Assuming a synoptic vantage point, the following assemblage is aggregated into five ways of how epistemic violence is either explicitly or implicitly defined and addressed as a problem across a broad spectrum of disciplines: (i) miscellaneous nonexplanations, (ii) liberal imaginations, (iii) materialistic groundings, (iv) feminist postcolonial perspectives, and (v) decolonial state-centered approaches.
Implicit understandings and nonexplanations
When explicitly used as a key term in IR-related articles, epistemic violence is either hardly explained at all (Ayotte and Husain 2005), deployed as a catch-all that denotes the legitimization of other forms of violence (Gebrewold 2008), or not referenced at all (Cremin et al. 2018). The same is true for approaches to epistemic violence in educational studies (Fredericks 2009), linguistics (Branson and Miller 2000), criminology (Kitossa 2014), psychology (Held 2019), area studies (Menski 2016), environmental studies (Vermeylen 2019), social movement studies (Brissette 2018), intercultural studies (Gaitán-Barrera and Azeez 2015), or labor studies (Meléndez-Badillo 2019).Footnote 6 Remarkably, this also applies to a comprehensive Postcolonial Studies Dictionary (Nayar 2015), where one would expect to find a substantial entry on one of the field’s key terms; instead, it only contains a brief reference to Spivak and Foucault. As long as the term does not belong to the standard vocabulary of academic and public discourse, we have to put more effort in explaining what we mean by it. The concept must be well-established and well-understood if it is to make any contribution to our understanding of what is going on – and also going wrong – in international politics.
So how do scholars not only name and blame, like the ones mentioned above, but also frame epistemic violence with regard to issues in international politics? In the following, I assemble more explicit and substantial explanations of epistemic violence. Unsatisfied with the abovementioned (non)references to Spivak, my reading strategy has been deliberately multidisciplinary and eclectic. The following examples depict dominant lines of thought in what is otherwise a heterogeneous and scattered debate about what we can understand by epistemic violence, taking place across many fields of interest in the international domain. While many of them stem from outside IR proper, all of them can tell us something about what epistemic violence means in the respective specific fields of knowledge production.
Deviance and deficiency
Among the few conceptual approaches to epistemic violence available, several authors describe the phenomenon as a lamentable exception to an otherwise enlightened academic realm of rationality and nonviolence. An early example of this liberal approach is Hans Saner’s (1982, 73–95) understanding of the epistemic within a relational understanding of personal, structural, and especially symbolic violence. Actually curtailing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the latter, the Swiss philosopher and peace scholar compares scienceFootnote 7 and academia to the arts. In both domains, he argues, the symbolic realm can be (ab)used to legitimize other forms of violence, injustice and inequality. Due to their self-reflexivity and methodologies, however, Saner considers the sciences and the arts as privileged domains of knowledge production in the service of nonviolence. Epistemic violence would then only occur when the sciences consider themselves as the only legitimate source of knowledge, or when threatened by ideology. To Saner, the latter constitutes an exogenous problem that somehow infiltrates the academic and epistemic sphere from the political outside – a perspective that keeps the imagined nonviolent nature of academic knowledge production intact. This is a very common framing of the problem. While aware of the entanglements of knowledge and violence, it remains locked in the tripartite imaginary of violence as something else that happens somewhere else and is committed by somebody else, which I have described in Introduction of this text.
The same is true for the approach formulated by the Belgian political scientist and sociologist Luc Reychler (2010), who offers a predominantly psychological explanation of epistemic violence. By creating mental barriers – either intentionally or unintentionally – scholars would inhibit alternative ‘knowledge and know-how that could be used for furthering international cooperation and sustainable peace-building’ (Reychler 2010, 5). Referring to Vandana Shiva’s (1990) Marxist understanding of epistemic violence in the context of global capitalism, he strips her feminist postcolonial definition from its materialist substance and highlights an individualized psychological dimension of the problem. As a result, the former chairperson of the International Peace Research Association considers the problem to be surmountable by way of practicing international solidarity and cooperation between scholars from the Global North and South. Reychler’s empathic call for responsibility among privileged scholars and for international solidarity with their disadvantaged colleagues counts on the efforts of individuals to overcome a systemic problem.
