Wresinski on Overcoming Epistemic Injustice

Wresinski on Overcoming Epistemic Injustice

Above: Joseph Wresinski in 1979


This article is a revised section of a chapter first published in Socially Distanced Activism: Voices of Lived Experience of Poverty During COVID-19. The chapter was co-authored with Diana Skelton and Taliah Drayak and presented three real-world examples of epistemic justice alongside the theoretical research presented here. These three projects took place during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and show how ATD Fourth World’s approach creates the conditions for people experiencing poverty to have a sense of belonging, not only to a significant general effort to co-produce knowledge, but also to a group of peers in whom they trust and where they find the “epistemic” freedom necessary to develop their own analysis of poverty and society. This article is part of our series from ATD Fourth World’s Social Philosophy Project.

By Thomas Croft, ATD UK Volunteer Corps member

In 1980, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Joseph Wresinski, the founder of ATD Fourth World and someone who had himself grown up in extreme poverty, addressed a committee of recognised social science experts. His aim was to challenge assumptions about how knowledge on poverty is produced and about the role of academic researchers in that process. His message to the research community was radical: they had a moral duty to create knowledge that promotes action; an emancipatory knowledge, co-produced in ways that not only fully recognise the epistemic agency of people in poverty, but that also actively seek their epistemic contribution as a necessary condition for social change (Wresinski, 1980).

Wresinski’s lifetime of presence and action amidst marginalised and impoverished communities made clear to him that their exclusion from an active role in society’s effort to understand and find solutions to poverty was, in and of itself, a fundamental wrong. Being a passive subject of research, rather than an active co-producer of knowledge, not only disempowers and devalues people as “knowers”, but it also frustrates their own pathways towards emancipation, as Wresinski (1980) wrote:

“Thinking and knowing are acts all human beings perform. They do them with whatever means, sophisticated or not, life has provided. Each person thinks, knows, and strives to understand in order to achieve their own goal. Since their thinking is oriented towards that goal, every act of thinking can become an act of personal liberation.”

Recognising the other as a thinking person with the capacity to hold and share knowledge and to offer insight into the human condition is an intrinsic part of valuing another human being. Not doing so, or denying the other the means to do so, amounts to epistemic injustice: an injustice related to the social production and recognition of knowledge.

Epistemic harm

The seminal philosophical analysis of epistemic injustice is provided by Miranda Fricker (2007), who introduced the term. She argues that there are two principal forms of epistemic injustice: testimonial and hermeneutical.

Testimonial injustice, or the denial of voice, arises at the individual level when we diminish someone as a knower, questioning the value of their knowledge or the credibility of what they have to say, not for any legitimate reason, but because we hold prejudices about them based on their social background, race, gender, sexuality or other characteristic. When a person’s testimony is repeatedly disbelieved or unfairly ignored, they are effectively denied a voice about their own experience. This epistemic silencing is psychologically pernicious, even leading to someone doubting themselves as a knower, or self-censoring to avoid the humiliation of having their testimony rejected.

Hermeneutical injustice, or interpretative injustice, occurs at a structural level when a person or group lacks access to the interpretative resources they need to make sense of their own lived experience. This may mean that their experience has not yet been named or articulated, that there are no concepts available to explain it or that their perspective has not been recognised in the conceptualisation of similar experiences. Interpretative injustice results when the subjects of some area of social knowledge are prevented from actively participating in the production of that knowledge. Being denied the opportunity to conceptualise their lived experience for themselves means being epistemically disadvantaged; either because they are reliant on the inaccurate or insufficient interpretations of others, or because their experience is not even acknowledged. The structural nature of interpretative injustice is rooted in the inaccessibility or maladaptation of society’s methods of constructing knowledge for certain groups, commonly due to pervasive forms of institutional discrimination, whether consciously or unconsciously driven. Just as for testimonial injustice, epistemic exclusion, and the gaps or obfuscation in social meanings it generates, are extremely damaging for the individuals and groups affected.

Both forms of epistemic injustice have the potential, as Fricker points out, to cause deep psychological harm:

‘Where it goes deep, it [epistemic injustice] can cramp self-development, so that a person may be, quite literally, prevented from becoming who they are.’

(Fricker, 2007).

Wresinski (1980) describes the effects of interpretative injustice on people in chronic poverty as a kind of psychological torture that attacks their very sense of self, and which is fuelled by society’s ignorance of their lived experience:

“It is a serious mistake to think that human beings reduced to total poverty are apathetic and consequently don’t think; that they retreat into dependency or the simple struggle to survive day to day. Those who make this mistaken assumption ignore the strategies of self-defence that the poor create to escape the influence of those on whom they are dependent … They ignore the desperate effort to reflect and explain by those who constantly ask themselves, ‘Just who am I, after all?’ or who say, ‘They treat me like a dog, an idiot, a useless nobody … Am I really useless?”

Feel dehumanised

People in poverty often say they feel dehumanised by the way their own testimony can be doubted and devalued in their interactions with a statutory sector that often treats people with suspicion, while seeking to control behaviour. They describe a Kafkaesque experience: being told you have done wrong but not understanding what professionals say about you or why they say it. Everyone talks over you and about you; but when you try to speak out or explain, you are ignored, patronised, or have your words twisted and used against you. You feel completely powerless.

For example, parents accessing children’s services in the UK report feeling subjected to hostile social service interventions (ATD Fourth World, 2022). People come into your home and criticise everything you do. You feel you are being gaslighted by the state. You are dragged through case conferences and court proceedings. The result is that something sacred and primal, the bond between parent and child, is shattered by institutional force. Then you are left alone. No one cares and you feel like the worst kind of human being: someone who cannot be trusted to raise their own child. You feel you are wrong to exist. And yet, in the face of dehumanisation, people in poverty continue to resist, as Wresinski (1980) describes:

From beneath the rubble of their own personalities, from beneath those accusations, which are so many monstrous identities heaped upon them, they manage to rise up through a painful effort of thinking and constantly repeating to themselves, ‘But I am not a dog. I am not the idiot I am made out to be. I know things; but they will never understand.’

