Three decades after Kimberle Crenshaw popularized the term “intersectionality,” it has become mainstream.
The term is mainstream because it is the truth and because elements of society who are against the idea that we should recognize the deep-seated issues of historically marginalized groups have seized on it as a rallying cry. For these reasons, intersectionality is everywhere: in the home, one the streets, at work… really, anywhere there is discussion and society.
In this post, I draw on my research on intersectionality since 2008 to explore why intersectionality is everywhere. In sum, it is everywhere because it has fundamental truths that some anti-gender and anti-sociology elements in society want to exploit.
The Many Definitions of Intersectionality
Hancock notes that there are many definitions of intersectionality. I note that they vary considerably by author:
Hancock (2007:64): “In political science, intersectionality is seen as both a normative theoretical argument and an approach to conducting empirical research that emphasizes the interaction of categories of difference (including but not limited to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation).”
Bilge (2013: 410): “These questions are of particular relevance in the case of intersectionality, as it is a theory and praxis, an analytical and political tool elaborated by less powerful social actors facing multiple minoritizations, in order to confront and combat the interlocking systems of power shaping their lives, through theoretical and empirical knowledge production, as well as activism, advocacy, and pedagogy (Thornton Dill and Zambrana, 2009).” [emphasis mine]
Hankivsky et al (2014: 2): “…there are a number of central tenets that capture the unique nature of this paradigm. These are: human lives cannot be reduced to single characteristics; human experiences cannot be accurately understood by prioritizing any one single factor or constellation of factors; social categories/locations, such as ‘race’/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality and ability, are socially constructed, and dynamic social locations are inseparable and shaped by interacting and mutually constituting social processes and structures, which, in turn, are shaped by power and influenced by both time and place; and the promotion of social justice and equity are paramount.” [emphasis mine]
Collins (2015: 2): “By now, a general consensus exists about intersectionality’s general contours. The term intersectionality references the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities.”
As we can see, even the experts have difficulty in defining it. For example, Patricia Hill Collins constructed a graduate seminar called, “Intersectionality.” Acknowledging the large literature that had accumulated over the decades, Collins (2015: 2) decided to ask basic questions about the definition, and her syllabus read:
“What exactly is intersectionality? Is it a concept, a paradigm, a heuristic device, a methodology, or a theory? If it is a theory, what kind of theory is it? Because intersectionality constitutes a new term applied to a diverse set of practices, interpretations, methodologies and political orientations, we cannot assume that we are studying a fixed body of knowledge. Instead, our course will investigate the question of the interpretive frames of intersectionality itself.”
Intersectionality moved from race and gender to gender and everything
In the early years, race and gender – specifically, Black women – were the intersections to be studied in intersectionality (Hancock 2016).
But in Europe, the gender part held and the race part got lost. Mugge et al (2018: 20) argued that “Race is contested as a category of empirical analysis in many European countries – it is forbidden in France and Germany, for example, to collect census data on race (Simon, 2008; Bassel and Emejulu, 2017).” Recent scholarship in Europe and abroad have sought to bring race back in.
Intersectionality as Meme
Hancock (2016) traced the intellectual history of intersectionality as the concept rose in feminist thought and in activism. Intersectionality has spread toward the mainstream to the point where Hancock worries that it has become a “meme.”
The memeification of a term simply shows that the term is popular enough to inspire memes. If we take the term seriously, and we should, we see that intersectionality is a simple and powerful concept and framework.
Intersectionality is the truth
At its roots, the basic premise of intersectionality is difficult to deny. We all have multiple demographic traits and an identity, and each of us has positions in the power structure. The combination of these “intersections” convey advantage to some and disadvantage to others, depending on the context.
It is true that each individual has an identity. An identity is a self-concept that we hold and a concept that others place on us. We may not agree with the concept others place on us, but that others do place identities on us is true.
It is true that each individual has a position in the power structure. Depending on the context, each of us has an advantage or a disadvantage. What makes intersectionality important, here, is that these advantages and disadvantages are rooted in social structures, i.e. enduring patterns of behavior that set limits on thoughts and action and that cannot be changes by any individual will.
