Intersectionality. A Tool For The Analysis of Social Division.

Intersectionality is a highly contested theory or tool, and also has multiple definitions. Some argue “‘Intersectionality’ refers to the interaction between gender, race and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements and cultural ideologies and the outcome of these interactions in terms of power.” (Davis, K, 2008:58). Brah and Phoenix (2004:76) take this further, arguing that intersectionality signifies “the complex, irreducible, varied, and variable effects which ensue when multiple axis of differentiation – economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential – intersect in historically specific contexts. The concept emphasizes that different dimensions of social life cannot be separated out into discrete and pure strands”. Although there are many definitions regarding intersectionality one thing they all seem to agree on is the need for a varied analysis of human experience.

The first part of this work takes a brief look at the roots of intersectional analysis with specific reference to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw who actually coined the term intersectionality in the late 1980s. It explains why she felt there was a serious need to challenge the way we examine social experience from various angles, and also takes a look at why her original research was so influential as well as some of the challenges it faces. It will then move on to look at intersectionality as more than just a tool for feminist research, but something that can be used in order to examine multiple theories of social experience. There is a strong theme within intersectionality that all human experience, and therefore knowledge, is situational (Haraway, 1988) and therefore Foucauldian ideas about power being a dynamic process are looked at to help support this argument. Following this, issues related to methodology and how best to carry out this type of research are discussed; a problem Nash (2008) refers to as ‘methodological murkiness’ due to the vast number of variables that create issues of applicability that are largely dependent on the subject and their environment. The work of leslie McCall (2005) is referred to, as McCall offers three approaches (anticategorical complexity, intracategorical complexity and intercategorical complexity) that are used in intersectional research, and discusses the positives and negatives of the implementation of each method. Finally, as the idea of other areas of difference can be examined through intersectional analysis, this work will also look at class and race as significant areas of social difference, as well as other differences such as religion, before arriving at a conclusion about its usefulness as a tool for doing social research.

Kimberlé Crenshaw first devised the concept intersectionality in 1989. Crenshaw’s work was centred on the notion that neither feminist discourse nor anti-racist discussion tackled any of the issues faced by women of colour in society at that time. Crenshaw argued that to try to understand and gain a fuller picture of black women’s experiences, theorists must account for how both race and gender interact and reflect upon the daily experience of black women (Davis, 2008). Crenshaw argued that as the vast majority of previous feminist research focused on the most privileged groups (white middle class women), and those who are “multiply-burdened” are side lined, so intersectionality for Crenshaw was seen as “a way of describing both the simultaneity of multiple oppressions and the complexity of identity” (Crenshaw, 1989:140 cited in Nash, 2008:4). Crenshaw’s work also takes issue with the assumptions that form the basis for a lot of anti-discrimination laws, arguing that black women are unable to make discrimination claims as intersectional subjects, that is to say they are almost forced to make either race-based claims or gender-based claims, but never both, meaning that the current legal system fails to recognise “ . . . that black women can experience discrimination in ways that are both similar to and different from those experienced by white women and black men (Crenshaw, 1989:149 cited in Nash, 2008:6). The association of intersectionality with the image of a crossroads could be said to be applicable in almost any context that requires a visualization of intersecting social differences that form ones identity. Whereas initial intersectional analysis was largely concerned with race and gender, new research now takes into account more lines of intersection, such as sexuality, class, age and religion “except that this time the drawing is not done on graph paper. This time your body occupies the point where all those lines meet” (Weston, 2011:15). This in itself has produced methodological problems that will be addressed later.

