interdisciplinarity

Resources – on automated systems and bias

Last updated: 13/12/2017

If you are a data scientist, a software developer, or in the social and human sciences with interest in digital humanities, then you’re no stranger to the ongoing discussions on how algorithms embed and perpetuate human biases. Ethical considerations and critical engagement are urgently needed.

I have keenly been following these discussions for a while and this post is an attempt to put together the articles, books, book reviews, videos, interviews, twitter threads and so on., that I’ve come across, in one place so they can be used as resources.

This list is by no means exhaustive and as we are becoming more and more aware of the catastrophic consequences of these technologies, more and more pieces/articles/journal papers are being written about it on a daily basis. I plan to update this site regularly. Also, if you think there are relevant material that I have not included, please leave them as a comment and I will add them.

Books

Weapons of math destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy by Cathy O’Neil. A great number of the article on the list below are written by O’Neil. She is also active on Twitter regularly posting links and interesting critical insights on everything to do with mathematical models and bias. Here is my own review of O’Neil’s book with plenty of relevant links itself and here for another excellent review of O’Neil’s book.

Algorithms of oppressionAlgorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce – below is an excerpt from Nobel’s book:

Run a Google search for “black girls”—what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.
In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.

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Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. This book is concerned with the workings of the human mind and how computer science can help human decision making.  Here is a post by Artem Kaznatcheev on Computational Kindness which might give you a glimpse of the some of the issues that book covers. Here is a long interview with Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths and a TED Talk with Tom Griffiths on The Computer Science of Human Decision Making.

The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information by Frank Pasquale. You can read the introduction and conclusion chapters of his book here And here is a good review of Pasquale’s book. You can follow his twitter stream here.

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Technically wrongHere is a synopsis:  A revealing look at how tech industry bias and blind spots get baked into digital products—and harm us all.

Buying groceries, tracking our health, finding a date: whatever we want to do, odds are that we can now do it online. But few of us ask why all these digital products are designed the way they are. It’s time we change that. Many of the services we rely on are full of oversights, biases, and downright ethical nightmares: Chatbots that harass women. Signup forms that fail anyone who’s not straight. Social media sites that send peppy messages about dead relatives. Algorithms that put more black people behind bars.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher takes an unflinching look at the values, processes, and assumptions that lead to these and other problems. Technically Wrong demystifies the tech industry, leaving those of us on the other side of the screen better prepared to make informed choices about the services we use—and demand more from the companies behind them.

Paula Boddington, Oxford academic and author of Towards a Code of Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, recommends the five best books on Ethics for Artificial Intelligence. Here is the full interview with Nigel Warburton, published on December 1, 2017.

TED Talks, podcasts, and interviews 

The era of blind faith in big data must end TED Talk by Cathy O’Neil, April, 2017

Machine intelligence makes human morals more important November 11, 2017. In this TED Talk, Zeynep Tufekci emphasizes the importance of human values and ethics in the age of machine intelligence and algorithmic decision making.

We’re building an artificial intelligence-powered dystopia, one click at a time, another thought provoking TED Talk from techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci.

How I’m fighting bias in algorthims TED Talk – MIT Researcher Joy Buolamwini, November 2016

Data is the new gold, who are the new thieves? TED Talk – Tijmen Schep 2016

O’Neil’s interview with Politics Weekly podcast (starts 30mins in) July 5, 2017. O’Neil calls for public awareness on how algorithms are used, often without our knowledge, in job interviews, for example., and explains why we should question and interrogate these algorithms which are often presented to us as authoritative.

A short interview with Frank Pasquale on his book Black Box Society May 12, 2016. Pasquale emphasizes the opaqueness of algorithms and argues on why we should demand transparency.

A 2 minutes video, a prototype example, of algorithms being used in recruitment. A working example of the kind of dangerous AI used for recruiting that experts such as O’Neil constantly warn against. This post provides a critical analysis of why such endeavors are futile and dangerous. Here’s another related video on how facial recognition technology will go mainstream in 2018. In fact, such technology has gone mainstream in China. Here is a short video where a BBC reporter experimented with the world’s largest surveillance system.

Tom Chatfield on Critical Thinking October 2, 2017 In this philosophically themed podcast, Chatfield discusses issues such as “how new digital realities interact with old human biases” with Dave Edmonds.

When algorithms discriminate: Robotics, AI and ethics November 18, 2017. Stephen Roberts, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, discusses the threats and promises of artificial intelligence and machine learning with Al Jazeera.

Here is a series of talks, from the ABC Boyer Lectures, hosted by Professor Genevieve Bell. The series is called Fast, Smart and Connected: What is it to be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World? The issues discussed include “How to build our digital future.”

