Understanding online discourse pathologisation: Mapping the terrain and proposing a research agenda

31 May 2024
Room F1

Understanding online discourse pathologisation: Mapping the terrain and proposing a research agenda

Pathologisation is a notion from social epistemology. It refers to the portrayal of an individual

or group as irrational or illogical in the eyes of an audience (Cull, 2019; Hagen, 2020). Hence,

it attacks the target’s epistemic identity, or their standing as a knower or information source (Borgwald, 2012), because of the information that they dispense about some issue.

Unfortunately, identification of the phenomenon seems to have thus far inhibited further research. Apparently, the scope of pathologisation has been limited to epistemic identity and its enactment is restricted to face-to-face contexts. Moreover, it is unclear how and where pathologisation is attempted, whether it may be motivated by other reasons, is accomplished through different actions or generates specific discourse structures, or what effects it may trigger.

This presentation will assume that pathologisation can also be perpetrated in online environments. Focusing on them, it will argue that pathologisation may be motivated by other identity-related and/or behavioural factors, and can be attempted overtly or implicitly, as well as legitimately or spuriously. Relying on digital data from Twitter/X, this presentation will additionally show that overt pathologisation depends on actions involving labelling, while implicit pathologisation is contingent on actions suggesting difference, disagreement, censure,

incomprehension or malevolence. After exhibiting recurrent discourse patterns, this presentation will posit that the effects of pathologisation include dehumanisation, polarisation, silencing and gaslighting. Finally, this presentation will make some suggestions for future research.



Borgwald, K. (2012). Women’s anger, epistemic personhood, and self-respect: An application of Lehrer’s ork on self-trust. Philosophical Studies, 161, 69-76.

Cull, M. J. (2019). Dismissive incomprehension: A use of purported ignorance to undermine others. Social Epistemology, 33(3), 262-271.

Hagen, K. (2020). Should academics debunk conspiracy theories? Social Epistemology, 34(5), 423-439.