Intersectionality is a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989). Intersectionality is a methodology of studying "the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations" (McCall 2005). The theory suggests—and seeks to examine how—various socially and culturally constructed categories such as gender
Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculine and feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity...

, race, class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

, disability
A disability may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental or some combination of these.Many people would rather be referred to as a person with a disability instead of handicapped...

, and other axes of identity
Identity (social science)
Identity is a term used to describe a person's conception and expression of their individuality or group affiliations . The term is used more specifically in psychology and sociology, and is given a great deal of attention in social psychology...

 interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality
Social inequality
Social inequality refers to a situation in which individual groups in a society do not have equal social status. Areas of potential social inequality include voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, the extent of property rights and access to education, health care, quality housing and other...

. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression
Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. It can also be defined as an act or instance of oppressing, the state of being oppressed, and the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, and...

 within society, such as racism
Racism is the belief that inherent different traits in human racial groups justify discrimination. In the modern English language, the term "racism" is used predominantly as a pejorative epithet. It is applied especially to the practice or advocacy of racial discrimination of a pernicious nature...

, sexism
Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is the application of the belief or attitude that there are characteristics implicit to one's gender that indirectly affect one's abilities in unrelated areas...

, homophobia
Homophobia is a term used to refer to a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards lesbian, gay and in some cases bisexual, transgender people and behavior, although these are usually covered under other terms such as biphobia and transphobia. Definitions refer to irrational fear, with the...

, and religion-based bigotry
A bigot is a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one exhibiting intolerance, and animosity toward those of differing beliefs...

, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination
Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of an individual based on their membership in a certain group or category. It involves the actual behaviors towards groups such as excluding or restricting members of one group from opportunities that are available to another group. The term began to be...



A standard textbook example of intersectionality theory might be "the view that women experience oppression
Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. It can also be defined as an act or instance of oppressing, the state of being oppressed, and the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, and...

 in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity" (Ritzer, 2007, pg. 204). Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender
Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculine and feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity...

, class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

, and ethnicity (Collins, 2000, pg. 42).

Intersectionality is an important paradigm for sociological and cultural studies, but there have been many challenges in utilizing it to its fullest capacity. Difficulties arise due to the many complexities involved in making "multidimensional conceptualizations" that explain the way in which socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy. For example, intersectionality holds that knowing a woman lives in a sexist society is insufficient information to describe her experience; instead, it is also necessary to know her race, sexual orientation, class, etc., as well as her society's attitude toward each of these.

The theory of intersectionality also suggests that discrete forms and expressions of oppression actually shape, and are shaped by, one another. Thus, in order to fully understand the racialization
Racialization refers to processes of the discursive production of racial identities. It signifies the extension of dehumanizing and racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group...

 of oppressed groups, one must investigate the ways in which racializing structures, social processes, and social representations (or ideas purporting to represent groups and group members in society) are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, etc. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women within society, today sociologists strive to apply it to all people and to many different intersections of group membership.

Historical background of intersectionality

A comprehensive historical study of the development of intersectionality theory has yet to be documented. From the little documentation that exists, it is understood that the concept of intersectionality came to the forefront of sociological circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s in conjunction with the multiracial feminist movement. It came as part of a critique of radical feminism that had developed in the late 1960s known as the "re-visionist feminist theory." This re-visionist feminist theory "challenged the notion that 'gender' was the primary factor determining a woman's fate".

The movement led by women of color disputed the idea that women were a homogeneous category sharing essentially the same life experiences. This argument stemmed from the realization that white middle-class women did not serve as an accurate representation of the feminist movement as a whole. Recognizing that the forms of oppression experienced by white middle-class women were different from those experienced by black, poor, or disabled women, feminists sought to understand the ways in which gender, race, and class combined to "determine the female destiny." Leslie McCall, a leading intersectionality theorist, argues that the introduction of the intersectionality theory was vital to sociology, claiming that before its development, there was little research in existence that addressed specifically the experiences of people who are subjected to multiple forms of subordination within society.

The term also has historical and theoretical links to the concept of "simultaneity" advanced during the 1970s by members of the Combahee River Collective
Combahee River Collective
The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist Lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980. They are perhaps best known for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a key document in the history of contemporary Black feminism and the development of the concepts of...

, in Boston, Massachusetts. Members of this group articulated an awareness that their lives—and their forms of resistance to oppression—were profoundly shaped by the simultaneous influences of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Thus, the women of the Combahee River Collective advanced an understanding of African American experiences that challenged analyses emerging from Black and male-centered social movements; as well as those from mainstream White, middle-class, heterosexual feminists. Theories of intersectionality increasingly also address the more than human. Examples of posthuman intersectionality include ecofeminism
Ecofeminism is a social and political movement which points to the existence of considerable common ground between environmentalism and feminism, with some currents linking deep ecology and feminism...

 and are under development in the field of animal studies
Animal studies
Animal studies is a recently recognized field in which animals are studied in a variety of cross-disciplinary ways. Scholars from fields as diverse as: art history, anthropology, biology, film studies, geography, history, psychology, literary studies, museology, philosophy, and sociology; and from...


