Philosophy 137 - 7.5.2 Standpoint Epistemology

Social epistemology accounts for the social nature of knowledge and justification. The quality and extent of an individual’s knowledge depends heavily on the people that individual deems trustworthy. The same is the case for group or public knowledge (knowledge generally accepted as true by a collective). Individuals and perspectives granted expert status have more influence on what is accepted, but this means that many individuals and perspectives will be ignored. Furthermore, it is often types or groups of people who are excluded, which becomes problematic if the perspectives of those groups are valuable to the task of knowledge creation. Standpoint epistemology takes this worry seriously. Standpoint epistemology studies the relationship between an individual’s social status and that individual’s epistemic position. Of particular importance to the theory is the notion that the relative power of individuals and groups influences who we consider to be reliable sources, causing us to ignore the perspectives of less powerful groups. Furthermore, standpoint theory argues that the exclusion of entire groups harms the entire enterprise of gaining knowledge.

Take as an example the president of a large factory who wants to increase efficiency and cut down on waste. The president convenes all the department heads and managers to identify areas of inefficiency and waste; essentially, they want the perspectives of those individuals with more power within the factory. But if the president doesn’t elicit the opinion of any of the workers in the warehouse or on the factory floor, they miss out on potentially valuable perspectives. A manager may think they can adequately identify problems in the way that the manual work is done. But given the position of a factory worker—situated day after day on the factory floor—the factory worker has a unique perspective. Standpoint theorists hold that perspectives such as that of the factory floor worker are uniquely valuable and cannot be emulated by those not in that position.

Standpoint epistemology is applied to many areas of study. In the social sciences, where the goal is to describe social structures, behaviors, and relationships, standpoint theorists advocate for focusing on the perspectives of traditionally marginalized groups. If the general goal is to study how people do things, then it does not do any good to ignore the experiences of entire classes of people. And when the goal is to discover facts about power dynamics within social institutions, focusing only on privileged perspectives is woefully inadequate. If anthropologists in the 1950s wanted to understand racism and the unequal power structure in the American South, interviewing Black citizens would generate more insightful evidence than interviews with White citizens. Black Americans were in a better epistemic position compared to their White counterparts to describe the power structure. Similarly, women are in a better position to explain sexism within a workplace than their male counterparts. People who use wheelchairs are in a much better position to design a truly accessible bathroom. Examples such as these abound.

Standpoint epistemology also critiques the traditional hard sciences and medical research. Hard sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physiology, are those that rely on controlled experiments, quantifiable data, and mathematical modeling. Hard sciences are generally noted for being exact, rigorous, and objective. Standpoint theorists question this objectivity and reveal how biases and perspectives of researchers can influence these supposedly objective fields. A clear example of this is early research on heart disease. Because medical researchers, who were mostly male, focused their studies on men, heart disease was considered a men’s disease. The symptoms of a heart attack that doctors and patients were warned to look out for did not include many symptoms that women experience when having a heart attack (Kourany 2009). Men most often experience chest pain, while women are more likely to experience symptoms such as jaw pain and nausea (American Heart Association n.d.). As a result, many women did not seek medical attention when experiencing heart problems, and doctors failed to properly diagnose them when they did seek medical treatment. Standpoint theory reveals not only that varied standpoints are valuable but also that specific standpoints often include implicit or explicit bias—not including women or people of color in data sets, only including particular variables in modeling, and so on.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax