There are a number of research fields that exhibit a special connection to some particular activist movement. Typically in these cases, we observe a remarkable degree of personnel overlap between the movements and the scientific communities. I have two primary aims. First, I shall explore the reasons why there are such close entanglements between some research fields and some activist movements. I argue that both scientists and activists have specific epistemic interests that help explain why both practices tend to intersect functionally. Second, I shall evaluate these entanglements from an epistemological point of view. Drawing on a conception of science that has science consisting of two essential tasks—asking significant questions and adequately answering them—, I argue that activists’ contribution to science is ambivalent with regard to the first task because they can help to overcome the unjust distribution of resources, but they can also be the source of new inequalities. Regarding the second task, I similarly suggest that activists can serve a useful purpose in science, since they tend to exhibit certain epistemically valuable properties and can help compensate for what I call collective biases, although in certain situations they tend to reinforce collective biases.
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Note that I will use the term “science” in the broader sense of the Latin word “scientia” or the German “Wissenschaft” to refer to all academic specialties, including the humanities. There is no doubt that there are significant epistemological differences between the various research fields and that lumping them together amounts to a certain idealization. However, there are also relevant similarities between them. And given that, arguably, research fields in all branches of science could, in principle, be entangled with some activist movement (which, to be sure, is not to say that all areas of science in fact exhibit such entanglements), it is the similarities rather than the differences between the various research fields that are more relevant for present concerns.
There is certain variation in the literature as far as how exactly the notion of a social activist movement is conceptualized. The orientation towards social change, however, is something that most definitions have in common (see Jenkins and Form 2005).
Social media and other new technologies are likely to aggravate the cherry-picking problem and to intertwine it with new epistemic problems such as the filter bubble effect. For example, as Arfini et al. (2018) show, the anti-vaccination movement has benefited from the way in which social media tend to facilitate the dissemination of misleading data on vaccines within certain communities, and the way in which they can make it more difficult for many people to recognize true experts and distinguish them from fake ones.
Let me note, however, that there are no perfectly clear individuation criteria for activist movements. This can make it difficult to determine whether there is one single movement or a number of movements with slightly differing agendas, organizational structures, and memberships.
To be sure, I am neither claiming that all existing research fields are in this or similar ways “accompanied” by some activist movement, nor that all activist movements have some special connection to a research field. I am analyzing in this paper a special problem of some research fields and some activist movements.
In this light, one could say that what Croteau’s “Scholar-ACTIVISTs” are engaged in can sometimes be a special case of what is typically referred to as “participatory” or “citizen science”.
Activist movements can also have other sorts of epistemic impacts, for example on the general public. Movements can help disseminate scientific results (including little known, undesirable, or unspoken facts) to the general public—think of the climate change movement’s attempts to disseminate climatological findings (however, as the examples of climate change deniers or the anti-vaccination movement show, activist movements can also be responsible for the dissemination of false or misleading data). In this case one might say that the influence proceeds from science to the public (or to non-science more generally), whereas the primary focus of this article is on influence in the opposite direction [science or a particular scientific field is being influenced by an activist movement (that is, a non-scientific agent)].
Fricker (2007) distinguishes two main forms of “epistemic injustice”: testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice. The former concerns situations in which people are unjustifiably treated as unreliable witnesses, even with respect to their own experiences. The latter concerns situations in which people lack the conceptual resources to make sense of certain experiences in the first place. An illustration of how such forms of injustice can be responsible for a lack of scientific and public attention can be found in Tuana (2006), who describes the women’s health movement in the 1970s and 1980s as “committed to uncovering the ways women’s bodies had been ignored, to examining knowledge that had been withheld from women and certain groups of men, to reclaiming knowledge’s that had been denied or suppressed, and to developing new knowledge freed from the confines of traditional frameworks.” (Tuana 2006, p. 2) Not least by removing the phenomena of epistemic injustice, the activists raised public awareness about several health-related problems (like incest) that had been largely neglected before the 1970s and 80s.
A related but different phenomenon is the explicit attempt on the part of some movements to prevent certain research from being conducted. As Frickel et al. (2010, p. 461) put it: “While many social movements organize around the identification and completion of undone science, others devote themselves to making sure that some kinds of knowledge are never produced.”
There is some resemblance between Fi-properties and what Giere (1988, p. 213ff.) calls “cognitive resources”. However, the notion of an Fi-property is supposed to be broader and include, for example, social resources such as a scientist’s connections to various other individuals.
Pluralists have identified a number of different functions of epistemic diversity. See for example Chang (2012, p. 268ff.), who distinguishes two main types: “benefits of toleration” and “benefits of interaction”.
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Hauswald, R. The epistemic effects of close entanglements between research fields and activist movements. Synthese 198, 597–614 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02047-y
- Social epistemology
- Activist movements
- Epistemic diversity