Thomas Teo (2010) locates the problem primarily within scientific procedures that involve processes of Othering – explicitly quantitative ones. Interestingly, he conceives of these operations as resembling direct and personal violence. While the Canadian psychologist see(k)s epistem(olog)ic(al)Footnote 8 violence in the relationship between data and their potentially problematic interpretation, however, the origin and quality of figures and data themselves remain unchallenged. Further, he singles out the superior status that is attributed to (quantitative) science in contrast to ‘theoretical criticism expressed by a marginalized Other’ (Teo 2010, 299). This Other, however, is not situated in any specific (geo)political context, but merely serves to illustrate the problem – just as the universalized scholarly Self remains unmarked of any social position. For Teo, too, epistem(olog)ic(al) violence is a predominantly ethical problem that calls for an increase of scholarly responsibility while leaving systemic and structural dimensions of knowledge–power relations untouched.
Nonetheless, Teo’s definition reminds us of an important issue with regard to exploring epistemic violence in the sphere of international politics: the primacy of quantitative research in IR, which has always been an efficient tool for dividing and ruling territories, peoples, and knowledges in the service of the modern nation-state. The roots of this paradigm reach back to the 17th century, when the emerging English/British model of modern natural sciences started to turn into a pars pro toto for any scholarly knowledge production. In fact, this ‘predatory discourse’ (Bennett 2007) is co-constitutive of the global colonial expansion and its attendant teleology of linear progress, enlightenment, and civilization. Moreover, the specific scholarly division of labor that undergirds IR-related knowledge production – data from the Global South for theory production in the Global North – maintains the imperialist nature of academia (Galtung 1971) which, in turn, constitutes the structural, cultural, and symbolic background for epistemic violence.
Territorialization, naturalization, embodiment
Two texts from critical geography stand in stark contrast to the abovementioned approach to the problem. They explicitly link epistemic violence to political territories (Korf 2006) and racialized bodies (MacDonald 2002). According to them, the phenomenon is grounded in the human experience of struggle within asymmetric power relations in a postcolonial present. A German scholar based in Switzerland, Benedikt Korf’s work on Sri Lanka exemplifies epistemic violence in that so-called conflict experts rationalize, indeed naturalize territorial claims. He recognizes the academic creation of geographical imaginaries, which turn into naturalized truth claims; these are closely entangled with the direct and physical violence of conflict and warfare in a region that is still struggling with its colonial heritage. However, while the author problematizes the colonial question through the concrete example of conflict transformation in postcolonial Sri Lanka, he neglects the ways in which academic knowledge production itself – usually far removed from regions of conflict – plays a part in the ongoing colonial condition.
Kenneth MacDonald’s analysis of mountain tourism in the Karakorum region of Northern Pakistan goes further in that he maps ‘the linkage between globalization, institutionalized violence and the interaction of bodies differentially situated in power relations’ (MacDonald 2002, 10). Specifically, he problematizes the gap between a globalized discourse of human rights and economic empowerment among predominantly (white) European and US-American adventure tourists, and the disastrous living and working conditions of the local porters. The Canadian geographer locates epistemic violence in this material and cognitive gap, arguing that the very specific understanding of distance – both physical/geographical and mental/moral – upholds the abyss that separates the privileged from the exploited. Contrary to what the liberal progressive narrative propagates, this kind of tourism does little to reduce or bridge this gap. Instead, these encounters with the Other, he argues, not only rely on, but also perpetuate social, material, economic, and epistemic asymmetries based on race and class. MacDonald does not provide a substantial definition of epistemic violence either, but rather anchors the problem in the colonial condition of the present. He is one of the very few authors who explicitly includes class as a category of analysis vis-à-vis a concept that is predominantly based on race. Considerations of sex and gender, however, do not inform his argument.
Drawing on a long feminist tradition, the Brazilian sociolinguist Joana Plaza Pinto (2017) includes the latter into her equally body-centered approach to epistemic violence. While the racialized and sexualized body constitutes a permanent ‘battlefield’ (Pinto 2017, 173) of scientific activities in an ongoing colonial condition, she argues, it is constantly excluded from academic debates.Footnote 9 Eurocentric scholarship, she argues, in fact not describes and analyzes languages, but rather invents them in the first place by differentiating bodies from each other, based on very specific ideas of nationality, gender, race, geopolitical location, and age. That said, colonial markers used for the hierarchization of bodies apply to the invention of languages, while languages in turn become markers of bodies themselves. This is where Pinto sees Santos’ ‘epistemicide’ (Santos 2014) at work. As a result, certain bodies are listened to because their languages are considered understandable and reasonable, while others are turned into ‘epistemic outcast[s]’ (Pinto 2017, 181) whose articulations are exoticized, devaluated, ignored, or even eliminated altogether with the substantial help of distinguished scholarship. Divya Tolia-Kelly, a UK-based geographer, provides an impressive example in her analysis of the British Museum, which she understands as ‘a site of materialising the pain of epistemic violence, the rupture of genocide and the deadening of artifacts,’ ‘a mausoleum for the European eye, […] which petrifies living cultures […] along racial lines’ (Tolia-Kelly 2016, 896).