Websites

Social Cooling is a term that refers to a gradual long term negative side effects of living in an digital society where our digital activities are tracked and recorded. Such awareness of potentially being scored by algorithms leads to a gradual behaviour change: self-censorship and self-surveillance. Here is a piece on what looks like social cooling in action. The website itself has plenty of resources that can aid critical thinking and touches up on big philosophical, economical and societal questions in relation to data and privacy.

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www.socialcooling.com

For those interested in critical thinking, data and models Calling Bullshit offers various resources and tools for spotting and calling bullshit. This website, developed for a course entitled ‘Calling Bullshit’, is a great place to explore and learn about all things “data reasoning for the digital age”.

Another important website that is worth a mention here is Algorithmic Justice League where you can report algorithm bias, participate in testing software for inclusive training set, or where you can simply donate and contribute raising awareness about existing bias in coded systems. With a somewhat similar aim is the Data Harm Record website – a running record of harms that have been caused by uses of big data.

fast.ai a project that aims to increase diversity in the field of deep learning and make deep learning accessible and inclusive to all. Critical Algorithm Studies: a Reading List – a great website with links to plenty of material on critical literature on algorithms as social concerns. Here is the Social Media Collective Reading List where you’ll find further material on Digital Divide/ Digital Inclusion and Metaphors of Data.

The AI Now Institute at New York University is an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence. Data & Society is a research institute focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological developments.  FAT/ML is a website on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning with plenty of resources and events, run by a community of researchers.

ConceptNet Numberbatch 17.04: better, less-stereotyped word vectors This is not a website but a blogpost. I am putting it here with other websites as the author offers some solution to reducing biases when building algorithms for natural language understanding beyond simply stating that such algorithms are biased.

Auditing Algorithms – a useful website for those teaching/interested in accountability in automated systems. The site includes films festivals, videos, etc,.

Biology/genetics  – (Digital phrenology?) 

It is difficult to draw a line and put certain articles under the category of social, biological, political, or other as they seem to be somehow all interlinked. Nonetheless, I think the following articles can loosely be described as dealing with biological/genetics material. Towards the end of this post, I have also thematized some articles under the category of ‘political’.

In a recent preprint paper “Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces” (here are the Gurdian and the Economist reportings) Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski calmed that their deep neural network can be trained to discern individuals’ sexual orientations from their photographs. The paper has attracted and continues to attract a massive attentions and has generated numerous responses, outrages and discussion. Here is an in-depth analysis from Calling Bullshit and here for a detailed technical assessment and here for a comprehensive and eloquent response from Greggor Mattson. Here is another response and another one here from a data scientist’s perspective and another recent response from O’Neil here. If you only want to read just one response, I highly recommend reading Mattson’s. There have been been plenty of discussions and threads on Twitter – here and here are a couple of examples. It is worth noting that Kosinski, one of the authors of the above paper, is listed as one of the the advisers for a company called Faception, an Israeli security firm that promises clients to deploy “facial personality profiling” to catch pedophiles and terrorists among others.

When advanced technologies in genetics and face recognition are applied with the assumption that “technology is neutral”, the consequences are often catastrophic and dangerous. These two pieces, Sci-fi crime drama with a strong black lead and Traces of Crime: How New York’s DNA Techniques Became Tainted provide some in-depth analysis of such.

Physiognomy’s New Clothes this is a comprehensive and eloquent piece and well worth your time. Physiognomy, the practice of using people’s outer appearance to infer inner character is a practice that is now discredited and discarded as phrenology. However, this piece illustrates how such practice is alive and well in the era of big data and machine learning. Here is more on the Wu and Zhang paper that the Physignomy’s New Clothes authors cover in the above piece.

General articles on various automated systems and bias, discrimination, unfairness, ethical concerns, etc., listed in order of publication dates starting from the latest.

Artificial Intelligence Seeks An Ethical Conscience December 7, 2017

Australian media watchdog to investigate Google and Facebook December 5, 2017

Why Autocomplete Is Only Funny for Those Who Can Afford It by Safiya Umoja Noble: December 4, 2017

Predictive algorithm under wraps December 3, 2017

Artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be evil. We just have to teach it to be good November 30, 2017

Frank Pasquale testifies (video, written testimony) Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on  Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection in relation to “Algorithms: How Companies’ Decisions About Data and Content Impact Consumers”. Here for more written testimony on Algorithmic Transparency from the Electronic Privacy Information Center – November 29, 2017

U.S. House Hearing on Algorithms & Big Data: 5 Takeaways for Schools November 29, 2017

