Over at Daily Nous, a lively discussion has ensued about the merit of philosophical work on implicit bias in light of criticisms of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). In a comment on the Daily Nous post, I pointed out that the work in philosophy on implicit bias has focused almost exclusively on gender and race (construed as mutually exclusive), an issue that I discuss in my forthcoming book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. I thought it might be useful to excerpt the relevant section from the book for readers of the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog. In the book, I write:
In recent years, philosophers, especially some feminist philosophers, have increasingly attended to the influence of implicit biases on the composition of the profession and discipline of philosophy, producing an expanding body of literature according to which such biases can have demonstrable effects upon hiring practices, student evaluation, journal refereeing, promotion, and so on in philosophy (for instance, see Brownstein and Saul 2016). Implicit biases are generally defined in this literature as non-conscious, reflexive, attitudes that detrimentally affect the ways in which people perceive, evaluate, and interact with members of stigmatized social groups (see Gendler 2011). Contributions to the literature usually take as their starting point or rely upon data derived from the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a research tool that psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald (N.d) introduced in 1998, claiming that the test facilitates the identification of non-conscious discriminatory attitudes. Closely associated to the philosophical literature on implicit bias is a growing body of work in philosophy that draws attention to the phenomenon of stereotype threat, an idea said to account for the fact that people’s (usually non-conscious) awareness of their membership in a stigmatized social group can negatively impact their performance in certain situations, such as job interviews.
These discussions of how psychological phenomena condition the perceptions and assessments (including self-perceptions and self-assessments) of members of marked groups have played a significant role in endeavors to overcome the homogeneity of professional philosophy, leading to a variety of successful outcomes. Notwithstanding these outcomes, however, the notions of implicit bias and stereotype threat, as well as heretofore discussions about implicit bias in philosophy warrant more critical consideration. First, the IAT itself has been the target of criticism, that is, the validity of the IAT and its reliability, as well as the very idea of implicit bias have been sharply criticized (for instance, see Machery 2016; Singal 2017). Second, virtually all the discussions about implicit bias and stereotype threat in the profession have concentrated exclusively on how these phenomena impact upon subjects marked by gender, or by race, or by gender and race, with these categories conceived as mutually exclusive of each other and of other categories of subjection. Thus, even if concerns with respect to the methodological and theoretical nature of philosophical work on implicit bias were assuaged, the ways in which philosophers put the IAT and the notion of implicit bias into practice would be very disconcerting.
None of the studies of implicit bias in hiring, promotion, and publication to which philosophers routinely refer reports on empirical inquiry and analyses—such as the Rutgers-Syracuse cover-letter study—of the biases and prejudices that disabled philosophers confront. Some philosophers who refer to the studies on gender and race biases speculate that the findings of these studies likely apply in the same ways to the situations and circumstances of disabled philosophers (as well as working-class philosophers, lesbian and gay philosophers, and other marginalized philosophers). Notice, however, that this speculation implies that sexism and racism are paradigmatic forms of marginalization and exclusion that other forms of marginalization and exclusion from the discipline and profession replicate. This assumption, that is, the assumption that ableism and the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession are facilitated through the same techniques and mechanisms as the exclusion of nondisabled philosophers (however gendered and racialized) obscures the distinct forms of discrimination that disabled philosophers confront and is, in effect, another means by which the relative homogeneity of the discipline and profession is enabled to persist. Indeed, the routine exclusion of serious consideration of disability from the research on bias in philosophy is another example of ableist exceptionism, that is, a political decision with detrimental consequences for disabled philosophers (however gendered and racialized).
To be sure, studies of bias in philosophy must be expanded in ways that encompass the biases that disabled philosophers confront. Nevertheless, the preoccupation with psychological factors in discussions about the homogeneity of philosophy (and the exclusion of considerations of ableism from these discussions) has entailed that the structural, institutional, and discursive mechanisms and apparatuses that contribute to the production in philosophy of a hostile environment for disabled philosophers have remained obfuscated and ignored. For the exclusion of disabled philosophers (however gendered and racialized) from the profession is in addition variously produced by and through the segregating conceptual and built environments—including inaccessible conferences, classrooms, lectures, course materials, and workshops—in which the very practice of philosophy takes place, as well as by and through certain distinct factors—such as research agendas, arguments, instruments, and influences—that revolve around an array of notions that operate to subjugate disabled people, including “normalcy,” “quality of life,” “natural disadvantage,” “life of dignity,” “compensation,” “defect,” “cure,” “pathology,” and “risk.” Indeed, insofar as claims according to which disabled people are (for example) “abnormal,” “defective,” “permanently dependent,” and “losers in the natural lottery” continue to be both articulated and taken seriously as possible candidates for theoretical endorsement within various sub-fields of philosophy, it is no wonder that disabled people are not regarded as viable colleagues in the profession, nor considered worthy of the role of “professional philosopher,” as the low representation of disabled philosophers in the profession vividly demonstrates (see Tremain 2014). In short, much of the very subject matter of philosophy runs counter to efforts to increase the representation of disabled people in the profession.
My book is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press and was recently selected as the winner of the Tobin Siebers Prize for Disability Studies in the Humanities for 2016. Information about the Tobin Siebers Prize is here.
posted by Shelley