Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory

Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory

by Patricia Hill Collins

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In Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory Patricia Hill Collins offers a set of analytical tools for those wishing to develop intersectionality's capability to theorize social inequality in ways that would facilitate social change. While intersectionality helps shed light on contemporary social issues, Collins notes that it has yet to reach its full potential as a critical social theory. She contends that for intersectionality to fully realize its power, its practitioners must critically reflect on its assumptions, epistemologies, and methods. She places intersectionality in dialog with several theoretical traditions—from the Frankfurt school to black feminist thought—to sharpen its definition and foreground its singular critical purchase, thereby providing a capacious interrogation into intersectionality's potential to reshape the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478007098
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/23/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
File size: 754 KB

About the Author

Patricia Hill Collins is Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of numerous books, most recently, Intersectionality (with Sirma Bilge) and On Intellectual Activism.

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Intersectionality as Critical Inquiry

So much has happened since the 1990s that the case for intersectionality no longer needs to be made. A surprising array of academics, activists, policy-makers, digital workers, and independent intellectuals recognize intersectionality as an important form of critical inquiry and praxis (Collins and Bilge 2016). Both within and outside the academy, administrators, teachers, social workers, counselors, and public health professionals have increasingly used intersectional analyses to shed light on important social problems concerning education, health, employment, and poverty (Berger and Guidroz 2009; Dill and Zambrana 2009). Grassroots community activists, social media activists, and social movement participants continue to draw upon intersectionality's ideas to shape their political projects. In the United States, for example, intersectional ideas reappear within the social justice movements of African Americans; women; undocumented immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) groups; poor people; and religious minorities (see, e.g., Terriquez 2015). Ironically, white nationalists also draw upon a variation of intersectional analysis in defending their claims that white, working-class American men constitute a neglected minority. Intersectionality's reach is not confined to the United States. In a global context, grassroots and human rights advocates find that intersectionality's focus on the interconnectedness of categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, age, and ability sheds new light on how local social inequities articulate with global social phenomena (Collins and Bilge 2016, 88–113).

Since the 1990s, intersectionality has increasingly influenced scholarship, research, and curricular choices in colleges and universities. A copious body of scholarship within the humanities and the social sciences now self-identifies as intersectional, with anthologies emphasizing different aspects of intersectionality itself as well as various configurations of intersectionality's core categories of analysis (Grzanka 2014; Dill 2002; Lutz, Vivar, and Supik 2011; Berger and Guidroz 2009; Andersen and Collins 2016). Scholarship informed by intersectionality can now be found within both interdisciplinary fields and more traditional academic disciplines (Collins 2017a; Lutz, Vivar, and Supik 2011; May 2015). However imperfectly conceptualized and applied diversity requirements may be within colleges and corporations, they constitute one outcome of intersectionality's impact. Scholars of intersectionality have generated several monographs that explore these and other aspects of intersectionality as a field of inquiry and praxis (Carastathis 2016; Collins and Bilge 2016; Hancock 2016; May 2015; Wiegman 2012).

Intersectionality seems to be here to stay, at least for now. Yet the speed and spread of intersectionality, and the heterogeneous forms it now takes, point to new definitional dilemmas concerning intersectionality's current status and future prospects (Collins 2015). Intersectionality cannot rest on its past accomplishments and current status. Instead, the time seems right to analyze what intersectionality is, what it is not, and what it might become. Current debates within intersectionality provide much-needed critical commentary about its definitional dilemmas. Just as intersectionality is broad and complex, critical commentary about intersectionality within scholarly venues, the popular press, and digital spaces is similarly diverse. Here areas of discussion encompass varying perspectives on intersectionality's origins, the partiality of intersectionality's growing list of categories, whether intersectionality is a theory or a methodology, intersectionality's ties to social justice work, and even whether we are in or should move into a post-intersectionality phase. Given intersectionality's broad scope, consensus among its practitioners is likely to remain elusive. Instead, identifying important avenues of investigation within intersectionality that can accommodate heterogeneous points of view may prove to be more productive.

Thinking through intersectionality's theoretical contours constitutes an important next step in its development. Because intersectionality straddles traditions of social action and academic scholarship, it is uniquely positioned to develop critical theoretical analyses of the social world. Intersectionality can develop a critical social theory that reflects the wide array of ideas and actors that currently fall under its expansive umbrella. Yet it cannot do so without thinking systematically about the contours of critical social theory as well as its own theoretical knowledge and theorizing practices. As a work in progress, intersectionality is a critical social theory in the making, one that may already be doing substantial theoretical work without being recognized as such.

