Epistemic Violence

epistemic violence, coloniality, modernity, knowledge, peace


Coined by Gayatri Spivak at the end of the Cold War, the concept ofis today a powerful tool of analysis and critique. It draws our attention to the cognitive and epistemic infrastructure of what we believe we know about the world, including about (non-)violence, conflict, war – and peace. Taking phenomena of epistemic violence into account and theorising them meaningfully has the potential, then, to change the entire research agenda of Peace and Conflict Studies. It invites us to re- and unthink violence from a groundbreaking perspective which deconstructs the Euro- and androcentrist nature of our knowledge (and our ignorance), as grounded in the sustained colonial condition of the world – and vice versa.

The image is from the movie The Halfmoon Files from Philip Scheffner (2007). It discusses voice recordings of colonial soldiers interned there during the First World War. They are stored in the HU Berlin sound archive in the form of thousands of shellac discs.

Claudia Brunner is a social scientist and Associate Professor at the Centre for Peace Research and Peace Education at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria. In her habilitation (2019) at the University of Vienna’s department of Political Science, she developed a transdisciplinary concept of epistemic violence resulting in a book called ‘Epistemic Violence. Knowledge and Power in Colonial Modernity’.


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The concept of epistemic violence has not yet fully arrived in Peace and Conflict Studies, despite being highly relevant for the discipline’s impact today. This entry assembles a couple of pathways towards a deeper understanding of entanglements not only of knowledge and power but also of knowledge and violence in colonial modernity. Especially in Peace and Conflict Studies, we have to investigate the manifold entanglements of epistemic violence with other forms of violence (how does epistemic violence work?). This is what many post- and decolonial scholars have been seeking to do in the past decade. As a theoretical concept, epistemic violence has yet to become intelligible in the discipline (how can we define epistemic violence?). Considering epistemic violence from this vantage point makes a difference, then, in how we conceive of war and peace, conflict and (non-)violence in a broader sense.


Moreover, we must understand epistemic violence as the prevailing modus operandi in academia (how can we deal with the dialectics of (un)doing epistemic violence while (un)doing also the discipline?). By obtaining a deeper understanding of epistemic violence, we can change the terms of academic and political conversations themselves. Finally, and yet to be studied or, indeed, even argued, we must rethink the normative distinction between violence and non-violence which undergirds colonial modernity, while simultaneously recalling the genuine link between first- and second-order violence which is embedded in the twofold nature of Gewalt as both foundational (power) and destructive (violence). By decentring and re-signifying conventional Eurocentric assumptions about where (non-)violence occurs within the international political system, we can – especially along feminist, post- and decolonial lines – contribute to the subversion of the dominant paradigm of colonial modernity. The postcolonial concept of epistemic violence is, as such, a powerful tool to that end1For extended versions of my argument, including many more resources, see the section ‘further reading’ at the end of this text..




In Peace and Conflict Studies, violence is largely defined along three lines that are taken for granted: first, as something which occurs somewhere else (not in the Global North); second, as something which is perpetrated by somebody else (not by a rational political subject); and, third, as genuinely something else (not existing in the academic realm). Even in the discipline’s critical traditions, both the phenomenon and the concept of epistemic violence have, as such, long been considered to be an academic non-issue – indeed, an oxymoron at that.

“Bearing in mind the bloodshed both of colonialism and anticolonial liberation, for Spivak, epistemic violence is always already entangled with other forms of violence, including direct and physical.”

At the same time, many feminist, post- and decolonial scholars have been making use of the term to analyse and theorise entanglements of knowledge and violence across a wide range of disciplines. They have pointed to the academic system’s extensive colonial heritage as well as to the Euro- and androcentric scholarly sphere itself. To start with, I present a couple of significant approaches to what epistemic violence is, at all. I then propose to re-signify the conventional micro-meso-macro scheme of the Social Sciences to generate a more nuanced understanding of epistemic violence which is based on the tripartite decolonial concept(s) of the coloniality of Being, of knowledge and of power. In conclusion, I argue why it is important to deepen our understanding of epistemic violence especially in Peace and Conflict Studies.


Assembling approaches to epistemic violence

a) Liberal imaginations: Deviance and deficiency

Until recently, Peace and Conflict Studies scholars had often conceived of epistemic violence as a lamentable exception to an otherwise enlightened academic realm of rationality and non-violence. An early example is the Swiss philosopher Hans Saner (1982), who compares science and academia to the arts. In both domains, he argues, the symbolic realm can be used/abused to legitimise other forms of violence, injustice and inequality. Due to their self-reflexivity and methodologies, however, he considers the sciences and the arts as privileged domains of knowledge production working in the service of non-violence. Epistemic violence would, then, occur exclusively when the sciences consider themselves to be the only legitimate source of knowledge, or when threatened by ideology originating from outside the academic realm.


