Epistemic Injustice

Here’s a little blurb from my dissertation proposal on the construction of epistemic injustice, and the movements of representation. (Update: See my recent article “Epistemic Injustice and the Construction of Transgender Legal Subjects“).


Figure 1: Lived Experiences

Figure 1 Lived Experience

Figure 2: Movement of Representations

Figure 2 Movements from Lived Experience

The translation of lived experience into generalities poses a particular problem in the discourses on trans people. Figure 1 represents an individual life as s/he moves through the complex of socio-political and economic forces s/he navigates, unravels, remakes, and mediates to construct of his/her own reality. However, moving toward the right (acute angle) of the triangle represents steps in a removal of certain linguistic and cultural particularities of the lived experience. Figure 2 diagrams the flow of these movements and shows for particular purposes the narrowing of lived experiences toward an inevitable center, or mediating point (as I will discuss shortly). Such movements and narrowing representations produce epistemic injustice, developed by philosophers like Fricker (2007) and Medina (2012). Such injustice involves misrepresenting a social agent’s capacity to be the knower and producer of her/his identity. What I am calling transgender epistemologies would work against stripping a social agent down to the barest of essences for ease of representation (see especially Medina 2012; cf. Hacking 1999). In the move toward acknowledging trans people as bearers of rights, the objective representation of the trans person has erased the lived experience and rendered their political identities neutral.

Figure 3: Movement of Representation: The Realm of Discourse

Figure 3 The Realm of Discourse

Where do these movements and linguistic representations flow? Figure 3 represents the purely discursive fields in which representations of the subject now take up mediated meaning. The problem emerges of amplification: the growth of certain types of representations that speak for the distinctive, individuated worlds of the subject. The movement from the material (or lived) world must be taken up by language (Latour 1999; Quine 2013; Coulon 1995; Butler 1990). Yet, the jump from lived and material world to discourse doesn’t have to mean the total attenuation of localized meaning, although it often does.

Figure 4 represents the totality of these movements away from lived experiences toward a central, or mediating, point that stabilizes and fixes identity and experience. Rather than maintaining the fluidity of everyday life, representation in traditional social science scholarship has often immobilized the subject into a something that poorly reflects the creativity and spontaneity of the social agent’s community life. This mediating point essentializes the subject, stripping her of context and, as her representation moves further to the right as a result of discourse, amplifies that essentialism in the realm of discourse (the furthest right of Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 4: The Mediations between Lived and Discursive Worlds

Figure 4 Mediations

The Epistemology of Transgender Political Resistance

Trans people identify in different ways and the various ways they identify is based upon what I have above labeled trans indexicality (Quine 2013; Coulon 1995). Trans*, transexual, men and women of trans* experience, transgender, genderqueer, mtf, or ftm—each term contains particular community and individual significance, representing particular responses to the gender binary—resistance, acceptance, or both (Currah 2006). Because language is itself a medium through which identity and its shared meaning is constituted, what I am calling transgender epistemic practices, and the politics they engender, emerge within certain communicative groups and enclaves (Medina 2012). Transgender social actors use their bodies and language as a means of politicizing the trivial (clothing or cosmetics, as discussed earlier), everyday codes on which most of social life is based. These practices are epistemic by virtue of their creating meaning and understanding for a the agent involved—and the groups that form around these shared practices. Thus, a ballroom scene—popularized in the film Paris is Burning—constitutes not only a site in which trans and queer communities congregate and interact. These spaces subsume epistemic practices in the sense that social actors produce meaning through performances of gender/sex embodiment (pace Butler 1990). And they are political in the sense that they defy, through their very presence, the already understood cultural scripts that would otherwise hide these diverse ways of being that would be policed (at least outside these ballrooms) by the state, or the discriminatory social behaviors of other groups.


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble.

Coulon, Alain. 1995. Ethnomethodology

Currah, Paisley. 2006. Transgender Rights.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice.

Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What?

Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope.

Medina, Jose. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance.

Quine, W. V. O. 2013. Word and Object.

One response to “Epistemic Injustice”

  1. […]  I would just like to add that although Time made this wonderful decision, the extent to which Laverne’s or Janet Mock’s stories are relatable are being, and should be, challenged. Time also featured a number of other trans leaders and activists, whose stories were less about the ongoing work they are doing and more about the narrative of disempowerment. Dr. Paisley Currah, for example, has been working for years in trans* advocacy, has worked with Dr. Susan Stryker to set up the FIRST scholarly journal for transgender studies–but that isn’t mentioned. Again, representations…talk about epistemic injustices. […]

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