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.