From a psychological perspective, the Belgian political scientist and sociologist Luc Reychler (2010) offers a comparable explanation. By creating mental barriers – either intentionally or unintentionally – scholars inhibit knowledge and know-how that could be used for furthering international cooperation and sustainable peace-building’ (Reychler, 2010, p. 5). Similar to Saner, and foregrounding a highly individualised psychological dimension, Reychler suggests that the problem of epistemic violence can be surmounted by pursuing greater international solidarity and cooperation between scholars from the Global North and South (also leaving structural and systemic questions aside).


Thomas Teo (2010) locates the problem within the quantitative methodical procedures of Othering. While the Canadian psychologist sees/seeks epistemic/epistemological violence2Like Vandana Shiva (1990, 1995), whom I introduce later, Teo speaks of ‘epistemological’ and not ‘epistemic’ violence; both of these individuals refer to a quantitative-scientific understanding of epistemology which privileges supposedly mere methodological questions over sociopolitical ones. in the relationship between data and their potentially problematic interpretation, however, the figures and numbers themselves remain unchallenged vis-à-vis their origin and quality. The resulting ‘Other’ is not situated in any specific (geo)political context, but merely serves to illustrate the problem – while the universalised scholarly Self remains.


This approach reminds us of an important issue with regards to exploring phenomena of epistemic violence in the sphere of Peace and Conflict Studies and/or in the Social Sciences more generally: namely, the continued primacy of quantitative research, which has remained an efficient tool for dividing and ruling territories, peoples and knowledges in the service of the modern nation-state. The roots of this paradigm reach back to the seventeenth century, when the emerging English/British model of modern natural sciences started to turn into a pars pro toto for any scholarly knowledge production. In fact, this ‘predatory discourse’ (Bennett, 2007) is co-constitutive of global colonial expansion and its attendant teleology of linear progress, enlightenment and civilisation. Moreover, the specific scholarly division of labour which undergirds most knowledge production about international issues – with data obtained from the Global South used for theory production in the Global North – helps maintain the imperialist nature of academia (Galtung, 1971). The latter, in turn, constitutes the structural, cultural and symbolic background to epistemic violence.


b) Materialist groundings: Territorialisation, naturalisation, embodiment

Two readings from Critical Geography, ones explicitly discussing epistemic violence, stand in stark contrast to the above-mentioned liberal approach, and can be linked to earlier and ongoing anti-imperialist critiques of scholarly knowledge. They explicitly link the term epistemic violence to political territories (Korf, 2006) and racialised bodies (MacDonald, 2002), respectively. According to them, the phenomenon is grounded in the human experience of struggle within asymmetric power relations in a postcolonial present. A German scholar based in Switzerland, Benedikt Korf’s work on Sri Lanka (Korf, 2006) locates epistemic violence in the academic creation of geographical imaginaries, which turn into naturalised truth claims. Again, the latter are closely entangled with the direct and physical violence of conflict and warfare. However, while the author reasonably problematises the colonial question with the example of Sri Lanka after independence, he remains silent on how academic knowledge production takes place far away from such ‘case studies’.


Kenneth MacDonald’s (2002) analysis of mountain tourism in the Karakorum region of northern Pakistan goes further still, in that he maps the linkage between globalisation, institutionalised violence and the interaction of bodies situated in varying ways within postcolonial relations of power. He problematises the gap between a globalised discourse of human rights and economic empowerment among predominantly (White) European and United States tourists and the disastrous living and working conditions of the local porters. The Canadian geographer locates epistemic violence in a material and cognitive gap, arguing that a very specific understanding of ‘distance’ – namely, as both physical/geographical and mental/moral – helps sustain the abyss which separates the privileged from the exploited, thus perpetuating social, material, economic and epistemic asymmetries based on race and class.