Crenshaw’s work, however, is not without its critics, it has been argued that her failure to recognize the roles that nationality, sexuality and class can play in human experience (in this instance the experience of black women), therefore reducing the experiences of black women as the sum of race and gender (Nash, 2008). Another issue lies in the fact that black women in this respect are treated as a universal entity in the sense that “differences between black women, including class and sexuality are obscured in the service of presenting ‘black women’ as a category that opposes both ‘whites’ and ‘black men’ (Nash, 2008:8–9). However, as intersectionality focuses on subjects, or people, who “exist . . . within the overlapping margins of race and gender discourse and in the empty spaces in between”, it is particularly good at encapsulating the simultaneity of race and gender as social processes (Crenshaw, 1992:403 cited in Nash, 2008), and whilst intersectionality has become something of a buzzword in academic literature, Nash (2008) has argued that this multi dimensional analysis of human experience has been apparent in black feminist work for decades, with countless writers disregarding the idea of a universal ‘woman’. So it could be said that intersectionality, in many ways, is merely a new and exciting word for a pre-existing theory. Some argue that intersectionality is a theory, while others see it as a concept or an investigative tool, and others as a reading device for feminist analysis (Davis, 2008), as can be seen in Matsuda’s work, “The way I try to understand the interconnection of all forms of subordination is through a method I call ‘ask the other question’. When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, where are the class interests in this?’” (Matsuda, 1991:1189).

Moving way from feminist theory alone, Yuval-Davis (2011:14) see’s intersectionality “as the most valid approach to analyse social stratification as a whole”. This is because intersectional analysis does not give precedence to one aspect of social life over another. Yuval-Davis (2011) emphasizes that when social differences and axes of power are analysed, it is important to recognise that the facets of social difference that are most important to discuss are situational, and dependent on time and space. Yuval- Davis (2011:4) says that one thing is clear about intersectional analysis and that is related to the way society acts on individuals and how it affects all subjects differently, “we cannot homogenize the ways any political project or claiming’s affect people who are differentially located within the same boundaries of belonging”.

It could be argued that intersectionality has provided a useful alternative for critical perspectives such as queer theory, as they can now avoid the static notions surrounding identity and concentrate on the idea that identities are multi-faceted and ever changing, and how best to operationalize research. As mentioned intersectionality, has, as a core feature, a recognition that knowledge is situational, something which coincides with Foucauldian ideas about power as a dynamic process (Davis, 2008). Instead of regarding power as something that is held by a few ‘powerful’ people, and enforced on the ‘powerless’, Foucault argued that power is something that operates at every level of society, in all human interaction, in all institutions, and by all people (Giddens, 2009). Foucault distances himself from the notion of power having the ability to change or destroy things, stating that for him “power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with, it is the name one attributes to a complex strategical relationship in a particular society” (1981:93 cited in Jermier et al. 1994: 172) instead of viewing power as a tangible theory he see’s it as a field of analysis, arguing that power may be better understood by examining the resistance it creates, so that, “resistance consequently plays the role of continuously provoking extensions, revisions and refinements of those same practices it confronts” (Jermier et al. 1994:180). This means that resistances force changes in the way that power is imposed (or dominant ways of thinking in this instance), so resistance becomes a form of power as opposed to a liberation from it, “’power’ is after all the ‘outcome’, as it were, as well as the ‘cause’ of such a ‘use’ of others” (Foucault, 1982 cited in Jermier et al. 1994:171).

The recognition of ‘situated knowledge’ and the rejection of an ‘object’ of knowledge as a passive and motionless thing (Haraway, 1988) is a sure way of furthering a theorists reflexivity as they are able to use their own intersectional location as a site for research. As Davis (2008:72) states “It promises an almost universal applicability, useful for understanding and analysing any social practice, and individual or group experience, any structural arrangement, and any cultural configuration”.