Facebook to temporarily block advertisers from excluding audiences by race November 29, 2017

Why We Had to Buy Racist, Sexist, Xenophobic, Ableist, and Otherwise Awful Facebook Ads November 27,2017

Facebook hasn’t done enough to tell customers they were duped by Russian propaganda November 25, 2017

Facebook (still) letting housing advertisers exclude users by race November 21, 2017

Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’ November 16, 2017

Ray Dalio has an unbelievable algorithm November 15, 2017

How One Woman’s Digital Life Was Weaponized Against Her November 14, 2017

Maybe Facebook Is Broken. How can you stop people from sharing biased and misleading stuff? November 7, 2017

Bringing A.R.T. to A.I. November 6, 2017

Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial November 5, 2017

Why we need a 21st-century Martin Luther to challenge the church of tech October 29, 2017

Facebook must face local data protection regulations, EU court opinion finds October 25, 2017

Key GDPR Guidance on Behavioral Advertising, Profiling and Automated Decision-Making October 24, 2017

It’s time for more transparency in A.I. October 24, 2017

Federal judge unseals New York crime lab’s software for analyzing DNA evidence October 20, 2017

AI Experts Want to End ‘Black Box’ Algorithms in Government October 18, 2017

Estonia Proposes Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Robots October 17, 2017

Asking the Right Questions About AI October 12, 2017

Google’s AI chief says forget Elon Musk’s killer robots, and worry about bias in AI systems instead October 3, 2017

Researchers Are Upset That Twitter Is Dismissing Their Work On Election Interference October 3, 2017

Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature September 23, 2017

BBC News – Facebook can’t hide behind algorithms September 22, 2017

Data power could make 1984 ‘look like a Teddy bear’s picnic’ September 21, 2017

Machines Taught by Photos Learn a Sexist View of Women September 21, 2017

AI Research Is in Desperate Need of an Ethical Watchdog September 18, 2017

Getting serious about research ethics: AI and machine learning September 18, 2017

Machines are getting schooled on fairness September 16, 2017

Facebook and Google, show us your ad data Understanding how they influence us is crucial to the future of our democracy. September 13, 2017

Understanding Bias in Algorithmic Design Human judgement lies behind every data-driven decision. Left unexamined, value-laden software can have unintended discriminatory effects. September 6, 2017

Report: Britain’s Cops Have Big Data But Not Big Analysis September 6, 2017

Turns out algorithms are racist August 31, 2017

AI programmes are learning to exclude some african american voices August 16, 2017

FaceApp Is Very Excited About Its New Line of Ultra-Racist Filters August 8, 2017

Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses August 8, 2017

Artificial intelligence ethics the same as other new technology  July 29, 2017

Technology is biased too. How do we fix it? July 20, 2017

How can we stop algorithms telling lies? July 16, 2017

Lack of ethics education for computer programmers shocks expert July 2, 2017

Facebook’s secret censorship rules protect white men from hate speech but not black children June 28, 2017

We need to shine more light on algorithms so they can help reduce bias, not perpetuate it June 12, 2017

How to Call B.S. on Big Data: A Practical Guide June 3, 2017

Pitfalls of artificial intelligence decision-making highlighted in Idaho ACLU case  June 2, 2017

The bigot in the machine: Tackling big data’s inherent biases June 1, 2017

Secret algorithms threaten the rule of law June 1, 2017

Algorithms aren’t racist. Your skin is just too dark. May 29, 2017

‘A white mask worked better’: why algorithms are not colour blind May 28, 2017

On Facebook May 7, 2017

AI & Machine Learning Black Boxes: The Need for Transparency and Accountability: April 25, 2017

FaceApp sorry for ‘racist’ filter that lightens skin to make users ‘hot’ April 25, 2017

Robots are racist and sexist. Just like the people who created them April 20, 2017

How artificial intelligence learns to be racist April 17, 2017

Courts are using AI to sentence criminals. That must stop now. April 17, 2017

An AI stereotype catcher April 14, 2017

AI picks up racial and gender biases when learning from what humans write April 13, 2017

AI programs exhibit racial and gender biases, research reveals April 13, 2017

AI learns gender and racial biases from language April 13, 2017

Will the future be full of biased robots? March 31, 2017

Algorithms can be pretty crude toward women March 24, 2027

Algorithms learn from us, and we can be better teachers March 13, 2017

Data-driven crime prediction fails to erase human bias March 8, 2017

Big data, big problems – interview with Cathy O’Neil March 1, 2017

How to Keep Your AI From Turning Into a Racist Monster February 13, 2017

Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age February 6, 2017

We put too much trust in algorithms and it’s hurting our most vulnerable December 29, 2016