No one can deny that they have a gender, race, and class, and that the combination of these confer advantages or disadvantages.
Intersectionality is the truth. And that is (partly) why it is everywhere. The other reason is that the conservative opposition see intersectionality, cynically, as a means of mobilization.
Conservative opposition to intersectionality
Conservative opponents of the concept of gender, and liberalism in general, take umbrage at the idea of intersectionality. Coasten, in her article “The Intersectionality Wars,” writes that “There may not be a word in American conservatism more hated right now than ‘intersectionality’.” She writes,
To many conservatives, intersectionality means “because you’re a minority, you get special standards, special treatment in the eyes of some.” It “promotes solipsism at the personal level and division at the social level.” It represents a form of feminism that “puts a label on you. It tells you how oppressed you are. It tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.” Intersectionality is thus “really dangerous” or a “conspiracy theory of victimization.”
Why is intersectionality a political term?
Scholars such as Crenshaw originally meant Intersectionality to be both an academic and legal concept. But since it was formed within feminism, it is also a personal and political term. Naturally, intersectionality is “politicized” because it is meant to move politics from treating all women and all men as the same to the special cases of advantage and disadvantage of white upper class men, working class African American women, and so on.
Conservatives seized on the term, as they did with critical race theory, to push their own political agenda. It is a story as old as the civil rights era.
Intersectionality is Everywhere
By now, intersectionality has become famous. Even Time magazine wrote an article to explain it and its history:
“So, during the 1970s, black feminist scholar-activists, a number of whom were also LGBTQ, developed theoretical frameworks to serve as a model for other women of color, to broaden feminism’s definition and scope. Throughout the final decades of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st centuries, women of color published many groundbreaking works that highlighted these dynamics. In doing so, they exposed the interlocking systems that define women’s lives.
The theory of those systems became known as intersectionality, a term popularized by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her 1991 article “Mapping the Margins,” she explained how people who are “both women and people of color” are marginalized by “discourses that are shaped to respond to one [identity] or the other,” rather than both.”
The term had its origins and now has its ubiquity. With great ubiquity comes chaos and confusion. As noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article:
“As The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in 2017, “The word has migrated from women’s-studies journals and conference keynotes into everyday conversation, turning what was once highbrow discourse into hashtag chatter.”
When that happens, everyone claims a piece of it, and fights break out. As the word maven Kory Stamper wrote in New York magazine earlier this year, ‘Even as the word ‘intersectionality’ is becoming more common, its meaning is becoming less clear.’ She added: ‘When words move from a specialized arena into the mainstream, they often get a little flabby: their sharply delineated corners blur a bit as the word is passed down a long line of speakers.'”
Not all concepts become so famous. Social scientists develop thousands and thousands of them, and while jargon can rule academic conversation, only a few have escaped the ivory tower and entered the mainstream.
What is the future of intersectionality?
The future of intersectionality will depend much on whether academics truly embrace what it is: the truth. We are, all of us, more than a single dimension. We are multidimensional, with identities and positions within the power structure. These are facts. Whether the methodology and theory of sociology will catch up to it, and treat it as more than a meme and buzzword, will determine whether intersectionality will become the basic assumptions of human social life.
McKenna takes a near-Marxist view of intersectionality in his critique of the use of social class as an intersection: “But by rendering class a political ‘identity’ which intersects with many others, intersectionality relieves it of the universalism which the class process calls into being at the level of historical and structural existence vis a vis the means of production.”
The origin of the term ‘intersectionality’ — Columbia Journalism Review
Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful — Davis in Feminist Theory
Intersectionality Is Not the Problem — The Atlantic
Some academic references
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 K. and Corina Ilinca. 2019. “Quantitative Approaches to Intersectionality: New Methodological Directions and Implications for Policy Analysis,” pp. 195 – 214 in The Palgrave Handbook of Intersectionality in Public Policy edited by Olena Hankivsky and Julia S. Jordan-Zachery. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
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.
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.
Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.