These spatialized, embodied, and materialist approaches to epistemic violence show that the phenomenon is not an abstract problem at all; its causes and effects are in many ways entangled with IR issues. Starting from a corporeal dimension of epistemic violence, it is obvious that colonial modernity is literally embodied in what Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2007) calls the ‘coloniality of Being,’ to which I will return below.
Representation, reductionism, resilience
Rooted in social and political movements as well as in anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial theory, feminists have sharpened their tools, conceptualizing violence, for decades in order to challenge dominant orders. Understanding violence as procedural and relational, they have tended to its epistemic layers, too. Unsatisfied with abstract and/or individualized definitions of epistemic violence, they have highlighted its social, material, and global dimensions. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that a feminist postcolonial scholar (Spivak 1988) coined the most widespread definition of the term already in the mid-1980s. In her canonical text, the famous US-based Indian literary scholar addresses epistemic violence both in the colonial past (British colonial rule in India) and in the imperial present (French leftist intellectual discourse in the 1980s). Spivak outlines various ways of how both mainstream and critical voices silence (post)colonial subjects, while othering marginalized women in the Global South in particular. By linking Foucault’s notion of epistemic violence to the colonial condition, she exposes his Eurocentrism; she then goes on to harness the term for a postcolonial critique of multiple violent power relations that are based on the pernicious colonial heritage of intersectional racism, sexism and classism, past and present. She offers a feminist reading of Marx’ understanding of representation – distinguishing between Darstellung (speaking about) and Vertretung (speaking for) – allowing her to show how both Western and Southern patriarchal elites and androcentric thought heterarchically feed into each other by way of epistemic violence when it comes to securing claims and privileges. For Spivak, epistemic violence is always already entangled with other forms of violence, including direct and physical violence.
An internationally renowned Indian feminist and a postcolonial thinker herself, Vandana Shiva’s approach to epistemic violence is far less prominent. A trained physicist, a philosopher of (natural) science, and an environmentalist, she might speak to a different audience than Spivak, but her perspective is equally international, political, postcolonial, and profoundly radical. However, unlike Spivak, who defines epistemological violence in terms of discourse and representation, she situates her approach in materialism. She puts capitalist exploitation, the maximization of profits, the accumulation of capital, and imperial militarism at the heart of her definition (Shiva 1990). These factors, she argues, lead to a profound reductionism of scientific knowledge and significantly reduce the human capability of understanding the world by excluding and destroying all other ways of knowing (Shiva 1995). For her, the problem is not an ‘epistemological accident’ (Shiva 1990, 238), but rather ‘related to the needs of a particular form of economic organization.’ The entangled knowledge monopoly, embodied and executed by so-called experts, encompasses four tiers of (epistemological) violence: ‘violence against the subject of knowledge, the object of knowledge, the beneficiary of knowledge, and against knowledge itself’ (Shiva 1990, 233–234). Last, but not least, the epistem(olog)ic(al) violence of modern scientific reductionism deprives nature’s ability to renew itself since it regards nature as an inanimate and exploitable resource – with disastrous effects on indigenous populations and women, and, in fact, a threat to the survival of humankind and the entire planet, she argues. Seen from this vantage point, epistemology is anything but irrelevant to international politics, and violence is anything but alien to the discipline(s) that claim to explain what is going on in the world. Both are constitutive of the capitalist world system.
