Intersectionality interrupted

When I was in college a lot of people were reading Black Feminist Thought, by the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, which came out in 1990 (it’s now pushing 11,000 citations in Google Scholar, and Prof. Collins is a colleague in my department). That book helped popularize intersectionality, from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar.

Thinking about and acting on intersecting inequalities was a big issue in the 1990s. It motivated me to do my only research on social movements (the women’s suffrage movement), as well as my dissertation, which included an article on the intersection of race, class and gender in U.S. labor markets (related to work my advisor Reeve Vanneman and colleagues were doing back then).



Anyways, long story short: I was interested to see that the latest edition of the journal Signs (paywalled) is devoted to intersectionality, or the critical analysis of how different kinds of inequality and identity occur simultaneously. I haven’t kept up with the theoretical side of this work, which has drifted away from the statistical modeling vein we were mining.

First I read the essay by Catharine MacKinnon, whose work I’ve been teaching for years in courses on gender, theory, and inequality. Since I last paid attention, she did a lot of work on women and international law, and in the essay here she discusses rape and genocide in the Balkan wars. Just as she once asked some feminists (paraphrasing), “if rape is about violence and not sex, why doesn’t he just hit her?”, she now asks (paraphrasing), “if genocide is about wiping people out, why do they commit mass rape against women instead of just killing them?” Thanks in part to her legal and theoretical work, the idea of genocide as a national, racial or ethnic crime is linked to sex-based atrocities such as forced prostitution and impregnation.

Although it’s hard to read, I am a sucker for MacKinnon’s wordplay (and always hear her phrase, “Man fucks woman; subject verb object,” when I talk about subjects and objects). So I was drawn in by her introduction to intersectionality as a method, which included, “Talking about thinking about the way one thinks is complicated, in that one is doing what one is talking about doing at the same time one is talking about doing it.”

For example, as we think about how we think, she wants us to avoid confusing the products of inequality for their causes. She writes,

No question about it, categories and stereotypes and classifications are authentic instruments of inequality. And they are static and hard to move. But they are the ossified outcomes of the dynamic intersection of multiple hierarchies, not the dynamic that creates them. They are there, but they are not the reason they are there.

Anyway, I recommend the essay, which, in addition to rape and genocide, also discusses the conundrums of intersecting inequality in U.S. law, where race and gender discrimination each are illegal, but discrimination by race-and-gender simultaneously is somehow sometimes left out.

That last point draws heavily off the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who, along with Sumi Cho and Leslie McCall, guest-edited the special issue.


And here, after recommending the issue and praising its authors, I offer a criticism: intersectionality has a writing situation. Everyone in academia has their jargon. But in this area there is a common aesthetic preference for extra words and clauses — including long words and clauses — that is a real barrier to entry for those who don’t spend a lot of their time reading it.

Here is the opening paragraph of the introductory essay, by the guest editors:

As intersectionality has emerged in a number of discursive spaces, the projects and debates that have accompanied its travel have converged into a burgeoning field of intersectional studies. This field can be usefully framed as representing three loosely defined sets of engagements: the first consisting of applications of an intersectional framework or investigations of intersectional dynamics, the second consisting of discursive debates about the scope and content of intersectionality as a theoretical and methodological paradigm, and the third consisting of political interventions employing an intersectional lens.

That’s 86 words. I think not much would be lost cutting it down to 42 words, like this:

In the growing field of intersectional studies, we identify three categories of work. First, there are applications of the intersectional framework and studies of intersecting inequalities. Second, there are debates about intersectionality itself as a paradigm. And third, there are intersectional politics.

That’s just an example chosen for convenience — there are worse and better passages in the various essays, and I don’t want to belabor it. I suspect that to many outsiders this problem seems obvious, but I don’t know how these writers see it. I think academics should try to say what they want to say as clearly and directly as possible. If this principle were directly weighed against the loss of nuance — and aesthetic satisfaction — it might entail, I hope the balance would tip in the direction of readability.

14 thoughts on “Intersectionality interrupted

  1. However, the intersectional approach predates Crenshaw. The earliest intersectional analysis I know of was by the Combahee River Collective in 1977. And they wrote clearly!


  2. Glad to see that you edited out dynamic (” investigations of intersectional dynamics”) . I always feel stupid when I read that word because I don’t know what a dynamic is and can never figure it out from context.


    1. When dynamic is a part of a compound noun I take it to be a thing in motion. So saying an “intersectional dynamic” is a way of saying the intersection is moving. But it’s not very useful if everything of importance is assumed to be dynamic, which is often the case (there are no “intersectional statics”).

      (There is some other low-hanging fruit here, like “discursive debate,” which I think never needs “discursive.”)


  3. In the growing field of intersectional studies, we identify three categories of work. First, there are applications of the intersectional framework and studies of intersecting inequalities. Second, there are debates about intersectionality itself as a paradigm. And third, there are intersectional politics.

    “we” aren’t in the field, the categories are. “There are ___” is awkward.

    The growing field of intersectional studies is made up of three types of work: applications of the intersectional framework to study inequality; debates about intersectionality as a paradigm; and intersectional politics.

    25% fewer words, same content

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Addressing your aiside, I agree that academics (and sociologists are especially guilty of this) need to tone down the extra wordiness. This sort of thing goes all the way back to early sociologists, like Marx and Weber. And I recall that we were strongly advised against excessive wordiness in my first research methods course. I mean, I get it, most academics want to increase the page count-because heaven forbid we submit a two-page paper for peer review. I’ve padded papers like that for sociology classes and professional market research reports. But, and pardon my french, this shit really needs to stop. As academics, we should say what we mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There exists, all too often, in an educated, intellectual, or other innovator’s writing, a “crossing of lines;” the first being one that separates the writing from an audience of eager listeners, to one where the communication shuts down, all due to contamination by complex and redundant vocabulary so obtuse all souls zone out.
    This style of writing, which can be found in any field, for everyone believe’s they are “the” expert at something (some are, some, not so much!). The consequence,is a head,the writer’s, severed and reattached before they could get through the auditorium door. Complex writing where simpler will do just fine exhibits self-aggrandizing behavior. Unless you are getting paid by the word, then,, good for you.
    Just as there is no shame in poverty, there is no crime in simplicity of communication. Quite the opposite; the larger the scope of humanity that understands, the greater the number of people one has taught, touched, influenced.
    Unfortunately, these same writers often cross another, much more meaningful line in the sands of reason and logic; this tactic is used to cloud the content of the material in a manner that ensures it exits in a form so filled with obfuscation, convolution, and serious-sounding hot air, that not a civilized soul in the audience would dare question so brilliant a theorist.
    Or at least they can try.
    Kristin Von Jeney


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