Intersectionality – the essay (part 1)

In the last three decades of the development of feminist thought, the term that started it all – “gender” – had been placed in the dock. Gender, as a single-axis social category consisting of “women / female” and “men / male” began to lose its currency and no longer adequate in an enterprise committed to theorising and battling complex forms of social injustices. The edifice of gender as a social category was first chipped away by feminists of colour who questioned both the inclusivity of the term ‘gender’ with regards to women of colour and feminism’s tendency to treat gender and race as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis. From this dual-edged criticism emerged intersectionality as a new means of approaching the multiple layers of subordination experienced by groups of women who remain outside the idea of the archetypal woman imagined by feminists of yore (White, able-bodied, heterosexual, and middle-class).

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality began as a critical response to the silence of White feminists on African American women’s oppression and the anti-racist movement for ignoring the needs of women in the name of racial unity. Crenshaw argues that anti-sexist politics and anti-racist approaches very rarely correspond to each other negatively implicating the understanding of black women as subjects for feminist intervention [1]. Crenshaw’s most noted body of work concerns mainly around women of colour in the United States and was developed as an analytical method in feminist law, but many other feminist scholars found resonance in their own research that deals with different social contexts altogether, providing a panacea to the inadequacies of feminist thought and practice in a variety of ways. What is learned and adopted from Crenshaw’s insight is that oppression exists on multiple axes, each axis interacting and affecting another in significant ways.

In the following sections, I shall divide my attention to intersectionality into its different constituents: its features and its usefulness as an analytical framework, and the challenges of developing intersectional approaches with special regard to its function to “capture” real-life experiences. In the tail-end section of this essay I will discuss the effects of cultural homogenisation in the multiple subordination of Asian women in Bradford and how an intersectional insight can help in recovering of their gendered subjectivities. In this essay we will follow how intersectionality as a new paradigm in feminist thought reconstitutes the term and category ‘gender’ as anti-essentialist and dynamic, multi-dimensional and contextually specific.

Intersectionality and its constituent parts

Definition

Intersectionality, as the noun suggests, is the point of contact made between lines, elements, categories. As an analytical tool, its main focus are the subjects that assume the positions at such intersections. It aims to further the feminist agenda to not only focus on gender as a source of female oppression, but extend their energies to studying other ‘power’ dimensions such as class, race, sexuality, and disability in particular the neglected social locations in which two (or more) of these dimensions intersect. Dorthe Staunaes describes intersectionality as a process of “doing” and an argument for examining this “doing” in situ, where “concrete intersections, hierarchies, and elaboration are not predetermined [2]. Intersectionality as a concept, according to McCall [3], addresses “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations”. Intersectionality has also been described as crossroads [4], ‘axes’ of difference [5] and as a dynamic process [6]. The multiple notions of intersectionality reflect its amorphous and expansive character but underscoring all definitions is the recovery of woman as subjects from the multiple entanglements of her social contextualisation.

Subjectivity: The question of “Who” intersectionality seeks to address

Where is ‘woman’ in intersectional analysis? This is a question that, ironically, had become a riddle for feminist scholars who critique the very foundation of categories that have privileged men and their experiences in particular modes of thought and sciences that have a claim on objectivity and truth. These critiques dovetailed into two camps: post-structuralist feminism and post-modern feminism. For post-structuralist feminists, the subject of analytical interest, woman, is a product of a sense of self and social conditions. The post-structuralist feminist concept of subjectivity is informed by Foucault’s notion of the individual: as both an active subject that engages with her social conditions and one that is subjected to conditions surrounding her contextualisation [7]. The subject, however, is confined to think, say, and feel only within the boundaries of discourse(s) but has, however, multiple points of resistance to subvert meaning and actions of subjugation. In post-structuralist feminism, the subject is an entity predisposed to fluidity and engaged in constant processes of becoming as opposed to the concept of identity that presupposes a core of sameness within an individual that remains constant.

With the view that difference exists intra-categorically, post-modern feminists, on the other hand, in certain respects go hand in hand with intersectional idea of the permeability of classical categories of gender, race, and class. Arguably, both strands align with the anti-categorical approaches that assume the difficulty, if not impossibility, of experiences, the multiplicity of identities, and social locations fitting in neatly into a “master” category [8]. Conversely, this deconstructive method of analytical categories involves the deconstruction of social inequalities into their constituent parts which often include symbolic violence and material inequality are products of the intersection of race, class, sexuality, and gender [9]. This further suggests that identities are by nature fragmented and constituted in multiplicities. What is at stake in intersectionality is how each category “articulate” with one another [10]: how race is gendered, how class is racialised, and how gender is classed. The identification of the subject that is situated within a network of articulating categories can help with framing subjectivities whilst simultaneously provide a solution to minimising the complexity and the size of terrain of the different categories.

McCall [11] suggests beginning an analysis with delineating the intersections of certaindimensions within a particular category that a group of women share. However, this comes with the presupposition that particular dimensions of an analytical category at one given time is more important than others. To illustrate: a British African, middle-class, heterosexual woman is a subject at an intersection of race, class, sexuality, and gender but experiences one facet of each category. These “personal narratives”, as McCall names them, are powerful in that a snapshot or the “partial crystallisation of social relations in the identities of particular social groups” can mark a beginning of a more true-to-life analysis that “represents only one side of a set of intersecting social relations, not social relations in their entirety” [12].

