Understanding Disadvantage Partly Through an Epistemology of Ignorance

University of Ulster, UK
This article is concerned with the way in which ignorance is actively constituted or
reproduced as an aspect of power. The significance of ignorance as an important site
of study is suggested in this article through an examination of the results of a survey
of applications by women for Silk, in recognition of senior status as an advocate, and
judicial office in Northern Ireland. The survey found that in the male-dominated
profession of law more women than men were unsure of criteria for appointment.
The survey revealed also a different perceptual world between male and female
lawyers and judges in terms of identifying disadvantage on the basis of gender. Male
barristers were twice as likely as female barristers to state that female barristers were
not under-represented in applications for Silk. None of the male judges acknowledged
that the culture of the bench was male, while most women said it was. This survey is
supported by analogous illustrations from other fields. The article concludes that
the study of ignorance should be added to the field of vision of those working on the
intersection of power/knowledge, and that identification of ignorance may require
distinctive responses. The general observations in this article may be of relevance in
other areas of anti-discrimination and equality law, policy and praxis.
disadvantage; discrimination; ignorance; judges; legal profession; women
SOCIAL &LEGAL STUDIES Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore, www.sagepublications.com
0964 6639, Vol. 16(4), 509–531
DOI: 10.1177/0964663907082733
RELATIVELY LITTLE has been written about the way that ignorance is
used as a technique to actively constitute or reproduce gendered power
relations and the significance that this may have for law. Foucault is
often cited in support of the proposition that knowledge is power (Foucault,
1972, 1977; Gordon, 1980). The study of knowledge – epistemology – tends
to focus on how we come to know and what we can know. A critical episte-
mology reveals connections between knowledge, authority and power. It asks:
for whom does the dominant epistemology exist, whose interests are served,
and who are suppressed or neglected in the process (Code, 1993)? A number
of legal academics have shown how law constructs knowledge along gender
lines (Smart, 1990; Graycar, 1995; Graycar and Morgan, 2002). Moreover, a s a
result of those aspects of law which render women’s accounts unintelligible
(Smart, 1989), male-stream ignorance is preserved.1It should seem obvious
that the constitution of knowledge is intimately bound to ignorance (Hobart,
1993). Proctor (1995), in his study of the politics of cancer research, argues
for the need to ‘study the social construction of ignorance’ (p. 8). And, Eve
Kofosky Sedgewick (1990) notes in her study of homosexuality that ‘ignor-
ance effects can be harnessed, licensed, and regulated on a mass scale for
striking enforcements’ (p. 5).
The aim in this present article is principally with making intelligible certain
material differences in the relationship between ignorance/knowledge that
are related to issues of power and law. The article draws, albeit eclectically,
from a range of illustrations of how ‘ignorance’ is related to power and dis-
advantage. It seeks to contribute to the literature by arguing that ignorance
should be added to the field of vision of those working on the intersection
of power/knowledge, and that the identification of ignorance may require
distinctive responses. For instance, remedying ignorance may be important
for praxis, as ignorance does not allow informed, targeted and effective
responses. Given these aims, the article does not seek to engage in further
theoretical development of the relationship between ignorance and power,
though separate work on this elsewhere may be productive.
Proceeding with the frame of an epistemology of ignorance2reveals how
ignorance is actively constituted or re-produced to sustain power relations
(Freire, 1970). It is not only a passive state. Those in power may construct
and perpetuate the ignorance of the less powerful. Two key techniques are,
first, ‘to impede or distort the acquisition of knowledge’ (Rouse, 1987: 13),
and second, to ascribe ignorance to a person or group to ignore or silence on
the basis that he/she/they know nothing – are ignorant – what Freire calls the
‘absolutizing of ignorance’ (Freire, 1970). Power may be preserved also by
inattention to a subject or by rendering a subject invisible, effectively main-
taining ignorance of the subject. As Minow (1989) noted, the ‘largely silent
response’ to feminist scholarship ‘may represent a form of significant criti-
cism. Inattention itself does communicate a message of relative disinterest or
complacent disregard’ (p. 117).

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