The Brazilian sociolinguist Joana Plaza Pinto (2017) includes sex and gender in her equally body-centred approach to epistemic violence. Eurocentric scholarship would not describe and analyse languages, she argues, but rather invent them in the first place by differentiating bodies from each other, based on very specific ideas of nationality, gender, race, geopolitical location and age. While the racialised and sexualised body constitutes a permanent ‘battlefield’ of scientific activity within the ongoing colonial condition’s framework, it remains constantly excluded from academic debate. This is where Pinto sees Santos’s (2014) ‘epistemicide’ at work.

c) Feminist postcolonial perspectives: Representation, reductionism, resilience

Feminists have been sharpening their conceptual tools on (not only epistemic) violence for decades in order to challenge dominant orders of power. It therefore comes as no surprise that it was a feminist postcolonial scholar who would, already in the late 1980s, coin a definition of epistemic violence soon becoming widespread: namely, as ‘the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other‘ (Spivak, 1988, p. 280). In Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s today canonical text, the US-based Indian literary scholar addresses entanglements of epistemic violence both in the colonial past (British colonial rule in India) and in the imperial present (French leftist intellectual discourse in the 1980s). By linking notion of epistemic violence3The French philosopher deals with the problem of knowledge-power-relations, but hardly uses the term ‘epistemic violence‘ throughout his œuvre. Spivak herself refers to many of his writings, such as Foucault’s famous book Madness and Civilization. A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1965). to the colonial condition, she exposes his Eurocentrism. She then goes on to harness the term for a postcolonial critique of the violent power relations existing based on the pernicious colonial heritage of intersectional racism, sexism and classism – past and present. Spivak also offers a feminist reading of Karl Marx’s understanding of ‘representation’4Again, Spivak refers to various of his writings, most directly linked to this question is Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1960)., allowing her to show how both Western and Southern patriarchal elites and Euro- and androcentric thought feed into each other by way of epistemic violence when it comes to securing claims and privileges. Bearing in mind the bloodshed both of colonialism and liberation movements, for Spivak epistemic violence is always already entangled with other forms of violence – including its direct and physical manifestations.

The African-American philosopher Kristie Dotson (2011) also puts the relationship between (not) speaking, (not) listening, (not) understanding and (not) silencing, as outlined by Spivak (1988), at the centre of her own analysis. Eliminating knowledge, damaging a given group’s ability to speak, be listened to and be heard, and distributing intelligibility unequally constitute central aspects of epistemic violence in Dotson’s account. While she defines the latter as a ‘failure, owing to pernicious ignorance, of hearers to meet the vulnerabilities of speakers in linguistic exchanges’ (Dotson, 2011, p. 236), she emphasises also that the problem is ‘less about the victim […] and more about the socio-epistemic circumstances of the silencing’ (Dotson, 2011, p. 251). To her, as well, epistemic violence is deeply sedimented into dominant orders of knowledge and, therefore, constitutes a global political problem. Moreover, it is heavily enshrined in the resilience of the epistemic systems at our disposal.


Vandana Shiva’s (1990, 1995) perspective – as a trained physicist, a philosopher of (natural) science, an environmentalist and a feminist Indian contemporary of Spivak – is equally significant here, yet has remained far less known to date. Unlike Spivak and many other feminists, namely those who discuss epistemological violence in terms of discourse and representation, Shiva situates her approach in feminist materialism instead. She puts capitalist exploitation, the maximisation of profits, the accumulation of material wealth and imperial militarism at the heart of her definition (Shiva, 1990). These factors, she argues, lead to scientific knowledge’s profound reductionism, which significantly diminishes humans’ ability to understand the world by excluding and destroying all other ways of knowing (Shiva, 1995). She sees the core problem here as one intimately related to the needs of a particular form of extractivist economic organisation. To her, the entangled knowledge monopoly, embodied and executed by so-called ‘experts’, encompasses four tiers of (epistemological) violence: ‘violence against the subject of knowledge, the object of knowledge, the beneficiary of knowledge, and against knowledge itself’ (Shiva, 1990 , pp. 233–234). Last but not least, the epistemic/epistemological violence of modern scientific reductionism deprives nature of its ability to renew itself since it regards the latter as an inanimate and exploitable resource – today, a threat to the survival of humankind and indeed the entire planet.

d) Decolonial state-centred approaches: Eurocentrism, academia and the modern nation-state

Many post- and decolonial theorists see the modern nation-state as a privileged agent of epistemic violence. In contrast to the methodological nationalism of Eurocentric state theory, they explicitly locate the state within the framework of the colonial condition, problematising its entanglements with the development of scientific/academic thought and institutions. According to Immanuel Wallerstein (1991), the Social Sciences have co-constituted both the state’s and modernity’s political and epistemic foundations in a complex division of labour. From this perspective, the domain of academic knowledge production is more than a side stage to epistemic violence. It is intrinsically linked to what Johan Galtung (1969) long ago theorised as ‘structural violence’.