Be Healthy or Else: How Corporations Became Obsessed with Fitness Tracking December 27, 2016

Discrimination by algorithm: scientists devise test to detect AI bias December 19, 2016

A simplified political history of Big Data December 16, 2016

Hiring Algorithms Are Not Neutral December 9, 2016

How Algorithms Can Bring Down Minorities’ Credit Scores December 2, 2016

Put Away Your Machine Learning Hammer, Criminality Is Not A Nail November 29, 2016

The Foundations of Algorithmic Bias November 7, 2016

Unregulated Use of Facial Recognition Software Could Curb 1st Amendment Rights October 30, 2016

Should we trust predictive policing software to cut crime? October 27, 2016

Google researchers aim to prevent AIs from discriminating October 7, 2016

How algorithms rule our working lives September 1, 2016

White House plan to use data to shrink prison populations could be a racist dumpster fire July 1, 2016

Is criminality predictable? Should it be? June 30, 2016

Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem June 25, 2016

In Wisconsin, a Backlash Against Using Data to Foretell Defendants’ Futures June 22, 2016

Algorithmic risk-assessment: hiding racism behind “empirical” black boxes May 24, 2016

ProPublica

Image Courtesy of ProPublica

There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks. May 23, 2016 The company that sells this program (Northpointe) has responded to the criticisms here. Northpointe asserts that a software program it sells that predicts the likelihood a person will commit future crimes is equally fair to black and white defendants. Following such response, Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin has written another response (Technical Response to Northpointe) re-examined the data. They argue that they have considered the company’s criticisms, and stand by their conclusions.

Python Meets Plato: Why Stanford Should Require Computer Science Students to Study Ethics May 16, 2016

The Real Bias Built In at Facebook May 19, 2016

Twitter taught Microsoft’s friendly AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day March 24, 2016

The Iron Cage in binary code: How Facebook shapes your life chances – Sociological Images: December 30, 2015

As World Crowds In, Cities Become Digital Laboratories December 11, 2015

Google Photos Tags Two African-Americans As Gorillas Through Facial Recognition Software July 1, 2015

How big data is unfair September 26, 2014

Facebook reveals news feed experiment to control emotions June 30, 2014

The Hidden Biases in Big Data by Kate Crawford April 1, 2013

Politics

Algorithmic processes and politics might seem far removed from each other. However, if anything, the recent political climate is indicative of how algorithms can be computational tools for political agendas. Here and here are exemplar twitter threads that highlight particular Twitter accounts used as tools for political agenda. The articles below are, in some way or another, related to algorithms in the political arena.

Inside the world of Brazil’s social media cyborgs December 13, 2017

How Rodrigo Duterte turned Facebook into a weapon, with a little help from Facebook December 7, 2017

More than a Million Pro-Repeal Net Neutrality Comments were Likely Faked November 23, 2017

Extreme Vetting by Algorithm November 20, 2017

How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into evil November 19, 2017

Do Facebook and Google have control of their algorithms anymore? A sobering assessment and a warning November 14, 2017

‘Way too little, way too late’: Facebook’s factcheckers say effort is failing November 13, 2017

How to Fool Americans on Twitter November 6, 2017

Russia funded Facebook and Twitter investments through Kushner associate November 5, 2017

Opinion | Silicon Valley Can’t Destroy Democracy Without Our Help November 2, 2017

When Data Science Destabilizes Democracy and Facilitates Genocide November 2, 2017

Facebook estimates 126 million people were served content from Russia-linked pages October 31, 2017

Russian content on Facebook, Google and Twitter reached far more users than companies first disclosed, congressional testimony says October 30, 2017

‘Downright Orwellian’: journalists decry Facebook experiment’s impact on democracy October 25, 2017

A Suspected Network of 13,000 Twitter Bots Pumped Out Pro-Brexit Messages In The Run-Up To The EU Vote October 20, 2017

How People Inside Facebook Are Reacting To The Company’s Election Crisis October 20, 2017

Facebook treats its ethical failures like software bugs, and that’s why they keep happening October 20, 2017

Tech Giants, Once Seen as Saviors, Are Now Viewed as Threats October 12, 2017

Russia Probe Now Investigating Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s ‘Psychographic’ Data Gurus October 10, 2017

Google uncovers Russian-bought ads on YouTube, Gmail and other platforms October 9, 2017

Facebook cut references to Russia from a report in April about election influence October 5, 2017

Russian Facebook ads: 70 million people may have seen them October 4, 2017

Google and Facebook Have Failed Us – The Atlantic October 2, 2017

Facebook and Google promote politicized fake news about Las Vegas shooter October 2, 2017

