Published in 2019, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory is an important evaluation of intersectionality as a way of understanding and critiquing social structures. The book was written by prominent sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, who has extensively investigated the relationship between race, class, and gender in works such as Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (1998) and Another Kind of Public Education (2009). As intersectional theorizing had become part of mainstream social analysis and activist messaging since it was first coined by Crenshaw in the 1980s, Collins felt in order for it to “mature as a form of critical inquiry and praxis” [p.1] its practitioners needed to question intersectionality’s assumptions and purpose as a theoretical framework. Without self-reflection, she feared it would lose its subversive edge and become “another theory that implicitly upholds the status quo” [p.2].
“As a maturing field of study, intersectionality needs to evaluate the criteria and practices that inform its theorizing. Western social theories have long been placed in service to various systems of domination. It is important not just to read what theories say but also to understand how social theories work within society, especially if they claim to be critical social theories.” [p.4]
Her work includes a subtle criticism of academia for its gatekeeping of knowledge and jargon theories that are supposed to serve the cause of social justice. She writes that: “Whereas the theorist sees specialty language as important for explaining complex ideas, laypeople might experience such language as exclusionary,” [p.6]. Collins highlights the need for intersectional theory to be fluid and evolving if it truly seeks to advocate for social change and provides a stepping stone for future self-critique through the theories she hearkens back to. She gives the example of black feminist thought as an example of critical theory that came from outside of elite academic circles. In Chapter 3, she references critical race studies, feminist theories, and decolonial projects as “sites of resistant knowledge production” [p.11] that recognises the importance of knowledge gained through organisational practice and experience. In order for intersectional theory to expand its critical outlook, she suggests that theorists ought to embrace such knowledge and develop an argument for why it’s important to consider social action when theorizing.
Crucially, Collins argues that practitioners must define the broad field of intersectionality on their own terms. The inquiries she delves into, accordingly, reach widely. She calls into question what is meant when the term is used and investigates the fundamental underpinnings of its varying uses in Chapter 1. In order for scholars to better comprehend what it means to be truly “critical,” she places critical theories in their historical contexts and argues that they must evolve and change accordingly. Building upon this, Collins brings up the importance of relationality, or how social constructs influence and change one another. She looks at relational logic as it is used in intersectional theories and proposes a methodological blueprint to better clarify its use. Finally, Chapter 8 reminds the reader to continuously interrogate the connection between intersectionality and social justice, citing the example of eugenics to tell us that relational theories can also serve discriminatory purposes.
“As you read, keep in mind that this book is written in the intersectional space of placing different ideas in dialogue. My goal is to speak to a heterogeneous leadership without compromising the arguments presented here. Working with intersectionality itself is like that.” [p.7]
Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory is an informative, forward-thinking, and accessible book that aims to introduce the conversations Collins invites its readers to take part in, to as many people as possible. It is an ambitious attempt at making complex and multifaceted ideas easier for a broad audience to think about and respond to. While it doesn’t always have definitive answers to the problems it identifies, as Collins herself acknowledges, it encourages us to develop a more nuanced understanding of intersectionality and its practical application in the pursuit of social justice.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2019. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. London and Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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Viandito Pasaribu is a final year undergraduate at SOAS in BA Politics & International Relations. He is an Intersections writer as well as a contributor to the SOAS Spirit, an independent student-run newspaper.