Introduction to intersectionality

Intersectionality is a term frequently used in academia. Social/Health Psychology Doctoral student Chelsie is here to explain what the term means for social scientists.

By: Chelsie Burchett

What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a theoretical method of viewing social group memberships, specifically as the group memberships are intertwined with one another, and defined as a concept of identity deeply rooted in one’s access to power.

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1991, intersectionality looked at the institutional social structure that surrounded particular identities, but not necessarily as it pertained to individual experiences. Initial work on intersectionality stemmed from challenging “legal structures of power & social movements’ strategies for pursing remedies,” not pragmatic investigations of individual attributes that a person possesses.

Why is intersectionality so important?
Intersectionality is important because it helps us to understand identity from a multi-layered perspective. It also motivates us to think beyond the many ways in which people may identify with different groups (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age etc…), it also highlights the ways in which those identities are placed within the societal hierarchy.

Who does intersectionality impact?
Everyone! As with other important social issues such as racism, classism, sexism, etc, intersectionality sheds light on the inequities that people of power and society sometimes create. Intersectionality dissects the power structure and analyzes it more deeply to see who benefits and who suffers in specific settings.

How does intersectionality shape our environment?
There are many ways that intersectionality can be impactful to one’s environment, intersectionality can be explored by looking at the role of:
1. Individual factors (group identity, perceptions of identity competition and management: e.g. roles as parent, student advocate, lab member, mentor)
2. Interpersonal factors (access to career social networks and mentoring)
3. Institutional factors (exposure to discrimination, perceived campus climate)

How can we use intersectionality in our research?
Although intersectionality did not have its inception in psychology, it can be modified to fit the framework many psychologists use when conducting or analyzing their research. The methodology of focusing on individual experiences or focusing on the impact some intersecting identities experience as a result of structural inequality is contested in the field. A truly interdisciplinary concept, officially established as a term within critical race theory and legal studies, but heavily entrenched in other fields such as women’s and gendered studies, and increasingly psychology, intersectionality highlights the importance of looking at people for all of their visible and concealed identities and not just the characteristics that are seemingly salient in specific situations. Intersectionality also lends itself to other uncertainties for those who have multiple marginalized identities.

Additionally, researchers can be more conscious of the language they use to discuss race, gender, or other identifying characteristics. This can be done by using terms such as “Racialized subjectivity” to be inclusive of the many different factors that contribute to one’s racialized experience. The components of racialized subjectivity would include both the self-reported identity of the participant along with the institutional and social components that impact the participants sometimes in very direct ways, but are not necessarily within the direct control of the participant.

For further reading:
Cho, S., Crenshaw, K., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs, 38(4), 785-810. doi:10.1086/669608
Hancock, A.-M. (2019). Empirical Intersectionality: A Tale of Two Approaches. In O. Hankivsky & J. S. Jordan-Zachery (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Intersectionality in Public Policy (pp. 95-132). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
McCormick-Huhn, K., Warner, L. R., Settles, I. H., & Shields, S. A. (2019). What If Psychology Took Intersectionality Seriously?: Changing How Psychologists Think About Participants. Psychology of women quarterly, 0361684319866430. doi:10.1177/03616843198

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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