Social media companies must respond to the sinister reality behind fake news October 1, 2017

Zuckerberg’s Preposterous Defense of Facebook September 29, 2017

“Fake news” tweets targeted to swing states in election, researchers find September 28, 2017

As Google Fights Fake News, Voices on the Margins Raise Alarm September 26, 2017

Facebook blocked an ad for a march against white supremacy: September 25, 2017

Hillary Clinton says Kenya’s annulled election was a “project” of a controversial US data firm September 19, 2017

Facebook enabled advertisers to reach “Jew haters” September 14, 2017

Facebook and Google, show us your ad data Understanding how they influence us is crucial to the future of our democracy. September 13, 2017

RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War September 13, 2017

American politics needs new rules for the Facebook era  September 12, 2017

Russia’s Facebook Fake News Could Have Reached 70 Million Americans September 8, 2017

Forum Q&A: Philip Howard on Computational Propaganda’s Challenge to Democracy July 25, 2017. “Computational propaganda, or the use of algorithms and automated social media accounts to influence politics and the flow of information, is an emerging challenge to democracy in the digital age. Using automated social media accounts called bots (or, when networked, botnets), a wide array of actors including authoritarian governments and terrorist organizations are able to manipulate public opinion by amplifying or repressing different forms of political content, disinformation, and hate speech.”

WhatsApp and Facebook are driving Kenya’s fake news cycle July 24, 2017

GOP Data Firm Accidentally Leaks Personal Details of Nearly 200 Million American Voters June 19, 2017

Voter profiling in the 2017 Kenyan election June 6, 2017

The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked May 7, 2017

Confronting a Nightmare for Democracy May 4, 2017

30 million Facebook users had their data harvested by Trump campaign affiliate March 30, 2017

Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media Feburary 26, 2017

Revealed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit Feburary 26, 2017

The Truth About The Trump Data Team That People Are Freaking Out About Feburary 16, 2017

The Data That Turned the World Upside Down Jan 28, 2017

Inside the Trump Bunker, With Days to GoWin or lose, the Republican candidate and his inner circle have built a direct marketing operation that could power a TV network—or finish off the GOP. October 27, 2016 

Facebook wants you to vote on Tuesday. Here’s how it messed with your feed in 2012. October 31, 2014

For a more scholarly read 

Barocas, S., & Selbst, A. D. (2016). Big data’s disparate impact.

Bolukbasi, T., Chang, K. W., Zou, J. Y., Saligrama, V., & Kalai, A. T. (2016). Man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker? Debiasing word embeddings. In Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (pp. 4349-4357).

Caliskan-Islam, A., Bryson, J. J., & Narayanan, A. (2016). Semantics derived automatically from language corpora necessarily contain human biasesarXiv preprint arXiv:1608.07187.

Chouldechova, A. (2017). Fair prediction with disparate impact: A study of bias in recidivism prediction instruments. arXiv preprint arXiv:1703.00056. (PDF)

Datta, A., Sen, S., & Zick, Y. (2016, May). Algorithmic transparency via quantitative input influence: Theory and experiments with learning systems. In Security and Privacy (SP), 2016 IEEE Symposium on (pp. 598-617). IEEE. (PDF)

Datta, A., Tschantz, M. C., & Datta, A. (2015). Automated experiments on ad privacy settings. Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies2015(1), 92-112.

Friedman, B., & Nissenbaum, H. (1996). Bias in computer systems. ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS), 14(3), 330-347.

Monahan, J., & Skeem, J. L. (2016). Risk assessment in criminal sentencing. Annual review of clinical psychology12, 489-513.

Munoz, C., Smith, M., & Patil, D. (2016). Big data: A report on algorithmic systems, opportunity, and civil rights. Executive Office of the President. The White House.

Yeung, K. (2017). Algorithmic Regulation: A Critical Interrogation.

Zafar, M. B., Valera, I., Gomez Rodriguez, M., & Gummadi, K. P. (2017, April). Fairness beyond disparate treatment & disparate impact: Learning classification without disparate mistreatment. In Proceedings of the 26th International Conference on World Wide Web (pp. 1171-1180). International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee.

 

 

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Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogism: a synthesis (work in progress)

Embodied, enactive and dialogical approaches to cognitive science radically depart from traditional Western thought in the manner with which they deal with life, the mind and the person. The former can be characterised as emphasising interdependence, relationships, and connectedness with attempts to understanding organisms in their milieu. Acknowledgements of complexities and ambiguities of reality form the starting points for epistemological claims.  The latter, on the other hand, tends to strive for certainty and logical coherence in an attempt to establish stable and relatively fixed epistemological generalisations. Individuals, which often are perceived as independent discreet entities, are taken as the primary subjects of knowledge and the units of analysis.

