Københavns Universitet
Uafhængig af ledelsen


In Defense of the Symmetric Concept of Discrimination

Foredrag — MeST Seminar on discrimination, with Simone Sommer Degn from Aarhus University's Centre for the Experimental-Philosophical Study of Discrimination.


Date & Time:

University of Copenhagen, Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies, CSS 5.0.22

Hosted by:


In this presentation, I focus on two opposing positions in the discrimination research literature: One claims that minority groups can discriminate against majority groups – they use the symmetric concept of discrimination, and the other claims that minorities cannot discriminate against majorities – they use the asymmetric concept of discrimination. The former believes that ‘discrimination’ is bi-directional, both those on the top and bottom of a social hierarchy can discriminate against each other. The latter believes that ‘discrimination’ is uni-directional and that only those on top of the social hierarchy can discriminate against those below.

The division is visible in mainstream discussions, too – for instance, was it discrimination when Whites were asked to walk in the back of a Black Lives Matter demonstration? Whether we use a symmetric or asymmetric concept of discrimination is a contentious public and academic conceptual issue, and the focus of the talk is exploring why I think we should use the symmetric discrimination concept. First, I describe what exactly conceptual symmetry entails and what it does not entail. Then, I recreate and outline arguments for the symmetric discrimination concept, namely the:

1. The Solidarity and Interest Convergence Argument

2. Challenges Stereotypes of Majority Group Members Argument

3. Fuzziness of Hierarchies Argument

4. The Folk Concept Argument

I also discuss three potent arguments against using the symmetric discrimination concept:

1. The Compassion Fatigue Argument

2. The Appease Those in Power Argument

3. The Global Context Argument

These arguments lead to some revisions, or some limitations to the symmetric concept of discrimination, but essentially, I argue that the pros of using ‘discrimination’ in the symmetric sense outweighs the cons.