Written by: Jesie Randhawa
Illustrations by: Benedetta Rosini
In ‘Part 1: A Social Theory”, we teased out the intricacies of intersectionality as a social theory. However, it remains that the concept is not simply an abstract talking matter! How do we apply it in research, policymaking, action?
As a research paradigm, strands of feminist thought demonstrate a highly critical and reluctant reception of the concept, painting the scholarship’s relationship as controversial and contentious.
Is it Possible to Make Room for Intersectionality?
‘Relational’ thinking in all its forms is what elevates intersectionality, rather than violent oppositions and comparisons. In the spirit of decolonialism – of which intersectionality was borne – “feminist border thinking” becomes extremely relevant to intersectionality and its insistence to travel outside of the infinite duplications of bipolar orders.
Categories limit the hybridities that permeate across all peoples, and these license binaries like “the ‘white’ Self to subordinate the ‘non-white’ Other, or rubrics like ‘modernisation’ (development), ‘education’ (science), and/or ‘salvation’ (Christianity)”. Liberal discourse demands transparency; but intersectionality should be an undefined dialogue, one that permits vocabulary unused by the masses simply because it reflects more truthfully one’s lived experience. All signals a denouncement of the oppressor’s language.
Intersectionality embraces intersections without reducing categories to being just a sum of parts, allowing for complexity to be an empirical paradigm at all levels of analysis.
A Few Technical Glitches…
However, as a research paradigm, some scholars see several tensions in intersectionality’s methodology within the feminist academic field of study. It may be considered counterproductive to attempt at developing tools that could truly tackle the extreme complexity of individual identity; that any idyllic notion of researchers being able to accomplish this existed far outside the realm of possibility. Intersectionality is therefore critiqued as being a hollow manifestation of idealism above all other things, and in practicality, ends up replicating the practises abhorred by the theory.
A few feminist scholars have gone as far as to say that intersectionality needs to deliver its contributions on an agreed-upon platform of knowledge-making (epistemology). Any alternative methodology outside of dominant practises may discredit feminism’s overall reputation in academia.
The argument stands that success does not immediately equate to quality in coherence and capability, and therefore intersectionality can be dubbed as bringing a very limited effectivity to feminist theory – a general success precisely because of its ambiguity.
An interesting point is made when Kerner expresses the concerns she has with intersectionality’s depoliticisation through “whitening”, afraid that in contemporary usage, intersectionality has taken a turn away from its origins in black feminism and women of colour. This delinking involves less study into activism and radical criticisms of society’s arrangement.
These are all reasonable concerns to have, since intersectionality develops in contact with the feminist establishment, and if debate is rife, it is because elements of it has been appropriated and diluted, leading to the scholarship of intersectionality morphing into a war zone.
On the global stage, one might argue that intersectionality could enter a context dressed up as development aid or academic service, and may walk over local knowledge production resistant to Global North practises. Although, this sort of annexation of knowledge is starkly different to that of communities claiming an intersectional identity for themselves.
In Defense of Intersectionality
Intersectionality would be extremely misinterpreted if it claims to be the representation of solely the disadvantaged. Its very name points toward a stream of identities, all merging in different combinations, including that of privilege and domination.
The truth is, there is a lot of missing the mark when intersectionality is ‘applied’, and the moment certain experiences are categorised as patterns or trends in marginalisation or exclusion, intersectionality is hijacked to fit within the discourses it pledges to surpass.
Intersectional social structures cannot be generalised in “some standard mathematical manipulation of the effects of gender, race, and class”, caution must be exercised in the face of such temptation. Attempting to articulate the marginalised means being at risk of processing in conventional terms. Otherwise, this would be cleverly known as the violence of misinterpretation.
The general marginalisation of writing and knowledge production is relevant to understanding the perceived competence of intersectionality. Arguably, it demonstrates the theory’s long journey to overcome hurdles in the research arena.
Critiques are spaces of push and pull, and preferably, these are sites where intellectual energies are dedicated to constructively negotiate cognitive influence, but these spaces are compromised players choosing to roam outside of prevailing rhetoric are shut down. Thus, it becomes easier to spot scholars falling into the trap of critiquing the tenets of intersectionality within the dominant monistic framework of compartmentalisation. Put simply, women are not “essentially this or essentially that”.
The challenge that intersectionality faces has much to do with its pioneering of heterogeneity into the “politics of not-yet”, but this is not to say that this points to intersectionality’s hamartia, but rather an indication of the vibrant possibilities it can deliver.
As a proposed research paradigm in the academic arena, the relationship is conclusively combative. Regarding these tensions, the unwillingness to immediately absorb the tenets of intersectionality has more to do with misinterpretation, and the inability to reconcile the extremely radical epistemological nature of its methodology with dominant discourses. It is not at all reflective of intersectionality’s proficiency and the extent of which it can be utilised as a research paradigm.
At the end of the day, as explored in both Part I and II of the ‘Puzzle that is Intersectionality’, intersectionality (a social theory and research paradigm) has brought change that is irreversible, vivacious in the chaos it has stirred, but empathetic to the identities and individuals long-neglected.