Collins’s proposed black feminist epistemology, hereafter “Afrofeminist epistemology”, opposes the traditional Western approach to epistemology as well as the largely Positivist scientific view inherited from it.  As such, it is worth drawing attention to the similarities between Black feminist thought and dialogical approaches to the cognitive sciences. In what follows I seek to reveal a striking convergence of themes between these two schools of thought. In so doing, I intend to illustrate that the two traditions – cognitive sciences, especially the dialogical approach to epistemology, and Afrofeminist epistemology, specifically, the type proposed by Patricia Hill Collins (2002) – can inform one another through dialogue.

General characterization of classic Western approach to epistemology and the Cartesian inheritance

The classic Western approach to epistemology tends to be monological; meaning it tends to focus on individuals and their cognition and behaviour. When relationships and interactions enter the equation, individuals and their relations are often portrayed as distinct entities that can be neatly separated. Dichotomous thinking — subject versus object, emotion versus reason – persists within this tradition. Ethical and moral values and questions are often treated as clearly separable from “objective scientific work” and as something that the scientist need not contaminate her “objective” work with. In its desire for absolute rationality, Western thought wishes to cleave thought from emotion, cultural influence and ethical dimensions. Cognition, evaluation and emotions are treated as if they are entities that shouldn’t be contaminated. Abstract and intellectual thinking are regarded as the most trustworthy forms of understanding and rationality is fetishized.

In the classic Western epistemological tradition, abstract reasoning is taken to be the highest cognitive goal, and certainty as a necessary component for knowledge.  Since the ultimate goal is to arrive at timeless, universally applicable laws, establishing certainty is pivotal for laying the foundations. Although there are historical antecedents leading up to and contributing towards what is generally regarded as Western tradition – in particular, Plato in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo – Descartes represents the pinnacle of Western thought (Gardiner 1998, Toulmin 1992). The subject as autonomous and self-sustaining entity or a Cartesian cogito, which we have inherited from Cartesian thinking, remains prevalent in most current Western philosophy as well as in the background assumptions of the human sciences. The way the individual self is taken as the unquestioned origin of knowledge of the world and others is a legacy of this tradition (Linell 2009).

Black feminist criticism of dominant approach and the proposed alternative

Contrary to the classic Western epistemological tradition, in Afrofeminist epistemology ethical and moral values and questions are inseparable from our enquires into knowledge. Similarly, knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes are not independent of the interests and values of those who define what knowledge is, what is important and worthy of study, and what the criteria for epistemological justification are (Collins 2002). Such definitions and criteria are guarded fiercely by the institutions and individuals who act as the ‘gatekeepers’ of the classic Western epistemological tradition. This traditional Western epistemology, Collins points out, predominantly represents Western, elite, and white, male interests and values. In fact, a brief review of the history of Western philosophical canon reveals that knowledge production processes and the criteria for knowledge claims have predominantly been set by elite, white, Western men.

Scholars like Karen Warren (2009) have cogently argued that the history of classical Western philosophy has, for centuries, almost exclusively consisted of elite, white, Western European men giving the illusion that Western white men are the epitome of intellectual achievement. Women’s voices and perspectives were diminished, ignored, and systematically excluded from the canon. In her ‘recovery project’, Warren finds that women philosophers nonetheless have made important contributions throughout the history of philosophy and that you find them when you go looking for them. This, to a great extent, remains the case not only in philosophy, but also in much of the rest of the academic tradition. A brief look at any philosophy curricula would reveal that white European male philosophers and their views remain dominant and definitive.

Traditional approaches taken as the “normal” and “acceptable” ways to theorise and generalise about people’s lived experiences means that any other approaches to theorising about groups of people that are not aligned with canonical intellectual currents (often white European male) are dismissed as “anomalies”. For Collins, it is indisputable that different people experience reality differently and that all social thought somewhat reflects the realities and interests of its creators. Political criteria influence knowledge production and validation processes in one way or another.  Collins asserts, in studying Black women’s realities, the typical perspectives on offer have either identified black women with the oppressor, in which case Black women lack an independent interpretation of their own realities, or have characterised Black women as less human than the oppressor, in which case Black women lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. While in the first perspective independent Black women’s realities are seen as not their own, in the latter, it is seen as inferior. For that reason, the traditional epistemology is inadequate to capture and account for the lived experiences of black women – hence Collins’ proposal for an Afrocentric feminist epistemology which is grounded in black women’s values and lived experiences.

