Since its inception, the concept of ‘intersectionality’ – the interaction of multiple identities and experiences of exclusion and subordination – has been heralded as one of the most important contributions to feminist scholarship. Despite its popularity, there has been considerable confusion concerning what the concept actually means and how it can or should be applied in feminist inquiry. In this article, I look at the phenomenon of intersectionality’s spectacular success within contemporary feminist scholarship, as well as the uncertainties and confusion which it has generated. Drawing upon insights from the sociology of science, I shall show how and why intersectionality could become a feminist success story. I shall argue that, paradoxically, it is precisely the concept’s alleged weaknesses – its ambiguity and open-endedness – that were the secrets to its success and, more generally, make it a good feminist theory.Davis argues
The occasion for this article was a two-day seminar on the subject of ‘intersectionality’ that I recently gave during a visiting stint at a university in Germany. To my surprise, the seminar, which was originally intended for a small group of women’s studies students, drew interest from Ph.D. candidates and colleagues from cities throughout the region, all prepared to sacrifice their weekend and put aside their language difficulties (the seminar was in English) in order to participate. While this interest in my course was obviously gratifying, it was also puzzling. Why the sudden concern with ‘intersectionality’, I wondered? My curiosity increased as I discovered that most of the participants were not at all sure what the concept meant, let alone how it should or could be used in their own fields of inquiry. At the same time, however, they were all convinced that intersectionality was absolutely essential to feminist theory and they had no intention of ‘missing the boat’.
In this article, I explore the secret of intersectionality’s remarkablesuccess in contemporary feminist scholarship, given the confusion which the concept evokes among those who would most like to use it in their own research. ‘Intersectionality’ refers to the interaction between gender, race, and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power. Originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), intersectionality was intended to address the fact that the experiences and struggles of women of colour fell between the cracks of both feminist and anti-racist discourse. Crenshaw argued that theorists need to take both gender and race on board and show how they interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s experiences. Intersectionality has since been heralded as the ‘most important contribution that women’s studies has made so far’ (McCall, 2005: 1771).
Feminist scholars from different disciplines (philosophy, social sciences, humanities, economy and law), theoretical perspectives (phenomenology, structuralist sociology, psychoanalysis, and deconstructionism) and political persuasions (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, queer studies, disability studies) all seem to be convinced that intersectionality is exactly what is needed. It has generated heated theoretical debates throughout the US and Europe, becoming a standard topic in undergraduate courses, graduate seminars and conferences in the field of women’s studies. Special issues of feminist journals and anthologies are currently appearing, devoted to exploring the theoretical complexities of intersectionality.
Today, it is unimaginable that a women’s studies programme would only focus on gender. Textbooks and anthologies in the field cannot afford to neglect difference and diversity among women (although opinions differ about the best way to approach the issues). It is bon ton for women’s studies professors to ask their undergraduate and graduate students to reconsider the topics of their research in the light of multiple differences. Learning the ropes of feminist scholarship means attending to multiple identities and experiences of subordination. Feminist journals are likely to reject articles that have not given sufficient attention to ‘race’, class, and heteronormativity, along with gender. At this particular juncture in gender studies, any scholar who neglects difference runs the risk of having her work viewed as theoretically misguided, politically irrelevant, or simply fantastical.
Ironically, however, while most feminist scholars today would agree that intersectionality is essential to feminist theory, judging by the discussions which have emerged around the concept, scholars seem to share the same confusion that the participants of my seminar exhibited. Some suggest that intersectionality is a theory, others regard it as a concept or heuristic device, and still others see it as a reading strategy for doing feminist analysis. Controversies have emerged about whether intersectionality should be conceptualized as a crossroad (Crenshaw, 1991), as ‘axes’ of difference (Yuval-Davis, 2006) or as a dynamic process (Staunæs, 2003). It is not at all clear whether intersectionality should be limited to understanding individual experiences, to theorizing identity, or whether it should be taken as a property of social structures and cultural discourses. This raises the question how a theory which is so vague could come to be regarded by so many as the cutting edge of contemporary feminist theory. And does it need – as some have argued – a more coherent conceptual framework and methodology in order for it to live up to its potential and to grasp the complex realities it was initially intended to address (McCall, 2005)?
In this article, I look at the phenomenon of intersectionality’s spectacular success as well as the uncertainties which it generates. I shall not be providing suggestions about how to clarify the ambiguities surrounding the concept, nor how to alleviate uncertainties about how it should be used. Quite the contrary, I shall be arguing that, paradoxically, precisely the vagueness and open-endedness of ‘intersectionality’ may be the very secret to its success. To this end, I draw upon insights from the sociology of science. This branch of sociology is concerned with processes of scientific activity, the relationship between theories and their audience, and, more generally, how a specific theory or theoretical perspective can persuade an (academic) audience to view some aspect of the world in a certain way. In particular, I shall be turning to the work of Murray S. Davis who, several decades ago, produced two – in my view – sadly underrated articles called, respectively, ‘That’s Interesting!’ (1971) and ‘That’s Classic!’ (1986). In these articles, he explored what enables a specific social theory to capture the imagination of a broad audience of academics. Borrowing from phenomenology and the rhetoric of science, he analyses how theories that are widely circulated or are ‘in the air’ (1971: 312) come to be viewed as interesting by their audiences and, in some cases, even go on to achieve the venerable status of ‘classic’. He draws his examples from the grand theories of sociology (Marx, Durkheim, Weber), but his arguments can be applied to any theory – including, as I shall show, feminist theory. Davis is not concerned with whether a specific theory is good (as in valid or able to adequately explain certain aspects of the social world) or coherent (in terms of the logic of its propositions or consistency of its arguments). Indeed, he argues that no theory ever became famous because it was ‘true’ or coherent. Quite the contrary, in fact. Davis claims that successful theories thrive on ambiguity and incompleteness. Successful theories appeal to a concern regarded as fundamental by a broad audience of scholars, but they do so in a way which is not only unexpected, but inherently hazy and mystifyingly open-ended.
At first glance, intersectionality would appear to have all the makings of a successful feminist theory. Leaving aside the issue of whether intersectionality can be treated as a full-fledged ‘theory’, I shall take a closer look at what it is about intersectionality that has allowed it to ‘move’ the minds of a broad audience of feminist scholars, not only whetting their interest, but compelling them to enter into theoretical debates and look for ways to use the concept in their own inquiries. Drawing upon Davis’s explanation for what makes a theory successful, I shall investigate the seeming paradox between the recent success of intersectionality within feminist theory and the confusion that it generates among feminist scholars about what it actually is and how to use it. More specifically, I explore the features of intersectionality that account for its success: its focus on a pervasive and fundamental concern in feminist theory, its provision of novelty, its appeal to the generalists as well as the specialists of the discipline, and its inherent ambiguity and open-endedness that beg for further critique and elaboration. After addressing the secret of intersectionality’s success within contemporary feminist theory, I raise the question of whether embracing such a chimerical and – some would argue – scientifically unsound5 concept should be only a reason for celebration or also a reason for some alarm.