Intersectionality: Evolution, Development And Social Equality
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Intersectionality is an academic approach that helps us makes sense of the complexity of social reality by acknowledging the interdependence of different social ‘locations’ or ‘categories’ in people’s lives, such as gender or race, to explain their social situation and life experience.
Intersectionality also helps us understand the mechanisms by which social inequality is reproduced in our daily interactions. Because of this, intersectionality provides strong discursive tools to fight inequality.
I personally chose to work on this concept because it is both a comprehensive way to look at social interactions and understand social inequality by acknowledging people’s individuality and agency, and also because it provides strong analytical tools to assess social policy.
The link between intersectionality and social inequality has been present from the beginning. As an academic approach, intersectionality is rooted in “a long and deep history of Black feminist writing, Indigenous feminism, third world feminism, and queer and postcolonial theory” (Hankivsky et al 2014). It emerged during the 70s as part of the US’ civil rights movement, when activists and authors like Angela Davis pushed for a differentiation between men and women in the African-American struggle for equality. The idea of class, race and gender as interdependent categories was used to explain, for example, why black women’s voices were either being misplaced or ignored in the civil rights debate (McBean 2018).
The notion of intersectionality has evolved since then and has now become more intricate, with authors like Marx Ferree (2009) explaining that “the intersection of gender and race is not any number of specific locations occupied by individuals or groups (such as black women) but a process through with ‘race’ takes on multiple ‘gendered’ meanings for particular women and men (and for those not neatly located in either of those categories)”. This, in turn, can have decisive impact on people’s lives and on their capability to participate in society and fulfill their basic human rights.
What do we mean by the interdependence (or intersectionality) of different social ‘locations’ or ‘categories’?
As human beings, faces must be the single thing we are more accustomed to seeing and scrutinising. When we meet somebody for the first time, certain characteristics stand out for us that seem to provide information about this new person. From the colour of their skin to the tone of their voice, we somehow are able to ‘fit’ this person into our mental representation of society, based on our previously acquired knowledge.
By analysing society and human interactions through an intersectionality ‘lens’, we understand that these pre-conceived ideas about others are somehow organised into ‘sections’ of human identity. These sections may even have a name, such as ‘gender’, ‘race’ or ‘age’. An intersectionality approach tells us that, although we may perceive these categories as separate, they are in fact completely interrelated. The breaking down of a person into separate categories is a fictional, but powerful, exercise we are able to do in our minds.
These ‘sections’ (or ‘categories’, or ‘locations’) of human identity are social constructions. Through social interactions since birth, we learn how to make sense of others by recognising in them characteristics that we are taught are more significant. Simultaneously, these social constructions not only inform the way we see others, but also the way we see ourselves and how we create our own identity.
We use the term ‘locations’ to refer to these social constructions in order to acknowledge their fluency and variability through time and space. These interdependent ‘sections’ of human identity are constantly debated and deconstructed through social institutions that may challenge existing discourses or fight to maintain them. This means that definitions and valuations of these categories (and of the variations within them) remain firmly dependant on the specific time frame and the specific place we are researching about.
A useful way to understand the concept of intersectionality is to say that we all have an intersectionality. As individuals, but also as members of a society, we all carry with us the multiple social categories that define us. We learn, for example, that some of our inner desires can be referred to as ‘our sexuality’, and that it changes with age. We also learn we have certain physical phenotypes, such as a skin colour, and through experience we learn how they are valued by others. Our individuality, therefore, can be seen as the expression of the intersection of all the different social ‘locations’ we carry in our our bodies and in our minds.
In order to understand the link between intersectionality and social inequality, we can review Georg Simmel’s philosophical discussion of how things exist in our mind.
In Philosophy of Money (1978 ), Simmel explained that things that exist in our minds have two intrinsic qualities: existence and value. The first quality, existence, refers to the actual state of being of things in our mind. The simple act of thinking about something means that, for us, it exists. This includes the ‘sections’ or ‘locations’ we recognise in people and in ourselves.
The second quality, value, adds judgement to things in our minds through binary schemes of valuation. Therefore, things not only are, but they also are good or bad, beautiful or ugly, frightening or attractive, etc. These judgements can be rational, product of our reasoning, but most commonly are the product of our irrational feelings and emotions.