In this chapter, I investigate how intersectionality's practitioners conceptualize and use intersectionality's ideas. I am less concerned with the content of intersectional knowledge than with ways of thinking that people use in creating such knowledge. Using this approach, I identify important thinking tools that provide a cognitive foundation for intersectionality as a critical social theory in the making. Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall (2013) provide a useful starting point for identifying these tools. They characterize intersectionality as an analytical sensibility whose meaning emerges through use. They contend that "what makes an analysis intersectional is not its use of the term 'intersectionality,' nor its being situated in a familiar genealogy, nor its drawing on lists of standard citations. Rather, what makes an analysis intersectional ... is its adoption of an intersectional way of thinking about the problem of sameness and difference and its relation to power" (795). This definition suggests several important questions that inform the arguments in this book. What exactly is an "intersectional way of thinking"? Does this mean that intersectional scholars use special cognitive tools? Or that they use conventional forms of critical analysis in new ways or toward different ends? Is the issue of sameness and difference essential to intersectionality? Significantly, how do power relations inform intersectionality's theoretical content and the processes used to develop that knowledge?

I explore these questions throughout this book, yet in this chapter, I lay a foundation for examining them by discussing the use of metaphoric, heuristic, and paradigmatic thinking within intersectionality as a field of inquiry. I first examine how the metaphoric use of intersectionality facilitates a new view of social relations as interconnected entities. The metaphor of intersectionality is simultaneously a new way of conceptualizing power relations and a thinking tool that draws upon the power of metaphors in the process of theorizing. Next, I examine intersectionality's heuristic thinking — namely, how using intersectionality as rule of thumb or shortcut for thinking provides an important tool for problem solving. Intersectionality aims to explain the social world, and heuristic thinking provides an accessible route for people who utilize intersectionality to address specific social problems. I move on to examine how intersectionality's core constructs and guiding premises contribute to paradigm shifts concerning power and social inequality. These discussions explore the thinking tools or processes that people use to produce intersectionality itself. Metaphoric, heuristic, and paradigmatic thinking map the ways that people enter into, respond to, and shape intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry. Collectively, they describe a conceptual foundation or cognitive architecture for developing intersectionality as a critical social theory.

Intersectionality as a Metaphor

Kimberlé Crenshaw had no way of knowing that she was naming intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry and praxis when, in the early 1990s, she published her two groundbreaking articles on intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989, 1991). Crenshaw's scholarly articles constitute an important turning point in the shifting relationships between activist and academic communities (see, e.g., Collins and Bilge 2016, 65–77). Social movements in the mid-twentieth century pushed for institutional transformation in housing, education, employment, and health care. Transforming educational institutions and the knowledge they embodied was central to these initiatives. Indigenous peoples, African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, Latinos/as, and similarly subordinated groups challenged both the substance of knowledge about their experiences and the power arrangements within primary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities that catalyzed such knowledge. Many such groups produced oppositional or resistant knowledge that was grounded in their own experiences and that challenged prevailing interpretations of them (see chapter 3). Higher education was an important site for social transformation. Calls for transforming curricular practices within the academy stimulated an array of programs that embarked on a similar mission of institutional transformation (Collins and Bilge 2016, 77–81; Dill and Zambrana 2009). Crenshaw's naming of intersectionality tapped into these important processes of institutional transformation with the academy.

Within contemporary neoliberal sensibilities, the commitment to the idea of social transformation within mid-twentieth-century social movements can be hard to understand. Yet a broader understanding of the meaning of resistance to subordinated people suggests that Black people, indigenous peoples, women, Latinx, LGBTQ people, differently abled people, religious and ethnic minorities, and stateless people continue to see transforming social institutions as necessary. Claims for social transformation can seem to be idealistic and naive, yet with hindsight, aspirations for social transformation in prior eras inform contemporary realities. Specifically, many of the visible changes within colleges and universities over the past several decades reflect prior efforts at institutional transformation (Dill 2009; Mihesuah and Wilson 2004; Parker, Samantrai, and Romero 2010).

In a 2009 interview, two decades after publishing her signature articles, Crenshaw reflected on the experiences that led her to use the term intersectionality within the broader social conditions of the times. For Crenshaw, her activism in college and law school revealed the inadequacies of both antiracism and feminist perspectives, limitations that left both political projects unable to fully address the social problems that each aimed to remedy. There seemed to be no language that could resolve conflicts between antiracist social movements that were, in Crenshaw's words, "deeply sexist and patriarchal," and feminist activism, where "race reared its head in a somewhat parallel way" (Guidroz and Berger 2009, 63). For Crenshaw, informed social action within both movements required new angles of vision. This particular social problem propelled Crenshaw's search for provisional language that she could use to analyze and redress the limitations of mono-categorical thinking regarding both race and gender. Crenshaw describes what she had in mind when she introduced the term intersectionality:

That was the activist engagement that brought me to this work. And my own use of the term "intersectionality" was just a metaphor [italics added]. I'm amazed at how it gets over- and underused; sometimes I can't even recognize it in the literature anymore. I was simply looking at the way all these systems of oppression overlap. But more importantly, how in the process of that structural convergence rhetorical politics and identity polities — based on the idea that systems of subordination do not overlap — would abandon issues and causes and people who actually were affected by overlapping systems of subordination. I've always been interested in both the structural convergence and the political marginality. That's how I came into it. (Guidroz and Berger 2009, 65)

