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Open for Debate

Zetetic standpoint epistemology

5 February 2024

A central claim of standpoint theory is that the oppressed have an epistemic advantage over the dominant with respect to the workings of oppression. This ‘epistemic advantage thesis’ ranges over issues like whether some event or action is an instance of oppression, what it is like to be oppressed, what the causes of oppression are, and ways to resist oppression. Reasons to think the oppressed have such an advantage include that they tend to have: more informative experiences of oppression (e.g. Mills 1998), greater incentives to learn about and criticize oppression (e.g. Jaggar 1983), and access to networks of other oppressed people who are themselves epistemically advantaged with respect to oppression (e.g. Dror 2023).

From the epistemic advantage thesis, some standpoint theorists derive a methodological claim: given the oppressed are epistemically advantaged with respect to the workings of oppression, inquiry into oppression should start from the lives of the oppressed. This move from epistemology to methodology can seem as recommending a norm for scientific inquiry (e.g. Wylie 2004). But another way to think about it is as recommending a ‘zetetic norm’: a norm of inquiry that binds anyone curious enough to inquire about the workings of oppression.

Inquiry has distinct stages. On one possible carving (from Friedman, forthcoming), we first decide what questions to put on our research agenda, we then choose and apply methods for investigating a particular question that’s on our research agenda, and we finally close the question. We think there is a good case to be made that we can derive not just a norm of inquiry from the epistemic advantage thesis, but several norms, which each attach to the different stages. Here we will focus on the norms that attach to the second stage – the active investigation of questions.

When investigating a question— like whether some action is a microaggression—we must decide where to gather evidence from. Suppose that all we know about potential informants is their social location: whether they are members of an oppressed group or of a dominant group. We could gather our evidence from a member of the oppressed, from the dominant, by randomly sampling from a population, or by some other method. Here, the reasons mentioned earlier that support the epistemic advantage thesis give us reason to seek evidence from the oppressed. The oppressed tend to have more experiences of oppression (e.g. of past instances of microaggressions), better incentives (e.g. to point out when something is a microaggression), and a more reliable network (e.g. of others who have also suffered microaggressions). These, in turn, give them an advantage in selecting the right answer to a particular question about oppression (e.g. about whether an action was indeed a microaggression). So, when we can only discern whether someone is a member of the oppressed or the dominant, we should seek evidence from the oppressed. In terms of expected accuracy, this strategy does better than the alternatives (like seeking out evidence from the dominant, or random selection).

Yet notice that this is a ‘contingent tendency’ for advantage. As recent authors have convincingly argued (Tilton, forthcoming; Dror, 2023), the social location of being oppressed is only imperfectly correlated with epistemic advantage. It’s not that all and only the members of the oppressed have these advantages: some of the oppressed don’t have these advantages, perhaps due to false consciousness or to educational disadvantages imposed by oppression. Some of the dominant do have epistemic advantages, because they worked hard to seek out testimony, and acquire conceptual resources from those more in the know.

We think this qualification—of seeing social location as only imperfectly correlated with epistemic advantage—has significant implications for methods of inquiry. In particular, when we can discern what experiences, incentives, or networks the agents have, such information will supersede mere information about social location, and possibly change recommendations about who to seek evidence from. For example, consider the case where we only know that two agents belong to a minority race in a society. With just this information, we should be indifferent about who to seek out evidence from, when it comes to investigating oppression. But suppose we also learn one has suffered the effects of present discrimination and historical injustice, while the other has miraculously avoided it, despite being of the minority race.[1] This information about each agent’s experience greatly (but not completely) supersedes information about their social location,[2] because experiences are more closely tied to epistemic advantages than social location is—social location being a mere proxy for experiences and other factors that ground epistemic advantage. In terms of expected accuracy, then, distinguishing between agents by their experiences will do better than the strategy of distinguishing them only by social location. So, when we have such information, we should distinguish between these two agents on the basis of their differing experiences,[3] prioritising the one who has experience of discrimination and injustice over the one who does not, when seeking out evidence about oppression. More generally, we propose that to the extent that such further information—about experiences, incentives, networks—is available, we should adopt fine-grained methods that distinguish between agents using this information, rather than a coarse-grained method that only looks at social location.