“We must therefore look at the social sciences’ – including Peace and Conflict Studies‘ – contribution to the ‘invention of the Other’ as well as at their permanent reification of the imperial scholarly Self, and we should do so from a perspective based on the concept of colonial modernity, i.e. modernity/coloniality.”

In his own understanding of epistemic violence, Santiago Castro-Gómez (2002) examines the role of the Social Sciences in colonialism, state formation and the global rise of capitalism. The modern nation-state, he argues, ‘not only requires a monopoly on violence, but also uses it to rationally “direct” the activities of its citizens in accordance with previously established scientific criteria’ (Castro-Gómez, 2002, p. 271). The state thus functions as the central node ‘from which the mechanisms of control over the natural and social world are distributed and coordinated’ (Castro-Gómez, 2002, p. 270). The Social Sciences provide and permanently refine these mechanisms of adjustment on the part of human life to changing modes of production and governance, which are rooted in European colonialism’s early years in the Americas. They supply politics with the tools for putting the Eurocentrist paradigm into practice. That said, scholarly knowledge plays a constitutive part in the formation of the modern state and vice versa. We must, therefore, look at how the Social Sciences – including Peace and Conflict Studies – contribute to the ‘invention of the Other’, as well as at their permanent reification of the imperial scholarly Self; by necessity, from a perspective based on the concept of ‘colonial modernity’ – that is, modernity/coloniality (Escobar, 2007).


Re-signifying the micro-meso-macro approach


The main feature of epistemic violence is the separation of the material and social from the epistemic and cognitive spheres, thereby maintaining an epistemic and ontological ‘abyss’ (Santos, 2014, pp. 119–120) along whose rim social inequality and power relations – and, hence, exploitation of human and natural resources – are organised, legitimised and naturalised. Moreover, epistemic violence creates specific subjectivities and political subjects, who are heterarchically positioned in the colonial-capitalist-heteropatriarchal-imperialist world – a system also upheld by the logic of war. Peace and Conflict Studies scholars need to acknowledge how this abyss has come into being and indeed still remains in place today – and they must, as such, strive to reinvent, rethink and reshape the discipline accordingly. But how can we practically do that, if at all?


Manuela Boatcă and Sérgio Costa (2010) suggest tracing the colonial turn of a given discipline back to its origins in order to identify the reasons for and mechanisms behind its resilience in the face of decolonisation. Re-signifying the conceptual toolbox of Peace and Conflict Studies is one way of proceeding here, indeed of relevance regarding the dominant epistemologies, methodologies, theories and practices of any given scholarly discipline. In this spirit, I outline the contours of a multidisciplinary concept of epistemic violence for Peace and Conflict Studies in line with the tripartite notions of a ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano, 2010), a ‘coloniality of knowledge’ (Lander, 2000) and a ‘coloniality of Being’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2007).

a) Micro-level epistemic violence and the coloniality of Being


Violence and war are, in fact, not the exception in the modern political order; they are rather the norm, the everyday experience of racialised and sexualised Others. What is going unnoticed in conventional perspectives on violence – as occurring somewhere else, perpetrated by someone else and constituting something else – is the colonial condition of both the victims’ suffering and the agency of a very specific perpetrator of violence – namely, the ‘Imperial Being’ (Grosfoguel, 2013, p. 77). The presumably disembodied but still politically, socially and epistemologically privileged perspective of the latter has become a universal epistemic norm – expurgated from any trace of violent agency during its ‘civilizing mission’. On such a micro-level of colonial and imperial experience, as outlined in Nelson Maldonado-Torres’s (2007) understanding of the ‘coloniality of Being‘, epistemic violence refers to the embodied dimensions of the epistemic racism/sexism constitutive of colonial modernity’s abyss. From this perspective, it is no longer possible to reduce the micro-level analysis of violence to an individual issue of deviant agency or exceptional suffering and separate it from an otherwise supposedly non-violent international order.