For Crenshaw, intersectionality named the structural convergence among intersecting systems of power that created blind spots in antiracist and feminist activism. Crenshaw counseled that antiracist and feminist movements would be compromised as long as they saw their struggles as separate and not intertwined. Significantly, racism and sexism not only fostered social inequalities, they marginalized individuals and groups that did not fit comfortably within race-only, gender-only mono-categorical frameworks. Women of color remained politically marginalized within both movements, an outcome that both reflected the harm done by racism and sexism, and limited the political effectiveness of both movements. Crenshaw's understanding of the term intersectionality is important for subsequent use of the term. Her work suggests that, from its inception, the idea of intersectionality worked in multiple registers of recognizing the significance of social structural arrangements of power, how individual and group experiences reflect those structural intersections, and how political marginality might engender new subjectivities and agency (Collins and Bilge 2016, 71–77).

By now it is widely accepted that intersectionality is the term that has stuck. Of all the words that Crenshaw could have selected, and of all the idioms that might have resonated with intersectionality's adherents, why did this specific term resonate with so many people when Crenshaw first used it? Crenshaw's comment that her use of the term intersectionality was "just a metaphor" provides an important clue.

Many people think of metaphors as literary devices that are confined to fiction and essays. Yet metaphors are also important in shaping how people understand and participate in social relations. People from all walks of life use metaphors every day. As a foundation of thinking and action, metaphors help people understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another. A metaphor can spark an instant sense of understanding, fostering an immediate sense of the formerly unknown in terms of the known. In essence, the capacity to think and act is metaphorical in nature (Trout 2010, 3). As metaphor, intersectionality named an ongoing communicative process of trying to understand race in terms of gender, or gender in terms of class. Rather than following the chain of metaphors (race is like and unlike gender), the metaphor of intersectionality provided a shortcut that built on existing sensibilities in order to see interconnections.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall provides another clue as to why intersectionality as a particular metaphor travelled so quickly. In an article published in the 1990s, Hall argues that metaphors are often linked to social transformation, ways that people can move from the familiar to imagining the unfamiliar. Hall posits that metaphors of social transformation must do at least two things: "They allow us to imagine what it would be like when prevailing cultural values are challenged and transformed, the old social hierarchies are overthrown, old standards and norms disappear ... and new meanings and values, social and cultural configurations begin to appear. However, such metaphors must also have analytic value. They must somehow provide ways of thinking about the relation between the social and symbolic domains in this process of transformation" (Hall 1996b, 287).

As a metaphor of social transformation, intersectionality invokes both elements. It arrived in the midst of ongoing struggles to resist social inequalities brought about by racism, sexism, colonialism, capitalism, and similar systems of power. The metaphor of intersectionality could move among and through these forms of domination, providing a snapshot view of their sameness and difference as a way to see their interconnections. Intersectionality as metaphor did not proscribe what social transformation would look like, or even the best way of getting there. Instead, using intersectionality as a metaphor provided analytic value in linking social structures and the ideas that reproduce them — in Hall's terms, the ties between the social and symbolic domains of social change. For people who, like Crenshaw, were interested in social transformation, the metaphor of intersectionality expressed the aspirations of the time.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
Part I. Framing the Issues: Intersectionality and Critical Social Theory
1. Intersectionality as Critical Inquiry  21
2. What's Critical about Critical Social Theory?  54
Part II. How Power Matters: Intersectionality and Intellectual Resistance
3. Intersectionality and Resistant Knowledge Projects  87
4. Intersectionality and Epistemic Resistance  121
Part III. Theorizing Intersectionality: Social Action as a Way of Knowing
5. Intersectionality, Experience, and Community  157
6. Intersectionality and the Question of Freedom  189
Part IV. Sharpening Intersectionality's Critical Edge
7. Relationality within Intersectionality  225
8. Intersectionality without Social Justice?  253
Epilogue. Intersectionality and Social Change  286
Appendix  291
Notes  295
References  331
Notes  353

What People are Saying About This

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty - Dorothy Roberts

“With remarkable brilliance and breadth, Patricia Hill Collins examines the theoretical dimensions of intersectionality in new ways and in dialogue with other influential social theories and resistant knowledges. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory explains why critical social theory matters in the real world and how intersectionality can achieve its potential as a tool for social action needed to transform the world for the better. Once again, Patricia Hill Collins shines as a masterful scholar of critical inquiry, politics, and social change.”

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower - Brittney Cooper

“Anyone who claims the mantle of Black feminist theorist is standing in the house Patricia Hill Collins built. She is one of our most important intellectual architects. Here she continues to be at her very best, asking the thorny questions that those of us who are scholars and practitioners of intersectionality often avoid. Collins reminds us what it looks like to use ideas in service of freedom projects, demanding at every turn that we do it with integrity, rigor, and a critical attention to the high stakes nature of social justice work. This book resets our freedom compass, reminding us both of what our work is and for whom we do it.”

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