social detachment acting for a meaningful and inclusive participation of the ‘invisibilised’. A new future has to come.

[1] Written in the wall of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) office.

[2] Dickens, C. (1854). Hard Times. 1969 ed. Penguin Books, p.48.

[3] Allen, A. (2020). Decolonising Urban Knowledge And Research Ethics. Lecture n.14 – 7th of February.

[4] Fricker (2007) in Fricker, M. and Jenkins, K. (2017). Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences. Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, p.1.

[5] Fricker, M. and Jenkins, K., 2017. Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences. Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, p.1.

[6] Mestre, A. and Couvelaire, L. (2020). «Ça nous dépasse et c’est ce qu’on veut »: comment le comité Adama a réussi une mobilisation surprise contre les violences policières. Le Monde.

[7] Collins, C. (2020). Let’s stop pretending billionaires are in the same boat as us during this pandemic. The Guardian.

[8] Normal is over 1.1. (2019). [film] Directed by R. Scheltema. Netherlands.

[9] Lambert, R. (2019). Resilience And Justice: Tensions And Synergies. Lecture n.3 – 15th of October

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