Substance-abusing women suffer from epistemic injustice

Many individuals in socially vulnerable position are underestimated regarding their capabilities of acquiring information relevant to the society. Philosopher Miranda Fricker calls this epistemic injustice.

Substance-abusing women are vulnerable to specific kinds of epistemic injustice, including discrimination and stigmatizing stereotypes. A new study examines how community-based rehabilitation practices can alleviate epistemic injustice and strengthen epistemic agency of women with substance abuse problems.

The research is part of an ongoing “Struggling with Ignorance” research project funded by the Academy of Finland. The multidisciplinary research group includes both philosophers and social scientists. “The study combined the concepts of philosophical epistemology with the discussion analysis of ethnographic data in an innovative way,” tells the project leader Jaana Parviainen.

The data were collected in a Finnish rehabilitation center. The videotaped group discussions and the transcription of them made it possible to look in detail at the discussion between social workers, experts by experience and rehabilitation clients with substance abuse problems. One of the authors, social psychologist Petra Auvinen, remarks “Discussion analysis showed that the correct use of the discussion protocol makes it possible to develop ways to share experiential knowledge and strengthen self-confidence and epistemic agency.”

Researchers called the discussion protocol an ‘epistemic tool’ which was found to be an essential factor in both finding mutual interaction and increasing the self-awareness of the interviewers.

Lauri Lahikainen, a philosopher who worked in the project, says “The data reveal that women with substance abuse problems suffer from a lack of credibility due to harmful social stereotypes. Their views are not taken seriously and are not considered interesting or relevant.” This is what researchers call ‘testimonial injustice’ following Fricker’s formulation.

The researchers also found indications of hermeneutic injustice in the data. Sociologist Hannele Palukka points out “Women with substance abuse problems do not necessarily have the words and appropriate concepts to describe their own experiences”.

The researchers concluded that the proper use of the discussion protocol plays an important role in alleviating hermeneutic injustice. As the participants learned to use the protocol as the conversation progressed, their ability to express their own experiences also increased.

The study is published in the journal Social Sciences

More information: Dr. Hannele Palukka, tel. +358 40 706 7440, and Jaana Parviainen, Director of the NEGATE Project, tel. +358 50 410 6764,