One of the most prominent issues regarding intersectional analysis is its ‘methodological murkiness’ (Nash, 2008). As previously mentioned there are many ways in which intersectionality is defined and there are no specific parameters it must adhere to, allowing intersectionality to be used in almost any sociological field of research. However this never ending sequence of multi-faceted analysis can make research very vague, in the sense of how researchers go about choosing categories of significance, and where their analysis reaches a conclusion. For example what happens when people do not convey every axis or intersection as part of their identity, for instance one may recognise their gender and their ethnic background, but may feel that class is not something which defines them at all, so this convenient meeting point for every axis of identity may not be as useful as t first appears (Weston, 2011). This being said, the vagueness that emerges does not have to be seen as a wholly negative aspect of the concept, for every new intersection that is examined, new lines of enquiry may emerge and new information brought to the fore. By asking the other question (Matsuda, 1990), new paths are opened up and new relationships between various categories can be found (Davis, 2008).

As Joan Acker (2006) has argued, the need for intersectional analysis is largely accepted, but clear ideas regarding the most effective ways to carry out research is subject to much debate, a point summed up nicely by Chang and Culp (2002:485), “How does one pay attention to the points of intersection? How many intersections are there? Is the idea of an intersection the right analogy?” it has been argued that the use of intersections can be problematic as it struggles to deal with contradictions, intersectional analysis tends to portray all axes as equal, meaning that a subject experiences all of their axes all of the time and in equal measure (Weston, 2011), but as we have mentioned, if all knowledge is situational then would we be better off examining individual cases, and if so would this not present further issues related to the fact that subjects could not be cross referenced? McCall (2005:1781) would argue that these “personal narratives” gain their strength “from the partial crystallization of social relations in the identities of particular groups”.

Leslie McCall (2005) argues that intersectionality has become one of the most important contributions in women’s studies, and also agrees that the main problem with intersectional analysis lies in how to study it. McCall (2005) offers three means by which intersectional analysis can be undertaken, drawing the positives and negatives from each method as they attempt to deal with the issues related to working with categories, each of these will now be discussed.

The first of these approaches and arguably the most successful of the three is called anticategorical complexity, which is founded on the premise that categories such as race and gender along with many others, are too simplistic to explain the complexity of lived experience. McCall (2005:1773) describes fixed categories as “social fictions that produce inequalities in the process of producing differences”, and says that categories can only be used in very simplistic ways, using the example of gender in order to explain her point. Historically, gender was understood in terms of men and women, and was seen as a biological truth. Iris Young (1990) in her essay “Throwing Like a Girl” discusses the work of Erwin Straus who studied the difference in how male and female children used their bodies to throw at an early age. Straus found that girls were much more tentative in their movements, as opposed to boys who used far more lateral space and more body parts to assist them. He argued that as these differences are so apparent from and early age they must be biological rather than learned behaviours. As the biology of men and women has increasingly been questioned, and what is biologically male and female can no longer be taken for granted. For instance a large toy making firm “TopToy” published a gender neutral toy catalogue in Sweden a few years ago that depicts girls playing with toy guns and boys playing with dolls, the director of sales justified such a publication by stating that “with the new gender thinking, there is nothing that is right or wrong, its not a boy or a girl thing, it’s a toy for children” (Russia Today, 2012). Further to this it is now the case in Sweden that the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” has been added to the language as an alternative to the use of “he” or “she”.

So we find now that multiple genders now exist. The usefulness of this perspective can be seen in the way that it challenges the singular and separate, maybe somewhat taken for granted categories of social identity. Many of these gender issues can be seen in this excerpt from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech, “Ain’t I A Woman” (cited in Brah and Phoenix, 2004:77).

“Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something

out of kilter, I think between the Negroes of the south and the Women of the North – all talking about rights – the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have ploughed (sic), I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much, and eat as much as any man – – when I could get it – – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman? …”

Brah and Phoenix (2004) argue that these identity claims made by Sojourner Truth show that in fact, what we call ‘identities’ are not real, that is that they do not exist in a physical sense, but instead are created or processed through power relations. It “underscores the complexity of the construction ‘woman’ revealing that the ‘commonality’ of this category was in fact based on the intersectional experiences of the very few (white, middle class, heterosexual women)” (Crenshaw, 1993 cited in Taylor, Hines and Casey, 2011:40).

