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  • Hidden Costs of Inquiry:Exploitation, World-Travelling and Marginalized Lives
  • Audrey Yap (bio)


There are many good reasons to learn about the lives of people who have less social privilege than we do. We might want to understand their circumstances in order to have informed opinions on social policy, or to make our institutions more inclusive. We might also want to cultivate empathy for its own sake. Much of this knowledge is gained through social scientific or humanistic research into others' lives. The entitlement to theorize about or study the lives of marginalized others is often granted under the presumption of academic freedom. This paper will not question whether academic freedom licenses us to do so in the first place (see Emerick, this issue, for consideration of those questions); instead, I will highlight several tensions between the moral-epistemic imperative to learn about the lives and circumstances of people who are relatively marginalized, and the cost of that learning to marginalized people and communities. This will illustrate a range of ways in which researchers' good intentions fail to prevent harm.

With respect to the cost to marginalized individuals, I will draw on Uma Narayan's work on third-world feminism and apply Nora Berenstain's concept of epistemic exploitation. When it comes to communities, Maria Lugones' idea of world-travelling is a helpful model of the process of learning about the lives of marginalized others. It helps to frame questions about the burden that world-travelling places on the inhabitants of the worlds whose rules researchers are attempting to navigate. None of this is intended to argue for specific restrictions on academic research and inquiry, but argues that the exercise of academic freedom, even directed towards progressive ends, can place disproportionate burdens on those already marginalized. [End Page 153]

1. ignorance and marginalized lives

The problem in this paper arises because ignorance of others' lives can be harmful, systemic, and willful (Mills 2007; Medina 2013; Pohlhaus 2012). For example, there may be systematic gaps in our conceptual schemes, making it difficult for people from marginalized groups to articulate, and sometimes fully understand, their experiences (Fricker 2007). An often cited case of resolving such a hermeneutical gap is the development of the concept of sexual harassment. Carmita Wood left a job due to her employer's unwanted advances, but was subsequently denied unemployment benefits because she could not describe her negative experiences in a way that could be easily understood. The limited meaning-making mechanisms available to society as a whole kept experiences like hers obscure (Fricker 2007, 153). It took social coordination to change this situation; several women, in discussing their shared experiences, developed the term "sexual harassment," which we now use to capture the phenomenon in question.

This example is often presented as a situation in which a requisite concept was entirely lacking. There are also situations in which concepts that are primarily useful for describing marginalized people's experiences are only available within the linguistic and social communities to which they belong. So while such people might have less access to the mechanisms through which social meaning as a whole is shaped, they might still be able to enact linguistic and conceptual reform within the smaller subsets of society to which they belong. Even in Wood's case, she and the other women who had experienced sexual harassment understood that something bad had been done to them by their male bosses, even if they did not have a clear way to describe it (Mason 2011). This is not surprising, however, given their epistemic situation. After all, agents in different social positions will typically have corresponding epistemic differences. For example, many institutions maintain white North American ignorance on matters of racial inequality (Mills 2007). Thus, while articulating the concept of sexual harassment and introducing it into mainstream discourse was a significant achievement, we can still distinguish the hermeneutical disadvantage of the sexually harassed women from the (probable) hermeneutical ignorance of their harassers. Mason argues that

At the social level, the ignorance of men about the experiences of women meant that the professor failed to have a proper understanding of how he was treating Wood, and it was his...


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pp. 153-173
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