Approaches to Intersectionality

What are the major approaches to intersectionality?

In studying the influence of identity on attitudes and behavior, there are two major approaches to intersectionality, with some important internal divisions.

One is a unitary, or additive, approach, and the other can be called the multiplicative approach.  I present the essence of these approaches to intersectionality.

Unitary, or Additive, Approach to Intersectionality

Most researchers employ the unitary approach. Its main theoretical assumptions are that:

(a) demographic categories have social properties that are distinct from the other characteristics of individuals,

(b) a separate category could be a the best predictor of the dependent variable (Hancock 2007; Weldon 2006).

In the unitary approach, it is assumed that demographic variables have additive effects.  For example, the joint effect of being a woman, belonging to an ethnic minority, and representing disadvantaged social class are a sum of the effects of these three demographic variables.

Multiplicative Approach to Intersectionality

Multiplicative approach is also called categorical (McCall 2005). In intersectionality theory, the influence of demographics on a social outcome is conditional on the intersections of the demographic categories.  This approach suggests interaction terms of categories that identify respondent groups.

In a relaxed version of intersectionality theory, the constituent elements of intersections have valid social meaning. Moreover, this approach “begins with an analysis of the elements [of the intersections] first because each of these is a sizable project in its own right” (McCall 2005: 1787).  The constituent elements of intersections are there to provide context for the intersections themselves (Weldon 2006).

Versions of intersectionality theory range from more relaxed to more strict

In the strictest version, it is assumed that “social life is considered too irreducibly complex… to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions…” (McCall 2005: 1773).  Gender, ethnicity, and class are inseparable as each has no valid social meaning on their own.  This “anticategorical” approach assumes that each constituent category of the intersection has no autonomous effects   (McCall 2005; Weldon 2006: 240). 

Further Readings on Intersectionality

Bauer, Greta R. 2014. “Incorporating Intersectionality Theory into Population Health Research Methodology: Challenges and the Potential to Advance Health Equity.” Social Science and Medicine 110: 10 – 17.

Cho, Sumi, Kimberele Williams Crenshaw and Leslie McCall. 2013. “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis.” Signs 38(4): 785 – 810.

Davis, Kathy.  2008.  “Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful.”  Feminist Theory 9(1): 67-85.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf.  2008.  “How Can We Account for Intersectionality in Quantitative Analysis of Survey Data?  Empirical Illustration of Central and Eastern Europe.”  Ask: Research and Methods 17: 85-102.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Why Should Social Scientists Account for Intersectionality in Quantitative Analysis of Survey Data?” pp. 161 – 177 in Intersectionality und Kritik, edited by Vera Kallenberg, Jennifer Meyer, and Johanna M. Müller. Springer VS.

Hancock, Ange-Marie.  2007.  “When Multiplication Doesn’t Equal Quick Addition: Examining Intersectionality as a Research Paradigm.”  Perspectives on Politics 5(1): 63-79.

Hancock, Ange-Marie. 2013. “Empirical Intersectionality: A Tale of Two Approaches.” UC Irvine Law Review.

Hancock, Ange-Marie. 2016. Intersectionality: An Intellectual History. Oxford University Press.

Hankivsky, Olena, and Renée Cormier. 2009. Intersectionality: Moving Women’s Health Research and Policy Forward. Vancouver: Women’s Health Research Network.

Hughes, Melanie and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2017. “Intersectionality and Women’s Political Empowerment Worldwide,” pp. 77 – 96 in Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment across the Globe edited by Alexander A., Bolzendahl C., Jalalzai F. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hughes, Melanie. 2015. “Crossing Intersections: Overcoming the Challenges of Cross-national Research on the Legislative Representation of Women from Marginalized Groups,” pp. 51 – 66 in Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, edited by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow. London: Routledge.

Juan Del Toro and Hirokazu Yoshikawa. 2016. “Invited Reflection: Intersectionality in
Quantitative and Qualitative Research.” Psychology of Women Quarterly
2016, Vol. 40(3) 347-350

McCall, Leslie.  2005.  “The Complexity of Intersectionality.”  Signs 30(3): 1771 – 1800.

Verloo, Mieke  2013. “Intersectional and Cross-Movement Politics and Policies: Reflections on Current Practices and Debates”. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38 (4).

Weldon, S. Laurel.  2006.  “The Structure of Intersectionality: A Comparative Politics of Gender.”  Politics & Gender 2(2): 235-248.

Winker G and Degele N (2011) Intersectionality as multi-level analysis: dealing with social inequality. European Journal of Women’s Studies 18(1): 51–66.


As researchers use various names for these approaches, I chose names based on what I considered the most intellectually appealing. For unitary, I use Hancock’s 2007 term, and Weldon (2006: 240) suggests the term “monism” for this concept. For variants of intersectionality, I refer to Leslie McCall’s (2005) terms: anticategorical, intracategorical and intercategorical, the last reduced to “categorical approach,” which I refer to as the multiplicative approach, as multiplicative interaction terms are the key element. Anticategorical and intracategorical have nuances that separate them, but the differences are not sufficiently pronounced to suggest fundamentally different statistical approaches. Weldon (2006) refers to McCall’s anticategorical and intracategorical as the Intersectionality-Only model and the categorical approach as the Separable-But-Mutually-Reinforcing model.

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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