Black women’s lived experiences are different in important ways. The kind of relationships Black women have, and the kind of work they engage in are notable examples that demonstrate the differing realities and lived experiences. Intuitive knowledge, what Collins calls wisdom, is crucial to the everyday lives and survival of black women. While wisdom and intuitions, as opposed to abstract intellectualizing, might be excluded as irrelevant, and at best, less credible as far as the traditional epistemologies are concerned, they are highly valued within black communities:

“The distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women’s survival. … knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.” (Collins 1989, p. 759)

The desire for complete objectivity and universally generalisable theories in the dominant Western tradition has led to a focus on abstract analysis of the nature of concepts like ‘knowledge’ and ‘justification’, with little to no grounding of complex lived experience. Its portrayal of reason and rationality in direct contrast with emotions – the former to arrive at pure, objective knowledge –  has led to dichotomous thinking, thus blinding us to continuities and complementarities. Consequently, “reason” has been privileged over emotions. This in turn has impeded emotional and bodily knowledge, what Foucault (1980) calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ often expressed through music, drama, etc., as less important. However, ‘subjugated knowledge’ is crucial and is part of a way of life and survival for black communities. Such knowledge, grounded in concrete experiences and recognised through connectedness, dialogues and relationships, is what is of real value for Black women.

That knowledge claims should be grounded in concrete, lived experience rather than abstract intellectualising is crucial to Collins’s Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Collins’s Afrocentric epistemology prioritizes wisdom over knowledge and has, at its core, black women’s experiences of race and gender oppression. Black women have shared experience of oppression, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and apartheid as well as roots in the core African value system prior to colonization. The roots of Afrocentric epistemology can be traced back to African-based oral traditions. As such, dialogues occupy an important place. Dialogues, so far as the Afrocentric epistemology is concerned, are an essential method for assessing knowledge claims.

This Afrocentric epistemology, grounded in the lived experience of black women, that employs dialogues as a way of validating knowledge claims, stands in a stark contrast with that of the Eurocentric epistemology. Connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. Individuals are not detached observers of stories or folktales, but rather active participants, listeners and speakers and part of the story. Dialogues explore and capture the fundamentally interactive connected nature of people and relationships.

Ethical claims lie at the heart of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, in contrast to the classical Western epistemology that considers ethical issues as separate from and independent of ‘objective scientific investigations’. Afrocentric feminist epistemology is about employing emotions, wisdom, ethics and reason as interconnected and equally essential components in assessing knowledge claims with reference to a particular set of historical conditions.

Dialogical criticism to dominant approach and its alternative

The dialogical approach to cognitive science – inspired by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s (1895 – 1975) thinking and further developed by dialogists such as Per Linell (2009) – objects to the dominant Western epistemological approach. Dialogical theories which have roots in the Bakhtin Circle, a 20th century school of Russian thought has had a massive influence on social theory, philosophy and psychology. At the centre of dialogical theories lies the view that linguistic production, the notion of self-hood, and knowledge are essentially dialogic. Dialogical approaches are concerned with conceptualizing and theorizing human-sense making and they do so based on a set of assumptions some of which stand in stark opposition to traditional Western philosophy and science. These assumptions include: individual selves cannot be assumed to exist as agents and thinkers before they begin to interact with others and the world; our sense-makings are not separable from our historical antecedents and current cultural and societal norms and value systems. The interrelation between self, others and the environment are there from the start in the infant’s life and the awareness of self and others co-develop over time; they are two sides of the same process. Classical Western philosophy and science has tried to reduce the world to rational individual subjects in attempt to establish stable universals. The origin of knowledge of the world and of others is the discreet individual person. So far as dialogical approaches go, most traditional Western epistemological approaches are rooted in Cartesian individualism and are monological – meaning, that they only encompass individuals and their cognition and environments. Groups and societies are nothing but ensembles of individuals:

“Individuals alone think, speak, carry responsibilities, and other individuals at most have a casual impact on their activities and stances.” (Linell 2009, p. 44)

Dialogism[1], in contrast, insists that interdependencies, co-dependencies, and relationships between the individual and the world are most fundamental components in understanding the nature of selves and furthermore, of knowledge. The term intersubjectivity captures this concept well:

“The term “intersubjectivity”—or what Hannah Arendt calls “the subjective in-between”—shifts our emphasis away from notions of the person, the self, or the subject as having a stable character and abiding essence, and invites us to explore the subtle negotiations and alterations of subjective experience as we interact with one another, intervocally or dialogically (in conversation or confrontation), intercorporeally (in dancing, moving, fighting, or competing), and introceptively (in getting what we call a sense of the other’s intentions, frame of mind, or worldview).”  (Jackson 2002, p. 5)

Cultures and societies are typically conceived as objective, stable structures so far as Western epistemologies go. Dialogism by contrast conceives cultures and societies as dynamic, living and partly open, with tensions, internal struggles and conflicts between majorities and minorities and different value systems. “Knowledge is necessarily constructed and continually negotiated (a) in situ and in sociocultural traditions, and (b) in dialogue with others; individuals are never completely autonomous1 as sense-makers.” (Linell 2009, p. 46) The individual is not a separate, discrete, fixed and stable entity that stands independent from others, but rather one that is always in dynamical interactions with and interdependent with others. Knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes need therefore to reflect these continual tensions and dynamic interactions.