Secondly, there is Intracategorical complexity, which is closely linked to anti-categorical complexity. As it’s starting point, intra-categorical complexity examines marginalized social and intersectional identities, it assesses the dangers of using categories much like anti-categorical complexity does, but also acknowledges “the stable and even durable relationships that social categories represent at any given point in time” (McCall, 2005:1774). As previously mentioned in relation to anticategorical complexity, intra-categorical complexity places a lot of emphasis on the social construction of identity categories such as gender, as it is believed that deconstructing so-called ‘master categories’ due to their lack of substance in reality can be a positive force for social change, even if it is not possible to escape categorization completely. “The methodological consequence is to render suspect both the process of categorization itself and any research that is based on such categorization, because it inevitably leads to demarcation, and demarcation to exclusion, and exclusion to inequality”. (McCall, 2005: 1777).

The final category is called intercategorical complexity (or the categorical approach) and is not widely known or used. This category begins with the acceptance that inequality amongst various social groups already exists, and uses these disparities as its basis of analysis. The aim of intercategorical complexity is to elucidate relationships and links between categories and inequality. McCall (2005) states that this is her preferred method saying that the categorical approach she forms probes into whether ‘meaningful’ inequalities exist among different groups. McCall argues that issues of complexity and murkiness can partly be solved by this method as “This perspective leaves open the possibility that broad social groupings more or less reflect the empirical realities of more detailed social groupings, thus minimizing the extent of complexity (2005:1785).

It may be said that relationships between different social groups underpin the other two approaches, so in that respect the categorical approach is not much different from the previous two approaches. However whereas inequality among social groups provides a background for anticategorical and intracategorical complexity, they are the main focus of the intercategorical approach. One of the key issues related to this approach is that where the use of categories is essential for analysis, can the demand for complexed examination be met? McCall (2005) argues that this need for complexity can be met, as the subject in categorical analysis is multigroup, meaning that analysis can become very complexed very quickly with the addition of new categories. This is something that becomes apparent even when very simple definitions are used for each category, for this reason, if research is to focus on specific aspects of certain groups and provide more detailed and coherent research, they must make sacrifices regarding the scale of their research, just as the anticategorical and intracategorical approaches must do. This multigroup analysis, however, at the same time produces a vastly different form of complexity in comparison to the other two approaches, although it may seem somewhat reductionist in its methods as it minimizes analysis to a small number of groups, McCall argues that in the end it “is a synthetic and holistic process that brings the various pieces of analysis together. Whereas the intracategorical approach begins with a unified intersectional core . . . and works its way outward to analytically unravel one by one the influences of gender, race, class, and so on, the categorical approach begins with an analysis of the elements first because each of these is a sizable project in its own right (McCall, 2005:1787).

When discussing intersections and inequalities there are certain issues that must be confronted. Yvette Taylor (2011) asks the question of what differences really matter, which intersections are socially significant in terms of the effects they have on ones life, and when do these differences transform into inequalities. In line with Haraway’s (1988) notion of situational knowledge, Taylor (2011:43) states that “intersection is not an abstract concept; it is something that lives, breathes and moves. While there are clearly some issues with how complex intersectional analysis can become it could be argued that focusing on too few categories could create a situation where interpenetrating realities are either obscured or made to be too simplistic to be of any significance. As has been mentioned, historically feminist literature has focused on a very narrow field of white middle class women, ignoring the fact that on top of gender being a very complicated issue itself, analysis can become increasingly difficult when other differences are brought into the arena, such as class, race and ethnic background. This being said, Joan Acker (2006) feels that any research or social theory that addresses social inequality and power relations should take gender, class and race/ethnicity under the microscope of intersectional analysis as an absolute minimum.

