Thursday, 22 September 2016

Bias in Context: Psychological and Structural Explanations


On 5th and 6th September the University of Sheffield hosted the conference Bias in Context: Psychological and Structural Explanations, organized by Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd (pictured above). Here I summarise the seven papers given at the conference.

Joseph Sweetman (pictured below) opened day one with his paper ‘Evidence-based Social Equality: Current Problems and Future prospects’. The talk was structured around answering five questions related to identifying the phenomenon of social inequality, whether we should do anything about social inequality, and what we should do, what the evidence for social inequality is, and the efficacy of unconscious bias training in Higher Education. After giving answers to the first four questions, Joseph reported on his evaluation of an unconscious bias training programme in order to speak to the fifth. He found that though post-training awareness of unconscious bias was higher in the participants, there were no significant differences on measures of willingness to take action, or on the particpants’ results in an Implicit Association Test for gender and career. In light of this Joseph suggested that we need to focus our attention on interventions targeting unconscious bias, stereotypes, prejudice, and behaviour.



Next up was Robin Zheng, giving her paper ‘Bias, Structure, and Injustice: A Reply to Haslanger’. In her paper, Robin outlined Sally Haslanger’s view that although there is space for attention to implicit bias in social critique, it is only a small space. Haslanger poses a challenge to theorists interested in implicit bias, namely, that theorists pursuing an account of how bias functions need to situate their accounts within a range of social structures and structural injustice. Robin sought to take up this challenge. She distinguished between Attributability and Accountability accounts of responsibility for structural injustice, advocating a version of the latter kind of account.

The penultimate paper of the first day was given by Saray Ayala, entitled ‘Structural Explanations and Agency’. Saray began by outlining two kinds of explanations of social injustice: structural explanations according to which social behaviour is determined by structural forces, and agency explanations according to which such behaviour is determined by individual choices. She discussed a worry with structural explanations, namely that they challenge agency. This is because if what explains some forms of social injustice is structural factors, and not mental states (like, for example, implicit biases), the picture we are left with is one of structures and not agents. Saray argued that structural explanations do not, after all, challenge agency, and that psychological explanations should trigger the same kind of worry, and yet they do not. Saray considered three possible factors which might explain why psychological explanations do not raise this kind of worry, and concluded by raising two problems with psychological explanations. 

Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly closed the first day of the conference with their paper ‘Informal Institutions and the Double Life of Social Norms’. They wanted to develop conceptual tools which could be used in social philosophy and ethical theory, in such a way that they could be integrated with and continue to be informed by current empirical work on moral psychology and cognitive science. They drew on Charlotte Witt’s work on social reality, drawing on her notions of social roles, social norms, and her ascriptivism about the relationship between individuals and the roles and norms to which they are bound. They argued that an empirical account of human norm psychology dovetails with Witt’s picture, which together provide a toolkit for thinking about bias.



Alex Madva (pictured above) opened day two of the conference with his paper ‘A Plea for Anti-Anti-Individualism: How Oversimple Psychology Misleads Social Policy’. In his paper Alex was interested in prioritisim, the view that we should focus on changing structures, not individual attitudes. With respect to this claim he wanted to do make two points in the paper. The first point was that the conclusion that we should prioritize structural reforms over individual reforms does not follow, even if we grant the prioritizer’s empirical claims. Specifically, Alex argued that for every structural reform that we should prioritize, there exists some individual reforms to prioritize because those individual reforms promote the structural reform. The second point was that the empirical claims made by prioritizers are contestable after all, and that prioritism fails to appreciate the active role that individuals take in interpreting and reacting to their environments.


Erin Beeghly gave the penultimate paper of the conference, entitled ‘Discrimination and Disrespect’. Erin was interested in appealing to the literature on what is wrong with discrimination in order to shed light on what is wrong with stereotyping. Specifically, she considered the idea that the wrongness of discrimination is down to its being disrespectful. After outlining three conceptions of disrespect, Erin discussed and responded to objections to respect-based views of discrimination, before closing the paper by suggesting that we have reason to be optimistic about the prospects of such views.

Jennifer Saul closed the conference with her paper ‘Good and Bad Implicit Bias Stories’. She opened her paper by noting that recent criticisms of discourses on implicit bias have claimed that discussions of implicit bias are counterproductive and that implicit bias training is ‘worse than useless’. Her goal in the paper was to show how implicit bias stories can be useful with respect to seeking theories and concepts that do useful political work in bring about a more socially just society (a goal shared by one of the above mentioned critics, namely Sally Haslanger). She also outlined criteria for good implicit bias training, specifically, that it should a) make it clear to people just what damaging effects implicit bias has on the world so that they are motivated to overcome it, and b) that it should equip people with techniques to combat bias.

Thanks to Erin and Jules for organising such an excellent conference!

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