‘Epistemological Violence’: The Other Kind of E.V.

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

International relations, or the “study of war and peace,” as it is still sometimes called, dates back many centuries to basically the beginning of recorded history — about as long as war and peace has been a thing.

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In the course of my studies pursuing a master’s degree in international relations, the “critical” lens was one of the more interesting strains of academic inquiry that sprung up in the mid-20th century, which centered on the proposition that everything the discipline had previously chronicled — all of the theories it had developed (realism, liberalism, etc.) — were wrong.

The “critical” theories of international relations, as they are called — which, again, have only materialized in the last half-century — propose to undermine all of the previously central tenets of mainstream international relations, essentially on the grounds that previous theories were flawed from the start because they came from a capitalist, male, European perspective.

This, in my view, is a clear outgrowth of Marxist ideology, which many people fail to understand but which essentially amounts to a rejection of all things Western and capitalist — a systematized “criticism” of the West, if you will.

Many critical theorists, radicalized over time, went beyond mere criticism to deem the prevailing Western paradigm a systemic form of violence perpetrated against the non-Western, non-white world.

I had never heard the following term until very recently, but, against all of that backdrop that I have personally experienced in academia, it comes as no surprise that such a ludicrous term as “epistemological violence” would be propagated by these same ideologues.

First, a concise definition of “epistemology,” via Merriam-Webster:

The study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity

Via Social and Personality Psychology Compass (emphasis added):

The subject of violence is the researcher, the object is the Other, and the action is the interpretation of data that is presented as knowledge. Using a hypothetical example, the problem of interpretation in empirical research on the Other is discussed. Epistemological violence refers to the interpretation of social-scientific data on the Other and is produced when empirical data are interpreted as showing the inferiority of or problematizes the Other, even when data allow for equally viable alternative interpretations. Interpretations of inferiority or problematizations are understood as actions that have a negative impact on the Other. Because the interpretations of data emerge from an academic context and thus are presented as knowledge, they are defined as epistemologically violent actions.
— Thomas Teo, York University psychology professor

“Epistemological violence” — as a non-sequitur answer to a theory or claim in which the substance is not examined but rather the focus is shifted to the intent or bias of those who make it — is by no means confined to academia.

Politicians use the “words are violence” shield all the time. Even if those who espouse the ironically illiberal belief that “words are violence” don’t understand the milieu from which their ideological convictions emerged, they are parroting this virulent pathogen in academia.


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