12.04 Complicity as Motivated Ignorance: Shared Responsibility in Cases of Oppression

Project info

Project consists of following studies
The aim of the project is to develop an empirically informed philosophical understanding of complicity in one’s own oppression and in the oppression of others, by bringing together social psychological research with philosophical analyses. This project contributes directly to the aims of Scoop by exploring the underlying structures of complicity relations that undermine sustainable cooperation, and by developing a model of responsibility which goes beyond individual and collective responsibility to capture the kind of shared forward-looking responsibility suitable to tackle complicity relations.
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
  • Identities
Hannah Lee
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Dr. Charlotte Knowles
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Prof.dr. Lisa Herzog
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Prof.dr. Ernestine Gordijn
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
  • Philosophy
  • Social psychology
Work package
  • Synthesis
Sustainability threat
  • Feedback Cycles
  • Shared responsibility and sustainable cooperation
Theoretical background
The concept of complicity is under-discussed in the philosophical literature, yet it is key to understanding structures of injustice, oppression and related questions of responsibility. The concept sits at the intersection of individual agency and structures and captures how agents as individuals, groups, or institutions are in some form indirectly involved in structural wrongs. This involvement can take many forms, ranging from different ways of contributing to, benefiting from, or failing to resist unjust structures, practices, or ideologies. Despite its importance very few philosophers have engaged in a sustained analysis of complicity, and where complicity has been analyzed in a sustained way (Lepora and Goodin 2013; Kutz 2000), it has predominantly been understood in legalistic terms. In this context, complicity refers to an agent’s role in another’s wrongdoing. However, recent analyses have highlighted that this legalistic understanding of complicity fails to capture many cases of structural and interpersonal complicity, unfolding agent's role in the perpetuation of unjust social norms, practices, narratives, and structures (Aaragon and Jaggar 2018; Knowles 2019; 2021a; 2021b). Complicity represents a threat to sustainable cooperation because it constitutes a key way in which oppression, discrimination and injustice continue to function. Often, complicit involvement in structural injustices happens unintentionally or even unknowingly. Because of this, the idea of complicity as a kind of motivated ignorance has gained some ground in critical race studies in relation to the idea of ‘white complicity’ (Mills 2017; Applebaum 2010). Motivated or willful ignorance is a term from critical social epistemology that captures forms of ignorance or not-knowing that are in some form actively maintained and driven by an agent’s interests or convenience rather than being due to a genuine lack of epistemic opportunities to know better. Researchers argue that contrary to what one might assume, being ignorant or unaware of one’s complicit involvement or the unjust nature of the structures one is involved in is not coincidental to an agent's complicity, let alone that it could excuse it. Rather the opposite is the case. Often, an agent's ignorance seems to be an integral part of how they become and remain complicit. It, for example, allows them to stay complicit involved, without having to throw their self-image as a decent person into question (Applebaum 2010) or without having to actively take on the responsibility of dealing with their complicit involvement in a critical way (Knowles, 2021). An analysis of a variety of cases of complicity relations in structural injustices makes apparent that often forms of ignorance seem to sit at their core. Thus, this project explores how far an analysis of complicity through the lens of motivated ignorance might be fruitful to better understand and describe the nature of these complicity relations. For this, the project explores in how far different forms of actively maintained non-knowing might mark enabling, stabilizing, or constitutive conditions for relations of complicity and, thus, essential for how structures of oppression are maintained.
Research design
The examination of complicity in one’s own oppression would be pursued from both a philosophical and an empirical, psychological perspective. Philosophically, the project involves: Undertaking a review of philosophical work on complicity and related concepts with recent literature on ignorance and its role in upholding oppression (E.g. Mills (2017); Medina (2013); Applebaum (2010); Fricker (2007); Examining the relation between complicity in the oppression of others and complicity in one’s own oppression? how are they (structurally) similar, how are they (structurally) distinct? Exploring what this new analysis of complicity indicates regarding effective interventions into complicity at both the structural and interpersonal and intergroup level. How should the relation between these different elements be theorised: must structural change come before change in the agent can be achieved, or vice versa; or must there be a simultaneous change of the agent and their social structures, and how can this simultaneous transformation best be conceptualised. The empirical dimension of the project, developed alongside the philosophical aspect, would involve: Sourcing examples and case studies of complicity in both one’s own oppression and in the oppression of others, such as the relation between stereotypes around body image and feelings of worthlessness (Gordijn 2010), the behavioural confirmation of (negative) stereotypes about one’s own group (Kamans, Gordijn, et al., 2009; Koudenburg & Gordijn, 2011), the detrimental effect of meta-stereotypes on interpersonal relations (Gordijn et al 2017), and the role of power relations in this (Lammers, Gordijn, & Otten, 2008), and using such examples to inform the philosophical analysis of complicity. Integrating insights from philosophy on complicity and from social psychology on stereotyping, and developing a model that could be empirically tested. Relevant questions here would be to understand when a negative meta-stereotype is incorporated in the self-stereotype, what motivation is behind this (e.g., system justification or motivation to distance oneself from the outgroup), whether people are aware of complying to negative meta-stereotypes, and to what extent it leads to a worse position for themselves and their ingroup and to reduced cooperation with the outgroup. Examining what mechanisms (social, psychological, phenomenological) are at work in cases of complicity in a) the oppression of others b) one’s own oppression, in order to recommend practical strategies that can be employed in the context of the philosophical analysis of structural and personal change to overcome complicity. The ultimate aim of the project is to develop an empirically informed philosophical understanding of complicity that is able to illuminate and account for structural and interpersonal cases of complicity, and make normative recommendations to combat complicity as it functions in cases of structural and interpersonal oppression. Drawing together the philosophical and empirical dimensions, the project aims to: Propose a new ameliorative analysis of complicity. Explain how this conceptualisation of complicity affects how we should evaluate cases of complicity and attribute (or not attribute) blame and responsibility in cases of complicity. Propose strategies that will be effective in overcoming an agent’s complicity in a) another’s and b) the agent’s own oppression in such a way that aids sustainable cooperation. We envisage this as a strongly collaborative and interdisciplinary project with the supervisors from philosophy and psychology involved from the start and throughout the supervision process. The suitable candidate for this project would need a strong philosophical grounding in social and political philosophy, and preferably in feminist philosophy and/or social psychology. The PhD student would start with the philosophical component of the project and then also bring in the empirical dimension. With regard to the empirical dimension of the project, the PhD student’s focus would be on the operationalisation of research questions to be tested in the empirical part of the project, by bringing the results of the philosophical analysis to bear on issues such as how to operationalize the notion of complicity, how to determine precisely what gets measured, etc. This will prepare the way for the formulation of hypotheses to be tested empirically (see also above). The ideal candidate should show an ability and willingness to apply theoretical analysis to real-world cases, along with a demonstrable ability or (if not trained in psychological research) desire to engage in practical social scientific research in order to produce an empirically informed philosophical project.
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