Intersectionality theory and feminist thought

The term intersectionality theory was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw
-People:*Ander Crenshaw , American politician*Ben Crenshaw , American professional golfer*John Crenshaw , American landowner and slave trader*Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw , law professor...

 mentioned that the intersectionality experience within black women is more powerful than the sum of their race and sex, that any observations that do not take intersectionality into consideration cannot accurately address the manner where black women are subordinated.

The term gained prominence in the 1990s when sociologist Patricia Hill Collins
Patricia Hill Collins
Patricia Hill Collins, is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, former head of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati and past President of the American Sociological Association Council...

 reintroduced the idea as part of her discussion on black feminism
Black feminism
Black feminism argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. Forms of feminism that strive to overcome sexism and class oppression. The Combahee River Collective argued in 1974 that the liberation of black women entails freedom for all people, since it would...

. This term replaced her previously coined expression "black feminist thought", "and increased the general applicability of her theory from African American women to all women" (Mann and Huffman, 2005, pg. 61). Much like her predecessor Crenshaw, Collins argued that cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society, such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity (Collins, 2000, pg. 42).

According to feminists of color, and many white feminists, experiences of class, gender, sexuality, etc., cannot be adequately understood unless the influences of racialization are carefully considered. Feminists argue that an understanding of intersectionality is a vital element to gaining political and social equality and improving our democratic system. Collins' theory is one of particular interest because it represents the sociological crossroads between modern
Second-wave feminism
The Feminist Movement, or the Women's Liberation Movement in the United States refers to a period of feminist activity which began during the early 1960s and lasted through the early 1990s....

 and post-modern feminist thought
Feminist theory
Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, or philosophical discourse, it aims to understand the nature of gender inequality...


The complexities of intersectionality

There are three different approaches to studying intersectionality. The three approaches are anticategorical complexity, intercategorical complexity, and intracategorical complexity, and they serve to represent the broad spectrum of current methodologies that are used to better understand and apply the intersectionality theory.

Anticategorical complexity: The anti-categorical approach is based on the deconstruction of categorical divisions. It argues that social categories are an arbitrary construction of history and language and that they contribute little to understanding the ways in which people experience society. Furthermore the anticategorical approach states that, "inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defined by race, class, sexuality, and gender," therefore the only way to eliminate oppression in society is to eliminate the categories used to section people into differing groups. This analysis claims that society is too complex to be reduced down into finite categories and instead recognizes the need for a holistic approach in understanding intersectionality.

Intercategorical (aka categorical) complexity: The intercategorical approach to intersectionality begins by addressing the fact that inequality exists within society, and then uses this as the base of its discussion of intersectionality. According to intercategorical complexity, "the concern is with the nature of the relationships among social groups and, importantly, how they are changing." Proponents of this methodology use existing categorical distinctions to document inequality across multiple dimensions and measure its change over time.

Intracategorical complexity: The intracategorical approach can best be explained as the midpoint between the anticategorical and intercategorical approaches. It recognizes the apparent shortcomings of existing social categories and it questions the way in which they draw boundaries of distinction. Yet, this approach does not completely reject the importance of categories like the anticategorical approach; rather the intracategorical approach recognizes the relevance of social categories to the understanding of the modern social experience. Moreover it attempts to reconcile these contrasting views by focusing on people who cross the boundaries of constructed categories, in an effort to understand the ways in which the complexity and intersectionality the human experience unfold.

Interlocking matrix of oppression

Collins refers to the various intersections of social inequality as the matrix of domination
Matrix of Domination
The Matrix of Domination is a sociological theory that explains issues of oppression that deal with race, class, and gender, which, though recognized as different social classifications, are all interconnected. Other forms of classification, such as sexual orientation, religion, or age, apply to...

. This is also known as "vectors of oppression and privilege" (Ritzer, 2007, pg. 204). These terms refer to how differences among people (sexual orientation, class, race, age, etc.) serve as oppressive measures towards females, and ultimately change the experiences of living as a woman in society. Collins, Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist.-Life:...

 (in Sister Outsider), and bell hooks
Bell hooks
Gloria Jean Watkins , better known by her pen name bell hooks, is an American author, feminist, and social activist....

 point towards either/or thinking as an influence on this oppression and as further intensifying these differences. Specifically, Collins refers to this as the construct of dichotomous oppositional difference. This construct is characterized by its focus on differences rather than similarities (Collins, 1986, pg. S20).