Concluding remarks: drawing similarities between dialogical approaches and Afrofeminist epistemology

So, what are the implications, if any, of drawing these commonalities between Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogical approaches to epistemology, and their common refutation of traditional Western epistemology? Collins has described Afrofeminist and Western epistemological grounds as competing and at times irreconcilable:

“Those Black feminists who develop knowledge claims that both epistemologies can accommodate may have found a route to the elusive goal of generating so called objective generalizations that can stand as universal truths.”  (Collins 1989, p.773)  

The synthesis (incorporation?) of dialogism with Afrofeminist epistemology is, in a sense, not the discovery of that elusive finding into “objective generalization” or “universal truths” that satisfy both epistemologies. Rather such synthesis, I argue, is a means towards epistemological approaches that aspire to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical epistemological underpinnings. Such epistemological approaches acknowledge that knowledge claims, knowledge validation processes and any scientific endeavours in general are value-laden and cannot be considered independent of underlying values and interests. A move towards epistemological approaches that acknowledge the role of the scientist/theorist which Barad (2007) captures concisely:

“A performative understanding of scientific practices, for example, takes account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world.”   (Barad 2007, p. 49)

Connectedness and relationships rather than disinterested, disembodied, and detached Cartesian individuals form a central component of analysis. Great emphasis is placed on extensive dialogues and not to become a detached observer of stories. In so doing, individual expressiveness, emotions, the capacity for empathy and the fact that ideas cannot be divorced from those who create and share them need to be key factor for this epistemology. Such is an epistemological approach that aspires to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical underpinnings.

Knowledge is specific to time and place and is not rooted in the individual person but in relationships between people. Individuals exist in a web of relations and co-dependently of one other, negotiating meanings and values through dialogues. As Bakhtin, pioneer of dialogism has emphasized, we are essentially dialogical beings, and it is only through dialogues with others that we come to realise and sustain a coherent – albeit continually changing –  sense of self. Reality is messy, ambiguous, and complex. Any epistemological approach that takes the person as fully autonomous, fixed, and a self-sufficient agent whose actions are guided by pure rationality fail to recognise the complexities and ambiguities of reality, time and context-bound nature of knowledge. At the core of this proposed Afrofeminist/dialogical approach to epistemology is an attempt to bring values as important constituent factor to the dialogical, intersubjective embodied, in a constant flux person and the epistemologies that drive from it.

[1] It is important to note that individuals do not disappear in dialogism, rather, the individual is a social being who is interdependent with others, “not an autonomous subject or a Cartesian cogito.” (Linell 2009)

Bibliography

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. duke university Press.

Collins, P. H. (1989). The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society14(4), 745-773.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press.

Gardiner, M. (1998). The incomparable monster of solipsism: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty. Bakhtin and the human sciences. Sage, London, 128-144.

Jackson, M. (2012). Lifeworlds: Essays in existential anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically. IAP.

Toulmin, S. E., & Toulmin, S. (1992). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. University of Chicago Press.

Warren, K. (Ed.). (2009). An unconventional history of Western philosophy: conversations between men and women philosophers. Rowman & Littlefield.

 

The Scope of Existential Anthropology – Jackson

Such a beautifully written passage which compels you to reflect, wonder, and think …

Like other human sciences, anthropology has drawn inspiration from many disciplines and sought to build its identity through association with them. But the positivism that anthropology hoped to derive from the natural sciences proved to be as elusive as the authenticity it sought from the humanities. Moreover, though lip service was paid to the models and methods of biology, ecology, psychology, fluid mechanics, structural linguistics, topology, quantum mechanics, mathematics, economics, and general systems theory, anthropologists seldom deployed these analytically or systematically. Rather, they were adopted as images and metaphors. Thus, society was said to function like a living organism, regulate energy like a machine, to be structured like language, organized like a corporation, comparable to a person, or open to interpretation like a text.

Jackson. M (2013) Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. (Chapter 1, The Scope of Existential Anthropology, p.3)