b) Meso-level epistemic violence and the coloniality of knowledge

On the meso-level of what Edgardo Lander (2000) called the ‘coloniality of knowledge’, the mechanisms normalising diverse forms of violence come into view. Key to this concept is the argument that the former religious (Christian) epistemology was, in fact, not replaced by modern secularism. Rather, the latter successfully integrated key elements of the former. Rethinking conflict, war and peace (studies) with regards to the coloniality of knowledge urges us to call into question, then, existing institutionalised knowledge about the nature of conflict and war, peace and (non-)violence, and its attendant epistemological premises and consequences. Moreover, we have to dismantle conventional forms of rationalising and legitimising different modes of violence and inequality – be it through dominant classifications and hierarchisations, through the monopolisation and universalisation of, in fact, very particular and privileged knowledge claims, or through the very concrete everyday practices of doing academia and scholarship. We have to link the means of legitimisation and the foundations of violence to each other – as well as to the international political system at large. From this vantage point, we can understand the terrain of knowledge as a transfer point for relations of power, domination and violence of myriad types. Epistemic violence, then, is more than a question of how to organise systems of knowledge. Rather, it is about how these systems have co-constituted colonial modernity. Considering epistemic violence on this meso-level means to acknowledge the substantially colonial heritage of the domain of scholarly knowledge itself.

“Rethinking conflict, war and peace (studies) with regard to the coloniality of knowledge urges us to call into question existing institutionalized knowledge about the nature of conflict and war, peace and (non-)violence, and its attendant epistemological premises and consequences.”
c) Macro-level epistemic violence and the coloniality of power

When conceptualising epistemic violence on the macro-level of the ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano, 2010), we have to address the geopolitical and/as the epistemic space of global colonial modernity itself. It is in this space that colonial modernity’s classification, hierarchisation, separation and exploitation have come into being over the course of the last five centuries. Processes of mass violence, organised and rationalised by political, religious and intellectual European elites during the long sixteenth century, have paved the way for the colonial-capitalist world system which constitutes our present. According to Ramón Grosfoguel (2013) and others, the reconquista on the Iberian Peninsula, the conquest of Indigenous populations in the Americas, the abduction, shipping and exploitation of Africans, and, as Silvia Federici (2004) shows, the pursuit and killing of so-called witches on the European continent were all co-constitutive of the colonial/modern paradigm. What interconnects these four ‘genocides/epistemicides’ (Grosfoguel, 2013) is the religious-turned-scholarly epistemic racism/sexism which laid the groundwork for the legitimisation of myriad forms of violence in the service of colonialism and capitalism. This is what decolonial scholars have called the violent ‘colonial underside’ (Dussel, 2013, p. 23) of the supposedly non-violent, progressive and enlightened modernist paradigm coming into being over the course of the past two hundred years. Re-signifying hereby the macro-level of Peace and Conflict Studies analysis allows us, then, to focus on the global order(s) of violence – but not without taking related systems of knowledge into account, too.




Peace and Conflict Studies must learn not only to acknowledge epistemic violence but also understand its workings within its own domain. However, we cannot entirely quit ‘modernity’s epistemic territory’ (Vázquez, 2011, p. 27). call to ‘never [leave] our pen in someone else’s blood’ (cit. in Dotson, 2012, p. 42) is thwarted by the ‘passive voice of White supremacy’ – (Dozono, 2020) part and parcel of the coloniality of academia and, indeed, of capitalism itself. That said, ‘[t]he end of the cognitive empire’ may not yet be in sight in Peace and Conflict Studies. But the feminist, post- and decolonial voices problematising epistemic violence, with a view to minimising its hold both on Peace and Conflict Studies and beyond, continue to steadily grow in number, clarity and commitment5I want to thank Viviana García Pinzón for inviting me to contribute to this virtual encyclopedia, as well as Alke Jenss and Miriam Bartelmann for commenting and James Powell for copy-editing this text.




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Brunner, C. (2023): Un/Doing Epistemic Violence while Trying to Change the World. Journal of Development Studies, XXXIX(1-2), 5–29. https://doi.org/10.20446/JEP-2414-3197-39-1-5


Brunner, C. (2021): Conceptualizing Epistemic Violence: An Interdisciplinary Assemblage for IR. International Politics Reviews, 9, 193-212. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41312-021-00086-1


Brunner, C. (2020): Epistemische Gewalt: Wissen und Herrschaft in der kolonialen Moderne. Transcript. https://doi.org/10.14361/9783839451311


Brunner, C. (2018): Epistemische Gewalt: Konturierung eines Begriffs für die Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. Zeitschrift für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, 2, 25–57.


Kluziac, L. & Schlüter, J. (2021): Epistemische Gewalt. Freie Universität Berlin. https://blogs.fu-berlin.de/fkfkollektiv/2021/07/14/epistemische-gewalt/

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