The struggle between social categories and human complexity

Given the complexity of human experience, it is hardly surprising that often social categories do not have the capacity to account for or “capture” it. Intersectionality is then invoked to fill in the gaps within categories, establishing links between them, and “satisfy the demands of complexity” [13]. Social categories are not seen as simply an imposing force on subjects, but also play an important part in forming subjectivities equally as much as subjects help define the social categories they inhabit. Social categories are the implements of order, of inclusion and exclusion. To a certain extent, the process of social categorising creates hierarchies. Often, social categories are understood as static variables, “woman” (determined biologically and/or socially) or “Muslim” (assumed via socialisation processes). This, according to Stanaues [14], can be deconstructed if social categories are viewed beyond as simply about having or being, but rather something that one does. Social categories are then displaced from an “essential being to constructed becoming” (ibid). They are done, undone, and redone in a variety of ways in relation to other categories. Therefore, they can understood to be performed, quoted, reproduced, and trangressed [15].

For Crenshaw, the problems rest not on social categories in themselves, but more the “particular values attached to them, and the way those values foster and create hierarchies” [16]. To this line of thought Crenshaw suggests looking at how power has clustered around certain categories and not on others. The “power clusters” here brings to mind a Foucauldian sense of power; not entirely as a source of repression but of its role in the drive of knowledge in discourses, the way it leads to hegemonic discourses while it subjugates others, and also the notion of power that resides in the subject in the form of resistance and new discourses.

Given Foucault’s formulation of power as all-pervasive while at the same time elusive [17], locating power clusters and the conditions that give rise to them may be a more challenging task than identifying their manifestation in hegemonic discourses of gender, race, and class. This leads to another point of McCall contention: the very size of inequality. In her view, intersectionality has the potential to locate more precisely the coordinates of subordination in its multiple manifestations. Social inequality must also be theorised as dynamic and subject to changes in location and magnitude. Once an inequality was viewed to be big, and perhaps it is now small. In one place they are large, in other places they might be small [18].

Challenges to a new paradigm of thought

As discussed above, the complexity of intersectionality has the potential to reveal an uncharted terrain of women’s experiences. But due to its own breadth and complexity, pitfalls are never far. One of the major difficulties in feminist research that extends beyond the geographical contexts of the United States and Western Europe is the question of the nomenclature of gender, sexuality, class, and race in the local vernacular. To begin with, the concept of ‘gender’ does not have an equivalent in every language. As a result, theorising the experiences of women in a system with different cultural understanding of womanhood using Western frameworks of intersectionality will be complicated and risks charges of Eurocentrism.

Indeed, the difficulty of establishing certain categories in the English language, namely race, due to its own nebulous sociological and biological underpinnings, cannot be dismissed. The same goes for class. Social class is a contested category of various cultural values and meanings underscored with different theoretical and political perspectives [19]. Hence, feminist scholars must be in a position to recognise that the act of ‘naming’ category is itself arises from a point of privilege and power, and thus a possible contributor to creating and maintaining division and certain inequalities. As far as feminist analysis and the social sciences in general are concerned, analytical categories are continually being critiqued and revised to reflect the changes in an increasingly globalised society which indicates how categories do not in themselves have any underlying essence.

Studies that unmask the intersections of social categories are also dependent on the very categories that make such a study possible. In other words, intersectional approaches may be hindered by the rigidity of the categories that are offered. Archer, Hutchings, and Leithwood [20] concur that terms such as “intersecting” or “cross-cutting” continue to imply fixed, observable realities and critique the way homogenised social categories are often simply added together only to be elaborately separated later into their constituent parts. Questions are also raised in terms of establishing limits to capturing such a complexity where size and significance of each analytical category are a matter of important concern.

Often the problem of the size and significance of every element in every respective category are the main reasons why studies are divided into separate specialised categories – gender, race, class, etc. – with little to no overlap between them [21]. A study that aims to be exhaustive and far-reaching in terms of capturing reality may also be too extensive in word and page length to be accepted in a peer-reviewed journal. The richness of an intersectional study can, however, be compressed in monographs of which recently has been published by a growing number of mainstream presses, including university presses [22]. This offers an indicator of the receptiveness to more expansive intersectional feminist research writings.

As a mode of analysis, intersectionality may be hindered by the unflexibility of methods rather than constrained by theoretical framework or the subjects. Methodology, McCall [23] notes, is an element of feminist research that is confined to discipline, thereby restricting the possibility of making interdisciplinary analyses fully effective. Thus, to overcome the disciplinary boundaries, different methods should be considered to attain the complexity that is desired in intersectional analysis. A number of feminist scholars have critiqued intersectional analyses as only relevant to those who endure multiple forms of subordination [24], though from my point of view this criticism is demonstrative of both social privileges of sorts reflected on the researcher and short-sightedness in their view of the versatility of intersectional analyses as other feminist scholars have adopted intersectionality in studies that have little do with the multi-layered oppression1.

Conversely, Hutchinson argues that intersectionality, based on its basic premise, is not at all a unique experiences but rather a “universal phenomenon” seeing that in reality, every individual is at a crossroad of a multiplicity of elements. Hutchinson calls for multidimensionality as it treats complex subordination as a phenomenon not limited to groups of people currently excluded from a discourse of equality [25]. This debate as to whether women’s oppression is best illuminated with an intersectional analysis or multidimensional analysis, whether it should be understood as experience consistently aligned with particular forms of established identities or simply a product of institutional structures, is taken up here in the next section on gender-based violence against Pakistani women in North England.

Footnote:

1In Patricia Hill Collin’s analysis of the American family as a site of intersectionality traces the multiple social elements that contribute to the construction of family values (Hill Collins, 1998).

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