For example, society commonly uses dichotomies
A dichotomy is any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts...

 as descriptors such as black/white or male/female. Additionally, these dichotomies are directly opposed to each other and intrinsically unstable, meaning they rarely represent equal relationships. In a 1986 article, Collins further relates this to why Black women experience oppression. Notice in the dichotomies mentioned above, Black women typically fall into what is seen by society as the inferior halves. Internalization of this leads to further the oppression faced by women (most notably Black women) in society.

Standpoint epistemology and the outsider within

Both Collins and Dorothy Smith have been instrumental in providing a sociological definition of standpoint theory
Standpoint theory
Standpoint theory is a postmodern method for analyzing inter-subjective discourses. "Developed primarily by social scientists, especially sociologists & political theorists. It extends some of the early insights about consciousness that emerged from Marxist/socialist feminist theories and the wider...

. A standpoint
Standpoint may refer to:*Standpoint , a monthly British cultural and political magazine*standpoint theory*standpoint feminism*BVI Standpoint, a newspaper published in the British Virgin Islands*Perspective , point of view...

 is an individual's unique world perspective. The theoretical basis of this approach involves viewing societal knowledge as being located within an individual's specific geographic location. In turn, knowledge becomes distinctly unique and subjective—it varies depending upon the social conditions under which it was produced (Mann and Kelley, 1997, pg. 392).

The concept of the outsider
-Film:* The Outsiders , a 1983 film based on S. E. Hinton's novel* Outsider , a 1997 Slovenian film* Outsiders , a South Korean film featuring Won Mi-kyung* Outsiders , a Singaporean film-Literature:...

 within refers to a special standpoint encompassing the self, family, and society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

 (Collins, 1986, pg. S14). This relates to the specific experiences to which people are subjected as they move from a common cultural world (i.e. family) to that of the modern society (Ritzer, 2007, pg. 207). Therefore, even though a woman (especially a Black woman) may become influential in a particular field, she may feel as though she never quite belongs. Essentially, their personalities, behaviors, and cultural beings overshadow their true value as an individual; thus, they become the outsider within (Collins, 1986, pg. S14).

Resisting oppression

Speaking from a critical
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

 standpoint, Collins points out that Brittan and Maynard claim "domination always involves the objectification
Objectification is the process by which an abstract concept is made as objective as possible in the purest sense of the term. It is also treated as if it is a concrete thing or physical object...

 of the dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity of the oppressed" (Collins, 1986, pg S18). She later notes that self-evaluation and self-definition are two ways of resisting oppression. Participating in self-awareness methods helps to preserve the self-esteem of the group that is being oppressed and help them avoid any dehumanizing outside influences.

Marginalized groups often gain a status of being an "other" (Collins, 1986, pg. S18). In essence, you are "an other" if you are different from what Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist.-Life:...

 calls the mythical norm
Normality (behavior)
In behavior, normal refers to a lack of significant deviation from the average. The phrase "not normal" is often applied in a negative sense Abnormality varies greatly in how pleasant or unpleasant this is for other people.The Oxford English Dictionary defines "normal" as "conforming to a standard"...

. "Others" are virtually anyone that differs from the societal schema
Schema (psychology)
A schema , in psychology and cognitive science, describes any of several concepts including:* An organized pattern of thought or behavior.* A structured cluster of pre-conceived ideas....

 of an average white male. Gloria Anzaldúa theorizes that the sociological term for this is "othering", or specifically attempting to establish a person as unacceptable based on certain criterion that fails to be met (Ritzer, 2007, pg. 205).

Individual subjectivity is another concern for marginalized groups. Differences can be used as a weapon of self-devaluation by internalizing stereotypical societal views, thus leading to a form of psychological oppression. (In psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 this is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy
Self-fulfilling prophecy
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. Although examples of such prophecies can be found in literature as far back as ancient Greece and...

.) The point Collins effectively makes is that having a sense of self-value and a stable self-definition not obtained from outside influences helps to overcome these oppressive societal methods of domination.

Intersectionality and social work

In the field of social work, proponents of intersectionality hold that unless service providers take intersectionality into account, they will be of less use, and may in fact be detrimental, for various segments of the population. Thus, service providers have an obligation to be aware of the seemingly unrelated factors that can impact a person's life experience and response to the service and to adapt their methods accordingly. For instance, according to intersectionality, domestic violence
Domestic violence
Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, spousal abuse, battering, family violence, and intimate partner violence , is broadly defined as a pattern of abusive behaviors by one or both partners in an intimate relationship such as marriage, dating, family, or cohabitation...

 counselors in the United States that urged all women to report their abusers to police would be of little use to women of color due to the history of racially-motivated police brutality
Police brutality
Police brutality is the intentional use of excessive force, usually physical, but potentially also in the form of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by a police officer....

 in that population, and those counselors should therefore develop a different approach appropriate for women of color.