One of the most comprehensive albeit less materialist theorizations of epistemic violence can be found in Kristie Dotson’s (2011, 2014) work. Like most feminist authors, the African American philosopher puts the relation of (not) speaking, (not) listening, (not) understanding and (not) silencing, as outlined by Spivak (1988), at the center of her analysis. Eliminating knowledge, damaging a given group’s ability to speak, being listened to and being heard, and unequally distributing intelligibility are some of the central aspects of epistemic violence in Dotson’s account. More precisely, she distinguishes between two epistemic practices of Eurocentric, race–sex–class-based silencing: (i) (exogenous) ‘testimonial quieting’ as an active practice of unknowing, and (ii) (endogenous) ‘testimonial smothering’ as a form capitulation or self-silencing (Dotson 2011, 242–244). While Dotson defines epistemic violence as a ‘failure, owing to pernicious ignorance, of hearers to meet the vulnerabilities of speakers in linguistic exchanges’ (Dotson 2011, 236), she emphasizes that the problem is ‘less about the victim […] and more about the socio-epistemic circumstances of the silencing’ (Dotson 2011, 251). She unmistakably locates these circumstances within the colonial heritage of what Ramón Grosfoguel (2013) calls ‘epistemic racism/sexism.’ Epistemic violence, to her, is deeply sedimented into dominant orders of knowledge and, therefore, constitutes a global political problem. Epistemic violence, she argues, is deeply enshrined in the resilience of the epistemic systems at our disposal. Challenging and changing these orders of epistemic oppression requires becoming aware of the persistent resilience of one’s own epistemological system, while relying upon that very system for creating alternative epistemologies and fostering sociopolitical change (Dotson 2014).
Eurocentrism and the modern nation-state
Without referring to the concept of symbolic violence, Dotson’s conclusion is reminiscent of Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1998), who mapped the entanglements of epistemic violence with the state’s monopoly on symbolic and direct physical violence. Focusing on the colonial dimension of this entanglement, many post- and decolonial theorists, too, see the modern nation-state as a privileged producer and perpetrator of epistemic violence. In contrast to Eurocentric state theory, however, they explicitly locate the state in the colonial condition. According to Immanuel Wallerstein (1991), the social sciences have co-constituted both the state’s and modernity’s political and epistemic foundations in a complex division of labor, i.e., ‘a geopolitical distribution of scholarly tasks in function of their pertinence to Western modernity’ (Boatcă and Costa 2010, 13). From this perspective, the domain of academic knowledge production is more than a side stage of epistemic violence in international politics. In fact, it is intrinsically linked to what Johan Galtung (1969) has called structural violence half a century ago. While structural violence cannot be separated from direct and physical violence, international politics and state-centered IR persistently disregard broader concepts of violence even though they profess to explicate and solve violent conflicts.
In order to conceptualize epistemic violence, Santiago Castro-Gómez (2002) examines the role of the social sciences within colonialism, state formation, and the global rise of capitalism. Drawing on Foucault and Spivak, the Colombian philosopher links the former’s concept of gouvernementalité to the latter’s problematization of Darstellung and Vertretung with a view to framing the present crisis of the modern narrative of rationality, development, progress, and democratization. The modern nation-state, he argues, ‘not only requires a monopoly on violence, but also uses it to rationally “direct” the activities of its citizens in accordance with previously established scientific criteria’ (Castro-Gómez 2002, 271). The state thus functions as the central node ‘from which the mechanisms of control over the natural and social world are distributed and coordinated’ (Castro-Gómez 2002, 270). The social sciences provide and permanently refine these mechanisms of adjustment of human life to changing modes of production and governing, which are rooted in the early stages of European colonialism in the Americas. According to Castro-Gómez (2002, 277), ‘the colonial imaginary permeated the entire conceptual system of the Social Sciences from their inception.’ Instead of providing the theoretical and epistemological framework to dismantle the global imposition that is the Eurocentric paradigm, they supply politics with the tools for putting this paradigm into practice – a practice that post- and decolonial scholars poignantly call ‘genocide/epistemicide’ (Grosfoguel 2013; Santos 2014). Rather than being a supplementary element in the formation of the modern state – which, after all, undergirds the international political system – scholarly knowledge production plays a key constitutive part in it. Consequently, we must look at the social sciences’ contributions to the ‘invention of the other’ (Castro-Gómez 2002, 275) from a geopolitical perspective based on the concept of coloniality/modernity. IR and related disciplines such as development and peace studies, conflict and security studies, terrorism and war studies, to name but a few, are deeply involved in this invention of the Other, i.e., in the processes of epistemic violence. While we can separate epistemic violence from other forms of state and substate violence along typological lines, we must acknowledge their deep entanglements in real-world politics.
In the following, I sketch a multidisciplinary conceptual approach that builds on the preceding assemblage by condensing some of the aforementioned elements of epistemic violence into a well-established social scientific matrix, i.e., the figure of the micro-, meso-, and macrolevel. I am well aware that this may seem contradictory from a perspective that otherwise calls for decentering, deconstructing and decolonizing concepts and canons. As I will argue in the next section, however, re-signifying the customary toolbox is a crucial next step toward that broader horizon.