Types of expertise on poverty

Wresinski (1980) identified three types of knowledge on poverty which he saw as independent and autonomous, although necessarily complementary (Wresinski, 1980). The first is the direct experiential knowledge and understanding held by people in poverty themselves. This is the immediate lived experience of poverty in a phenomenological sense: the first-hand situated knowledge of what it is like to be in the grip of poverty in a particular community at a particular time. Deeply existential in nature, this knowledge that people in extreme poverty possess is described thus by Wresinski (1980):

[It] is about being condemned for life to contempt and social exclusion. It covers everything that signifies: facts and suffering, but also resilience and hope … It includes knowledge of the surrounding world, including certain attitudes toward the very poor that only they would know. [The thinking of people in poverty] deals not only with their life situation but also with the environing world which traps them in poverty and with the contrast between what is and what ought to be, if the weakest are no longer to be excluded.

The second type of knowledge that Wresinski talks about is practical knowledge carried by those who choose to live and work in deprived areas with populations living in poverty, such as community activists and campaigners, or the front-line volunteers and professionals who deliver services or support at a community level. Their knowledge is action-oriented, developed in the midst of trying to meet the needs of the population around them in an effort to respond to the problems and situations people face. Much of the understanding of poverty that underpins their action is tacit, sometimes even based on instincts or intuitions sharpened over years of practice. Workers and professionals witness the suffering and hopes of the people they serve; their knowledge resides in how they draw on their first-person experience of action to make sense of this.

The theoretical academic knowledge of the researcher as an outside observer is the third category of knowledge on poverty that Wresinski refers to. This knowledge represents the generalised ideas and concepts of the social sciences, developed through the analysis and interpretation of the quantitative and qualitative data gathered by researchers. For Wresinski, this knowledge, while regarded in high epistemic esteem by society in general, can only ever be an indirect and partial account of poverty because it ‘lacks by definition a direct grasp of reality’ (Wresinski, 1980). In Wresinski’s view, in order to give a full and convincing picture of the human reality of poverty, knowledge from the social sciences necessarily needs to be complemented by the direct knowledge carried by those living in poverty and those working alongside them. Moreover, without this complementarity, academic knowledge is in danger of presenting what is known about poverty in a cold and lifeless way that may ultimately lack meaning in terms of its ability to impel action at the societal and political level.

Conditions for epistemic justice in participatory action research

Wresinski’s call to the research community was threefold: first to recognise the autonomy, independence and complementarity of the knowledge carried by people in poverty, and by those who work alongside them; second to stress that knowledge on poverty needs to combine these different types of knowledge in order to be holistic. Finally – and most crucially – he also asked for the goals of research on poverty to be rethought in terms of the epistemic needs that knowledge on poverty should be striving to meet. Specifically, he asked:

“What kind of knowledge do the people in extreme poverty need? What kind of knowledge do practitioners and teams at the grass-roots need? What kind of knowledge do our nations, our societies, and our international communities need?”

Wresinski, 1980

The question of meeting epistemic need recognises that research on poverty cannot be neutral in normative terms. Poverty is multi-dimensional in nature but at its heart lies a core human experience of social suffering and resistance, and for this reason understanding poverty cannot be an end in itself. For Wresinski, the goals of any research programme on poverty must always be action-oriented, in that the knowledge produced is designed to affect social change directly. Furthermore, for the action-oriented goals of research to rest on a shared and equitable foundation, they must be chosen by all the principal epistemic stakeholders deciding together, which includes people in poverty as well as those involved in anti-poverty action on the ground. Wresinski was advocating a form of participatory action research where ‘participation’ is understood as a ‘thick’ normative concept, meaning it is a description of the desired partnership between stakeholders and at the same time prescribing an ethically desired and socially virtuous activity. Meaningful participation between epistemic stakeholders requires collaboration at all stages of the research process, from conception to implementation. Concretely, this means that participation involves co-production from the beginning of research design, through field work and data collection, to analysis and interpretation, and finally from co-authoring results and public messaging to dissemination and beyond.

In an essay entitled The Pedagogy of Reciprocity, Wresinski (1983) outlines three conditions which must be met for people in poverty to overcome interpretative injustice and claim the right to develop and share their own knowledge on poverty in a reciprocal exchange with others. The first condition is to safeguard freedom for people in poverty to construct their own thinking, to express and name their experience and to conceptualise it for themselves. Here, he meant the means to be free to think in terms of resources such as time and space, but also the ongoing encouragement as an individual to honour one’s own experience and construct one’s own thoughts.

The second of Wresinski’s conditions, once the first is in motion, is for people in poverty to share their thinking and exchange ideas among themselves as peers, safe in the knowledge that they each have a grasp on the lived reality of poverty. Here, working as peers is a means of protecting their thinking from the potential epistemic domination by others who may unintentionally co-opt their efforts and impose their own ideas.

Before they share their thinking in any critical dialogue beyond their peer group, Wresinski calls for a third condition: that the autonomy and independence of their thinking be recognised and respected by other partners in the process of knowledge co-production; and that they be able to identify with the goal of that process. Fundamental to this identification with the goals of a research project is for people in poverty to feel that they are serious participants and that they belong to a collective effort to bring about a more just world; that they are contributing to a cause larger than themselves.

Epistemic justice, for Wresinski, is about much more than righting a wrong or preventing psychological harm: it is about personal liberation and emancipatory action.

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