Patricia Hill Collins stirs up conversation with her 2015 article “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas”. She establishes that over the years, Intersectionality has garnered wide scholarship, still, there exists an unclear definition of the term “Intersectionality”. For that reason, she adopted US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s expression “ I know it when I see it” stating as she narrated her experience speaking to students: “We thought we knew intersectionality when we saw it but couldn’t quite define what it was”.
Despite the common deadlock in attributing a concise definition to intersectionality, Collins stated that, in reality, there is not a general consensus about intersectionality’s general contours.
“Intersectionality references the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constituting phenomena”.
As a widespread social phenomenon, intersectionality has generated misconceptions, controversies, and shallow observations/analyses. In a bid to demystify, make more comprehensible, and explore intersectionality as a knowledge project whose raison d’ être lies in its attentiveness to power relations and social inequalities, Collins scrutinizes three interdependent sets of concerns;
First, she itemizes intersectionality as a field of study that is situated within the power relations that it studies. The early 2000’s sparked an effervescence for this field. There continues to be a sweeping publication of books, undergraduate anthologies, and journal articles centered on various aspects of intersectionality. Example of such is; Social politics, volume 19, issue 4, Winter, and Gender and Society, volume 26, issue 1 February, in 2012.
The wide acceptance of intersectionality could be inferred from the new inquisitiveness of society in understanding social inequalities ( Anderson 1996, Choo & Ferree 2010, Collins 2007), how it is perceived by various interpretive communities, and generally the role these social inequalities play in society.
During the period before intersectionality as a knowledge project remained unnamed, the phrase “race, class, and gender” emerged as a placeholder umbrella term into which ideas from several social justice movements coalesced. Practitioners within race/class/gender studies made the knowledge project possible by building a malleable framework for future growth ( Anderson & Collins 2012). In highlighting US Black Feminism as a social justice project and a key player in accentuating the concept of intersectionality, Patricia Collins says;
“ A closer look at the US Black feminist project of the 1960’s and 1970’s illustrates how interpretive communities within social movement settings set the stage for intersectional analysis”.
Going further, she cites Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “ Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity politics, and Violence against women of colour” as “a well-guided analysis that develops important connections among the core ideas of community organizing, Identity politics, Coalitional politics, Interlocking oppressions, and Social justice”.
Second, she highlights intersectionality as an analytical strategy that provides new angles of vision of social phenomena. Cho et al (2013) argues that what makes an analysis intersectional is not its use of the term ‘Intersectionality’, nor its being situated in a familiar genealogy. Rather, what makes an analysis intersectional is its adoption of an intersectional way of thinking about the problem of sameness and difference, and its relation to power.
In an attempt to elucidate how intersectionality as an analytical strategy is unfolding, Patricia Hill Collins sets out to answer two questions: What themes characterize scholarship? And what assumptions might this disparate work share?
She posits that a means to understanding intersectionality as an analytical strategy is to place the themes which consists of; community organizing, identity politics, coalitional politics, interlocking oppressions, and social justice, in dialogue with the guiding assumptions of contemporary intersectional scholarship, one of which states that: Race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, nation, ethnicity, and similar categories of analysis are best understood in relational terms rather than in isolation from one another.
Third, she points out intersectionality as a form of critical praxis. In simple terms, intersectionality as critical praxis sheds light on the doing of social justice work. Equally, practitioners who are often frontline actors for solving social problems that are linked to complex society inequalities may respond to intersectionality as critical praxis.
Collins points out that when it comes to intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas, much is at stake. As intersectionality is an innovative, dynamic area, holding fast to the creativity of this dynamic area of inquiry and practice yet finding a common language that will be useful to its practitioners, is the cutting-edge definitional dilemma for intersectionality.
Collins, P. H. (2015). Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual review of sociology, 41, 1–20.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge
Andersen, Margaret, Collins, P.H (2012). Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
Acker J. (1999). Rewriting Class, Race, and Gender: Problems in Feminist Rethinking. In Revisioning
Gender, ed. MM Ferree, J Lorber BB Hess, pp. 44–69. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
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