Simmel’s goes on by explaining that the separation of the quality of existence from the quality of value of things in our minds is purely an intellectual one. In fact, when we perceive the outside world and new things appear in our mental representation of it, existence and value are indistinguishable. The judgement we make of things is firmly attached to their existence in our minds.
This means that when we see people for the first time and we are able to recognise in them the different ‘locations’ of their identity, we are also creating value, or judgement, of them based on our previously acquired knowledge of these categories, a process that is both automatic and unconscious. When these judgements are reflected in our actions and on how we relate to others, in a way, we are reproducing social inequality.
Furthermore, because intersectionality shows us that the separation of human identity into ‘sections’ (or ‘locations’) is also purely intellectual (or fictitious, because in reality people exist as a single unit), when we judge a person based on a specific ‘section’, like their gender orientation, we are not only looking at one specific aspect of their identity, but rather we are judging the whole person through this categorisation.
Using an intersectionality lens to approach our Development practice means moving beyond the use of singular categories to understand people and groups, and embracing the notion of inseparable and interconnected sets of social ‘locations’ that change through time, vary across places, and act together to shape an individual’s life experience and actions (Hankivsky et al 2014).
As development practitioners, we can use intersectionality to illustrate the power of individual life stories and the challenges this poses to mainstream Development discourses. An intersectionality lens allows us to see how social policy may affect people differently, depending on their specific set of ‘locations’, and what unintended consequences particular policies may have on their individual lives.
Intersectionality also illuminates how social policy can contribute to the “hegemonic constructions of individuals’ and groups’ relative power and privileges” by favouring certain ‘categories’ over others in its effort to know and categorise the population (Hankivsky et al 2014). By allowing this to be seen, intersectionality also helps us produce counter-hegemonic and transformative knowledge about our research subjects (Bilge 2013) that can directly address persisting social imbalances and injustices.
Persons with disabilities is a social category used to designate people with “long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments” that, in their interaction with social barriers, may hinder their capability to participate in society (United Nations 2006). Disability is a social category that cuts across any other social ‘location’ we may find. This is because anybody is at risk of obtaining a disability at some point in their lives, regardless of any other social definition they may carry, which makes the group of people that can be categorised as ‘with disability’ as diverse as it gets.
Looking at disability through an intersectionality lens makes us see this diversity, and also allows us to understand the complexity of people with disabilities’ struggle for participation and equality. For instance, the intersection of disability and gender. Natalia Moreno, a Colombian feminist activist with disability, talks about their difficulty to find a welcoming political plaza to express themselves as women with disability. On one side, she says, there is the male-dominated disability rights movement, that silences them based on gender discrimination; but on the other side, within the feminist movement, other feminists fail to see them beyond their condition of persons with disabilities (‘Colectiva Polimorfas: making spaces for all kinds of bodies’ 2017).
Another example of the usefulness of intersectionality to understand disability is when we see the intersectionality of disability and poverty. In order to participate fully in society, persons with disability need special services that enable them to have an education and get employed. Poverty, rather than the disability itself, can be a fundamental obstacle for participation and equality in countries where public provisioning and protection is limited or null, and people are dependant on markets for their social provisioning.
Intersectionality can also shed light on the diversity within the category of people with disabilities. The category is broad, covering persons with physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments. They all share a common situation of exclusion from participating fully in society, which makes such a broad category politically useful. But it also casts a shadow over the differences in the difficulties they have to endure, depending on their particular case of disability. Blind people, for example, have to face different social barriers than persons with Down Syndrome. Furthermore, an intersectionality lens shows us how social policy may reinforce social exclusion by accentuating the differences within this group through targeting mechanisms, instead of having a universalistic approach (Martínez Franzoni & Sánchez-Ancochea 2016; Borsay 2005).
To sum up, intersectionality is a useful analytical tool to understand social reality and assess social policy. It is also a comprehensive way to understand our own identity and the way we see others. Intersectionality allows us to see the complexities of social reality by pointing out the power of individual’s life stories. By doing so, it also poses serious challenges to mainstream development discourses, as it allows us to see the unintended consequences (positive or negative) it may have on people’s lives. It also sheds a strong light on the mechanisms by which social inequality is reproduced in our everyday practice and in policymaking. Because of this, an intersectionality lens provides us with strong discursive tools to fight social inequality. For all of this, intersectionality is a very strong approach to social studies and a sound contribution by feminist writings the making and unmaking of Development.
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