If you spend any time at all in spaces where discourse (or, if you prefer, Discourse) takes place, then odds are that you will encounter the word ‘intersectionality’. It is a strange word, which manages to attract both too much and too little attention, both at once. This anomalous state of things deserves some more discourse headed its way.
First, the word itself. Intersectionality is frequently used as a noun, but it does better as an adverb or adjective. Treating intersectionality like a noun, a thing, does strange things to the mental categories we bring to bear when grappling with it. There is no such thing as “an intersectionality”. There are, however, plenty of things that are intersectional. And it is possible to apply an intersectional approach.
This might seem like a subtle point, and it is. It is so subtle, in fact, that bringing it up would be a waste of words and online space, were it not for the peculiar fact that this is so often misunderstood. Verbosely misunderstood, at length.
To say that something is intersectional is to say that it tries to take many factors into account at once. For example: an intersectional analysis of a book could discuss aspects of race, gender, class and international supply chains, all at once, and relate these aspects to each other. The point of discussing all these aspects is that each have an impact on the book in question, and they all have to be considered in order to understand the book.
That’s it. If you can read and understand the above paragraph, you have understood everything you need to know about intersectional approaches. Everything else written about it is just an aid in getting used to the idea.
This raises two questions. The first: it cannot possibly that simple, can it? The second: hold on, did you just say international supply chains?
It can possibly be that simple. Do not be fooled by the length of the word – it is only slighter longer than an intersection. Moreover, do not be taken in by those who have seen the word used by women that are feminists and thus oppose it on reflex. You have it within your power to understand this word, and I have complete faith that you will choose to do so.
As to the international supply chains: yes, I did say that. ‘Looking at many aspects of something’ is an empty concept unless you bring along your own aspects, and international supply chains could be one such aspect. You are, by and large, free to choose whichever aspects you want – there is nothing that says you have to pick this or that aspect by default. Whichever you choose is up to you, and up to which ones are appropriate and/or applicable to the analysis you are trying to make.
By virtue of tradition and general applicability, the most frequently chosen aspects are gender, race, class, sexuality and a few others. These tend to be universally important, and thus relevant to many cases. Leaving them out would mean important insights are missed, which is not optimal. Thus, many intersectional analysis you encounter are likely to include these; it would, given the assumption of a shared physical universe, be strange were this not the case.
At this point, a third question might arise, as to whether or not all aspects chosen for a particular analysis are of equal importance. If an analysis looks at gender and race and class – does that mean these are all equally important?
The short answer is that no, it does not. The slightly longer answer is that it depends on what you are trying to do. If you, for instance, are writing an intersectional analysis of Martin Luther King, you will most likely find that there are interesting things to say about the gender and class dimensions, but that race was kind of a bigger deal. The point is not to enforce some sort of false equivalency between the categories of analysis, but to find out what interesting things can be said when they are all considered together, all at the same time.
History does not deal with counterfactuals – things happened the way they happened. But an intersectional approach would open up for asking interesting questions and learn something useful out of attempting to answer them. Interesting questions such as: what if, ceteris paribus, there was a Martina Luther King?
The statement “but that’s not what happened” is true. And rather uninteresting.
All things considered.