Intersectionality and psychology

Research in psychology has lagged behind other social and behavioral science fields in fully incorporating intersectionality into their theory or methods. Psychologists who study social processes and organization tend to think of intersecting identities as separable categories. That is, they assume that the research project can separate, for example, the effects of gender and socioeconomic status from one another. Some recent publications point to the development of a more sophisticated psychology of intersecting identities.

Intersectionality and the labor market

The intersectionality of race and gender has been shown to have a visible impact on the labor market. "Sociological research clearly shows that accounting for education, experience, and skill does not fully explain significant differences in labor market outcomes." The three main domains on which we see the impact of intersectionality are wages, discrimination, and domestic labor. Most studies have shown that people who fall into the bottom of the social hierarchy in terms of race or gender are more likely to receive lower wages, to be subjected to stereotypes and discriminated against, or be hired for exploitive domestic positions. Through the study of the labor market and intersectionality we gain a better understanding of economic inequalities and the implications of the multidimensional impact of race and gender on social status within society.

A Marxist-feminist critical theory

Collins’ intersectionality theory and its relative principles have a wide range of applicability in the sociological realm, especially in topics such as politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

 and violence
Violence is the use of physical force to apply a state to others contrary to their wishes. violence, while often a stand-alone issue, is often the culmination of other kinds of conflict, e.g...

 (see, for instance, Collins, 1998). A central tenet of interest is on the struggle faced by Black women in the economic sector. This provides a wonderful example of how the interrelated principles of Collins’ theory come together to add a new twist to a Marxist economic theory. A brief historical perspective will allow for better understanding of how Collins used her insight and built a dynamic theory of political oppression as related to Black women in particular.

W. E. B. Du Bois theorized that the intersectional paradigms of race, class, and nation might explain certain aspects of Black political economy. Collins writes "Du Bois saw race, class, and nation not primarily as personal identity categories but as social hierarchies that shaped African American access to status, poverty, and power" (2000, pg. 42). Interestingly, Du Bois omitted gender from his theory, and considered it more of a personal identity category.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes further expands upon this by pointing out the value of centering upon the experiences of Black Women. Joy James takes things one step further by "using paradigms of intersectionality in interpreting social phenomena" (Collins, 2000, pg. 44). Collins later integrated these three views by examining a Black political economy through both the centering of Black women's experiences and using a theoretical framework of intersectionality (Collins, 2000, pg. 44).

Collins uses a "Marxist feminist" approach and applies her intersectional principles to what she calls the "work/family nexus and black women's poverty". In her 2000 article "Black Political Economy" she describes how the intersections of consumer racism, gender hierarchies, and disadvantages in the labor market can be centered on Black women's unique experiences (pg. 45–46). Considering this from a historical perspective examining interracial marriage laws and property inheritance laws creates what Collins terms a "distinctive work/family nexus that in turn influences the overall patterns of Black political economy" (pg. 46).

A historical example will clarify this and provide a more precise case of this application. Essentially, anti-interracial marriage laws
Interracial marriage
Interracial marriage occurs when two people of differing racial groups marry. This is a form of exogamy and can be seen in the broader context of miscegenation .-Legality of interracial marriage:In the Western world certain jurisdictions have had regulations...

 effectively suppressed the potential economic rising of black women. Many times, a marriage can be economically stabilizing for both husband and wife. However, since Black women were outlawed from marrying White men, Black women were denied access to sharing the prosperities of White male property. In essence, their biracial children were deprived of this as well. A perhaps latent consequence of this was the regulation of wealth for Black women.

Selected bibliography

  • Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, ISBN 0-534-52879-1, co-edited by Patricia Hill Collins and Margaret Andersen, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007
  • Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, ISBN 0-415-92484-7, by Patricia Hill Collins, 1990, 2000
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé W.
    Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
    Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a prominent figure in Critical Race Theory and currently a professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School specializing in race and gender issues....

     (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6., pp. 1241–1299.
  • Collins, P.H. (2000). Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568. 41–53.
  • Collins, P.H. (1986). Learning From the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought. Social Problems, 33 (6). S14–S32.
  • Collins, P.H. (1998). The tie that binds: race, gender, and US violence. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (5).
  • Mann, S.A. & Kelley, L.R. (1997). Standing at the Crossroads of Modernist Thought: Collins, Smith, and the New Feminist Epistemologies. Gender and Society, 11(4). 391–408.
  • Mann, S.A & Huffman, D.J. (2005). The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave. Science and Society, 69 (1). 56–91.
  • Ritzer, G. (2007). Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  • Siltanen, J. & A. Doucet (2008) Gender Relations in Canada: Intersectionality and Beyond. Toronto: Oxford University Press

External links

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