The concept of intersectionality has become a hot topic in academic and activist circles alike. But what exactly does it mean, and why has it emerged as such a vital lens through which to explore how social inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability and ethnicity shape one another?
In this new book Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge provide a much-needed, introduction to the field of intersectional knowledge and praxis. They analyze the emergence, growth and contours of the concept and show how intersectional frameworks speak to topics as diverse as human rights, neoliberalism, identity politics, immigration, hip hop, global social protest, diversity, digital media, Black feminism in Brazil, violence and World Cup soccer. Accessibly written and drawing on a plethora of lively examples to illustrate its arguments, the book highlights intersectionality's potential for understanding inequality and bringing about social justice oriented change.
Intersectionality will be an invaluable resource for anyone grappling with the main ideas, debates and new directions in this field.
Patricia Hill Collins is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland
Sirma Bilge is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Université de Montréal
Intersectionality as Critical Inquiry and Praxis
Far too much intersectional scholarship starts with the assumption that intersectionality is a finished framework that can simply be applied to a given research project or political program. Yet, as the cases of the FIFA World Cup, the ISA/World Conference on Inclusive Capitalism, and Latinidades suggest, the use of intersectionality can take many forms. Generalizing about intersectionality based on a particular case or one group's experiences in a particular social context risks missing the process of discovery that underlies how people actually use intersectional frameworks. Intersectionality itself is constantly under construction and these cases illustrate different ways of using intersectionality as an analytic tool. Yet how is intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry and praxis organized to do this analytic work? This chapter investigates intersectionality's two organizational focal points, namely, critical inquiry and critical praxis.
Intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry gained visibility in the academy when the term "intersectionality" seemed to be a good fit for scholarship and teaching that were already underway. In the 1990s, the term "intersectionality" came into use both inside and outside traditional disciplines, as well as inside and outside the academy. Initially, intersectional inquiry was inherently critical because it criticized existing bodies of knowledge, theories, methodologies, and classroom practices, especially in relation to social inequality. While intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry can occur anywhere, colleges and universities became important venues for disseminating intersectionality through scholarship, teaching, conferences, grant proposals, policy reports, and literary and creative works.
Intersectionality as a form of critical praxis refers to the ways in which people, either as individuals or as part of groups, produce, draw upon, or use intersectional frameworks in their daily lives - as everyday citizens with jobs and families, as well as institutional actors within public schools, colleges and universities, religious organizations, and similar venues. Intersectionality's critical praxis can occur anywhere, both inside and outside the academy. This book pays special attention to intersectionality as critical praxis because popular understandings of intersectionality underemphasize the practices that make intersectional knowledge possible, especially practices that involve criticizing, rejecting, and/or trying to fix the social problems that come with complex social inequalities. Critical praxis also constitutes an important feature of intersectional inquiry - one that is both attentive to intersecting power relations and essentially vital for resisting social inequality.
Within intersectionality as critical inquiry, faculty and students routinely overlook the power relations that make their scholarship and classroom practices possible and legitimate. If they consider the theme of political praxis at all, they treat politics as a topic of discussion, or as a silent background variable that has little influence on research design or on classroom practices. These assumptions relegate politics to areas outside the academy and contribute to the fiction that higher education is an ivory tower. Within intersectionality as critical praxis, most activists do consider power relations and social inequalities as central to their work, yet they may feel that ideas themselves, especially theoretical reflections on intersectionality, are luxuries they cannot afford. Some activists even reject social theory, failing to see how ideas themselves can move people to action.
Rejecting this scholar-activist divide suggests that intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry and praxis can occur anywhere. Critical thinking is certainly not confined to the academy, nor is political engagement found solely in social movements or community organizing. In lived experience, critical inquiry and praxis as organizational principles are rarely distinguished as sharply as presented here. Nonetheless, making this analytical distinction illuminates a core tension that lies within intersectionality: namely, when people imagine intersectionality, they tend to imagine one or the other, inquiry or praxis, rather than seeing the interconnections between the two.
Bringing these two organizational principles of intersectionality into closer alignment reveals the synergy between them. A synergistic relationship is a special kind of relationality, one where the interaction or cooperation of two or more entities produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of their separate parts. In the case of intersectionality, the synergy between inquiry and praxis can produce important new knowledge and/or practices. Inquiry and praxis can each be effective without explicitly taking the other into account. Yet bringing them together can generate benefits that are greater than each alone. In future chapters, we use the term "intersectionality" as shorthand to reference this synergy between intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry and practice. In this chapter, we highlight the distinction between these two organizational principles so that we can explore how they do and might work together in using intersectionality as an analytic tool. Our sense of intersectionality aims to sustain a focus on the synergy linking ideas and actions, on the interrelatedness of inquiry and praxis.
Intersectionality as critical inquiry
Intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry invokes a broad sense of using intersectional frameworks to study a range of social phenomena, e.g., the organizational structure of football, the beliefs of bankers, and the actions of Afro-Brazilian women, across different social contexts, e.g., local, regional, national, and global. Intersectionality as critical praxis does the same, but in ways that explicitly challenge the status quo and aim to transform power relations.
Because intersectionality's growth and institutionalization over the past several decades has largely occurred within colleges and universities, this section focuses on intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry within academia as a way to ground the discussion. Students, teachers, scholars, and administrators often use the terminology of "study" to describe intersectionality, a term that conjures up images of scholars doing research within traditional disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. Yet this understanding may be too narrow for intersectionality's actual organization. The important idea here is not to equate intersectionality with a traditional field of study, for example, an academic discipline or an interdisciplinary program. People take actions that are far broader than passively receiving knowledge or contemplating or even criticizing the world around them. Many supplement or work exclusively as independent scholars in new media such as film, music, and digital media, another increasingly important site of intersectionality's critical inquiry.
One way to get a sense of intersectionality within academia is to examine the actions and ideas of scholars/activists who were involved in bringing race/class/gender studies into the academy.1 In 2001, sociologist Bonnie Thornton Dill interviewed 70 faculty members from seventeen colleges and universities in the United States, many of whom had helped launch interdisciplinary programs on race, class, and gender studies, about their perceptions of the core features and status of this emerging area of inquiry (Dill 2002, 2009). The conversations had two major focal points: defining, describing, and characterizing intersectional work, or what it means to work at the intersections; and exploring the organizational and leadership structures through which the work is done. Dill's subjects identify building institutional capacity as an important dimension of race/class/gender. Or, as Dill succinctly states, "intersectionality is the intellectual core of diversity work" (Dill 2009: 229).
Bonnie Thornton Dill's own career trajectory reflects the synergy of critical inquiry and praxis. In her scholarship on women of color and their families, Dill helped promote intersectional scholarship within family studies (Dill 1988). Working with Lynn Weber and Elizabeth Higginbotham, Dill's leadership at the University of Memphis's Center for Research on Women of Color and of the South provided an important institutional home for race/class/gender studies in the 1980s (Collins 2007: 588-92). Dill has also served in various organizational capacities which helped establish the institutional infrastructure of intersectionality, for example, helping to build both Women's Studies and the Consortium of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland, and serving as president of the National Women's Studies Association. Given Dill's social location of actually working at the synergy of critical inquiry and praxis, her 2001 study provides an important starting point for tracing theoretical, epistemological, and political developments within race, class, and gender studies, a precursor of intersectionality in the academy. This important project also sheds light on the meaning of "working at the intersections" for practitioners who spanned this period when social justice projects travelled into the academy.
Dill's respondents remind us both how hard it was to bring race, class, and gender...