The Concept and Measurement of Power in Intersectionality

The idea of power is inherent to intersectionality.

In this post, we discuss how the concept of power is integral to the concept and framework of intersectionality, and how to measure power structures.

Intersectionality is about politics and the use of power.

Noted intersectionality scholar Patricia Hill Collins (2015: 3) argued that, “Drawing upon racial formation theory, I suggest that because intersectionality’s raison d’être lies in its attentiveness to power relations and social inequalities, it constitutes a broad-based knowledge project.”  

Intersectionality has always been about law and politics. Indeed, since Crenshaw (1991), intersectionality has been a means to interrogate power and bring to light the problems of the silenced disadvantaged. Collins (2015: 3) links power to knowledge, and argued that, “Intersectionality faces a particular definitional dilemma—it participates in the very power relations that it examines and, as a result, must pay special attention to the conditions that make its knowledge claims comprehensible.”

Mugge et al (2018: 31) argued similarly to Crenshaw and Hill: “That intersectionality is part of a political project is not explicitly in dispute, nor is the perception that intersectionality should focus on marginalised groups and processes of marginalisation. This seeming agreement may obscure a deeper disagreement, however, about what intersectionality’s political project is, which particular groups it is meant to represent and whose history and intellectual labour it should reflect.”

As Hancock (2016: 8) noted, “For what lies at the heart of intersectionality’s critique  — complexity, identity, and power – still works to privilege certain interlocutors and logics, while rendering others invisible.”

Bilge (2013) wrote about the depoliticization of intersectionality as it travels toward the mainstream. Power is everywhere, and it is even in the structural relations within academia that produces knowledge, even in the knowledge about intersectionality (Collins 2015; Mugge et al 2018). The depoliticization of intersectionality does not seem to be a problem as conservative elements of society have seized on intersectionality as a rallying cry.

Measuring Power Structures in Quantitative Analyses of Intersectionality

Quantitative accountants of intersectionality who do not directly measure power relations are not contending with a core aspect of intersectionality.

For example, in Else-Quest & Hyde (2016), at the very end of their two-article treatise on quantitative methods and intersectionality discuss “attention” to power. They only mention that one should “interpret” the results in terms of power and inequality.

Bauer (2014) rightly argues that we should make power explicit in our models. According to Bowleg and Bauer (2016: 337):

“Bauer (2014) highlights the importance of intersectionality researchers attending not just to individual-level identity group effects, but also to the role of social positions and processes that give rise to social–structural discrimination. Understanding group-level effects (e.g., at the institutional, neighborhood, local, state, or national level), and how to measure and account for them, is essential to conceptualizing and measuring structural inequality.”

How to measure power structures?

After we define power structures, we need to identify which power structures are at work.

One structure is patriarchy. How to measure it? Savolainen et al (2017), though not an intersectional work, is instructive. They used aggregated survey questions on gender equality:

“Participants in various waves of the WVS2 [World Values Survey round 2] have been asked to respond to three statements about the role of women in society: 1) “Men should have more right to a job than women;” 2) “university is more important for a boy than for a girl;” and 3) “men make better political leaders than women do.” The percentage of the respondents who agree with the statement (either strongly or somewhat) serves as an indicator of the level of patriarchal normative order in the nation.” 

One can also use administrative data. For example, Savolainen et al (2017) use United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index (GII):

“The Gender Inequality Index (GII) describes gender-based disparities in areas of human development and social achievement across nations (United Nations Development Programme, 2015). Three dimensions are assessed: reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status.” Bowleg and Bauer (2016: 338) also suggest these kind of contextual variables: “Intersectionality researchers can integrate the structural into their design and analyses of individual-level data through linkages with relevant structural-level local, state, and federal data (e.g., geographic information system, U.S. Census Bureau).”

In the measurement of power structures, Bowleg and Bauer (2016) suggest policy variables. It is not quite clear how to implement this, as policies can be very specific. In cross-national research, one can measure whether the country adopted CEDAW or other international conventions of gender, or perhaps national policies on reproductive rights. 

We need more social science research and experimentation to understand how to measure the power structure in intersectionality.

Further readings

Approaches to Intersectionality

Intersectionality is Everywhere

Academic readings

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2015. “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas.” Annual Review of Sociology 41:1 – 20.

Crenshaw Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford Law Review 43:1241–99

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.

Mügge, Liza, Celeste Montoya, Akwugo Emejulu, and S. Laurel Weldon. 2018. “Intersectionality and the politics of knowledge production.” European Journal of Politics and Gender 1(1–2): 17–36

Savolainen, Jukka, Samantha Applin, Steven F. Messner,Lorine A. Hughes,Robert Lytle, And Janne Kivivuori. 2017. “Does The Gender Gap In Delinquency Vary By Level Of Patriarchy? A Cross-National Comparative Analysis.Criminology.

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.

Cover Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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.

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