This fine-grained method falls short of justifying complete deference. However, given that the oppressed tend to be more epistemically advantaged than the dominant, this strategy will still instruct us to seek out evidence from the oppressed more often than not, other things being equal. Furthermore, we have only looked at the epistemic grounds for seeking out evidence from the oppressed, and leave open that moral reasons might still justify something closer to full deference.[4]



[1] Also see Táíwò (2020), who distinguishes between elite and non-elite members of the oppressed.

[2] Social location could, however, still stand as a proxy for factors which ground epistemic advantage but which we cannot observe/have no information about.

[3] It might still be, however, that they have roughly similar incentives to understand and criticize oppression, despite having different experiences.

[4] Thanks to Adam Piovarchy and Alessandra Tanesini for their useful comments.



Dror, Lidal. (2023). ‘Is there an epistemic advantage to being oppressed?’, Nous, 57 (3):  618 – 640.

Friedman, Jane. (Forthcoming). ‘Zetetic Epistemology’, Towards an Expansive Epistemology: Norms, Action, and the Social Sphere, B.Reed & A. K. Flowerree (eds.), Routledge.

Jaggar, A. M. (1983). Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Rowman & Littlefield.

Mills, Charles. (1998). Blackness Visible, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi (2021). “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference.” The Philosopher. November 20, 2021.

Tilton, E. (forthcoming). ‘“That’s Above My Paygrade”: Woke Excuses for Ignorance”, Philosophers Imprint.

Wylie, A. (2004). ‘Why Standpoints Matter. In S. Harding (Ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies (pp. 339 – 351). London: Routledge.

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  1. Zsuzsanna Chappell

    Super interesting and very important work. I was wondering (and this goes beyond what you cover in this short blog, so it may well be in your forthcoming paper) if there’s an advantage to gathering evidence both from the oppressed and the non-oppressed minoritised person in your example. Finding out why one avoided oppression / disadvantage and the other didn’t could give us important information about how we could ensure more people avoid it. I’m thinking primarily about disabilities because that’s what my work is focused on at the moment, where it’s not so much direct negative action but lack of support, neglect, not having needs met that leads to negative outcomes.

  2. William Tuckwell

    Interesting question. I think it depends on the details of the case.

    Suppose we’re interested in the question of how members of oppressed groups can avoid some of the disadvantages that tend to come with being a member of such a group.

    In the kind of case we’re imagining in the post, there are two people who are both members of some oppressed group – say they are both member of the same racial minority – but where only one of them has experienced the disadvantages that tend to come along with being a member of the group. Perhaps the person lacking in the relevant experience, and so lacking in a certain epistemic advantage, grew up in a country where their race wasn’t disadvantageous but has recently immigrated to a country where it is, or perhaps they grew up incredibly wealthy in a way that insulated them from disadvantage, or whatever. Here it doesn’t seem especially useful to solicit information from them in answering the question being investigated given what explains why they’ve avoided disadvantage.

    In a different kind of case, which might be closer to the one that you have in mind, the person who is an member of an oppressed group but yet avoids disadvantage has discovered some avoidance and resistance strategies. Here I think it is indeed a good idea to solicit input from them to help us answer our initial question because we can then learn about successful avoidance/resistance strategies that may be useful to other people. But crucially this is precisely because the person has had experiences of oppression and of intentionally avoiding/resisting oppression, and so there’s a disanalogy with the case we gesture at in the post.

  3. Shang

    @Zsuzsanna Chappell
    Thanks so much for your question! I do like your example — we don’t quite cover this kind of case in the paper and I’ll be keen to think more about it. My first thought is that in some cases it’s not the comparison of evidence (e.g. testimony, experiences etc) that’s doing the work, but the mere comparison of different features people have and correlating that with the presence/absence of oppression. But I do agree that sometimes it is the comparison of evidence from both the oppressed and non-oppressed that reveals the source/workings of oppression. If you had more details about the disability case you were thinking of, I’d be keen to hear it! Your comment also prompted me to think of a different example where it’s the comparison — rather than mere evidence from one group — might matter: when the wrongness is comparative (e.g. one group attributed inferior status to another), and this comparativeness is not transparent to a single person’s experience.

    Thanks again for the comment!

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