A Short Review of Collins’ and Bilge’s Intersectionality

The concept of ‘intersectionality’ states that people are complex and can’t be understood as the sum of their identity markers.

“Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other.”

 

Sociologists Partricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge’s short book Intersectionalityprovides a good, academic overview of how the concept of intersectionality is understood and deployed by scholars in a variety of fields. With the recent passage of SBC Resolution #9 “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” it also offers a timely exposition of both the ‘narrow’ definition of intersectionality as an analytic tool and the ‘broad’ definition of intersectionality as a metonym for the worldview of critical theory.

On page 2, the authors give a clear, succinct definition of intersectionality, which I’ll quote here in full:

Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other. Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves.

To summarize in less technical terms, the concept of ‘intersectionality’ states that people are complex and can’t be understood as the sum of their identity markers. For example, the experience of a poor, unwed mother is qualitatively different than the experience of a poor man, or a poor married mother, or a wealthy unwed mother. She will experience unique challenges and have unique needs that we will miss if we focus only on her gender or marital status or class.

This narrow definition of intersectionality is further illustrated by the authors’ concern that intersectionality can be used by people who do not share their allegiance to social justice. For example, the authors conceive of intersectionality as a “critical endeavor” committed to “criticizing, rejecting, and/or trying to fix the social problems that emerge in situations of social injustice” (p. 39). Yet they realize that intersectionality is “not universally understood this way” (p. 40), and lament the fact that “some projects invoke intersectional rhetoric in defense of an unjust status quo… [using] intersectionality as an analytic tool to justify social inequality” (p. 40). They give the example of white supremacist literature employing intersectional reasoning, and conclude: “Ironically, intersectionality as an analytic tool is deployed not as a tool for democratic inclusion, but rather to justify racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual segregation and subsequent social hierarchy” (p. 41).

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