Acker argues that although the basis of social inequality varies depending on the subject, the time, and the location. Class, gender and race always seem to appear as fundamental components of difference. Acker in this instance refers to class as the “enduring and systematic differences in access to and control over resources for provisioning and survival (2006:444). The resources Acker speaks of are mainly related to capital, and says that class is also inherent within employment, in the sense that larger organizations somewhat mirror the class practices of wider society.

Gender, described as a socially created category of difference between men and women that supports inequality, also prevails in all organizations, and is something that was once inextricably linked to class, that is to say nearly all of the top management jobs went to men and lower level workers in organizations tended to be occupied by women, “class relations in the work place, such as supervisory practices or wage-setting processes, were shaped by gendered and sexualized attitudes, and assumptions” (Acker 2006:444). It may be important to note that although it is often reported that the gap between men and women in the workplace may be closing in terms of women gaining entry to higher roles within organizations, this is something that is still prevalent in many organizations in many societies. Nonetheless, if gender is examined in a very patriarchal way it tends to present a view of all women as victims of male domination, but when looked at in relation to race and class a very different picture of subordination comes to the surface. For instance, a white middle-class woman may find herself capable of employing someone to clean her house for her, this person could be male or female, and quite possibly from an ethnic minority, as those from ethnic minorities are often forced into lower-scale jobs through an oppression of their own. Women may also exercise power over men in the work place, because as mentioned more women now hold management positions within organizations, they are responsible for male workers in subordinate positions. In this sense, class power has enabled women to relieve themselves from many of the oppressions related to gender, they may however still face significant issues of subordination in the home and harassment in public (Bradley, 2007).

In explaining the importance of race in intersectional analysis, Acker defines race as the “socially defined differences based on physical characteristics, culture, and historical domination and oppression, justified by entrenched beliefs” (2006:444–445), this too, often has close ties with issues related to class. As an example, through history women and men of colour in the United States were often relegated to the lowest level jobs and it was not unheard of that certain organizations would not hire them at all, not only that, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the United States military ceased to be a racially segregated organization (Acker, 2006).

There are quite often many other differences that can be seen as a root cause of inequality, namely that of sexuality, as heterosexuality is the accepted as the norm in many organizations, there still tends to be stigma attached to being either gay or lesbian. Other sources of inequality can be religion, age in some cases, and physical disability. Today, and throughout history, there are many clear examples that having the ‘wrong’ religious beliefs in certain societies at certain times has had some very detrimental impacts on many peoples lives, but while each of these facets of social life are important they are not as deep seeded as gender, class and race (Acker, 2006).

As we can see from this work, there are ultimately many different ways to define intersectionality and there is a lot of debate as to whether it should be classed as a sociological theory or a research tool. This work has largely examined intersectionality as a tool for doing social research. To answer the question about its usefulness for the analysis of social divisions, the best place to start may be to look at its original use. Crenshaw coined and used the term to help explain the social experience, or oppression, experienced by black women in the United States. Following this, many feminist scholars looking to advance their work implemented this technique. It then reached a point where, for research to be meaningful, the idea of subjects as intersectional beings must be considered as to avoid static notions of human experience. When you consider that some of the main social categories that shape so much of our daily lives are socially constructed, the idea of all knowledge as situational and power as a dynamic process, could be seen as very useful when examining how certain individuals experience the world. As we have seen, there are also many methodological issues, which must be considered when carrying out research of this kind. One of these issues is concerned with variables, how many variables should be used, and which of them are the most important. This is something that may be specific to a particular society, a group within a society, or specific to an individual person. So there are clearly some issues regarding the generalizability of results and issues of not being able to cross-reference subjects. Overall then, it becomes clear that intersectionality has gone beyond its original purpose in feminist scholarship and become a useful tool for examining social experience for anyone, in any population. However it has also become clear that there are methodological issues inherent in its use as we find that human experience is so specific and so unique. It could be argued that a clear methodology would strengthen the position of intersectionality as a sociological theory, but there may also be a danger in that standardizing intersectionality, could lead to some of its power and effectiveness as a social research tool being lost.