The Urgency of Intersectionality

The Urgency of Intersectionality

The Urgency of Intersectionality



The term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by American critical legal race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1989). However, the central ideas of intersectionality have long historic roots within and beyond the United States. Black activists and feminists, as well as Latina, post-colonial, queer and Indigenous scholars have all produced work that reveals the complex factors and processes that shape human lives (Bunjun, 2010; Collins, 1990; Valdes, 1997; Van Herk, Smith, & Andrew, 2011).


Defining Intersectionality

Intersectionality promotes an understanding of human beings as shaped by the interaction of different social locations (e.g., ‘race’/ethnicity, Indige-neity, gender, class, sexuality, geography, age, disability/ability, migration status, religion). These interactions occur within a context of connected systems and structures of power (e.g., laws, policies, state governments and other political and economic unions, religious institutions, media). Through such processes, interdependent forms of privilege and oppression shaped by colonialism, imperialism, racism, homophobia, ableism and patriarchy are created.



Key Assumptions

Human lives cannot be explained by taking into account single categories, such as gender, race, and socio-economic status. People’s lives are multi-dimensional and complex. Lived realities are shaped by different factors and social dynamics operating together.

When analyzing social problems, the importance of any category or structure cannot be predetermined; the categories and their importance must be discovered in the process of investigation.

Relationships and power dynamics between social locations and processes (e.g., racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, sexism) are linked. They can also change over time and be different depending on geographic settings.

People can experience privilege and oppression simultaneously. This depends on what situation or specific context they are in.


5. Multi-level analyses that link individual experiences to broader structures and systems are crucial for revealing how power relations are shaped and experienced.

6. Scholars, researchers, policy makers, and activists must consider their own social position, role and power when taking an intersectional approach. This “reflexivity,” should be in place before setting priorities and directions in research, policy work and activism.

7. Intersectionality is explicitly oriented towards transformation, building coalitions among different groups, and working towards social justice.


Principles of Intersectionality

Intersecting Categories

From an intersectionality perspective, human lives cannot be reduced to single categories, and policy analysis cannot assume that any one social category is most important for understanding people’s needs and experiences.

intersectionality conceptualizes social categories as interacting with and co-constituting one another to create unique social locations that vary according to time and place. These intersections and their effects are what matters in an intersectional analysis


Multi-level Analysis

Intersectionality is concerned with understanding the effects between and across various levels in society, including macro (global and national-level institutions and policies), meso or intermediate (provincial and regional-level institutions and policies), and micro levels (community-level, grassroots institutions and policies as well as the individual or ‘self’).

Attending to this multi-level dimension of intersectionality also requires addressing processes of inequity and differentiation across levels of structure, identity and representation

The significance of and relationships between these various levels of structure and social location are not predetermined. Rather, they reveal themselves through the process of intersectional research and discovery.



Attention to power highlights that: i) power operates at discursive and structural levels to exclude some types of knowledge and experience (Foucault, 1977); ii) power shapes subject positions and categories (e.g., ‘race’) (e.g. racialization and racism); and iii) these processes operate together to shape experiences of privilege and penalty between groups and within them (Collins, 2000).

From an intersectional perspective, power is relational. A person can simultaneously experience both power and oppression in varying contexts, at varying times (Collins, 1990). These relations of power include experiences of power over others, but also that of power with others (power that involves people working together)

Within an intersectionality-based policy analysis (or IBPA), the focus is not just on domination or marginalization, but on the intersecting processes by which power and inequity are produced, reproduced and actively resisted



Reflexivity is the fact of someone being able to examine their own feelings, reactions, and motives

One way that intersectionality pays attention to power is through reflexivity. Reflexivity acknowledges the importance of power at the micro level of the self and our relationships with others, as well as at the macro levels of society. Reflexive practice recognizes multiple truths and a diversity of perspectives, while giving extra space to voices typically excluded from policy ‘expert’ roles



Time and Space

time and space are not static, fixed or objective dimensions and/or processes, but are fluid, changeable and experienced through our interpretations, senses and feelings, which are, in turn, heavily conditioned by our social position/location, among other factors

How we experience and understand time and space depends on when and where we live and interact

It is within these dimensions of time and space that different kinds of knowledge are situated, our understandings of the world are constructed, and the social orders of meaning are made

Moreover, privileges and disadvantages, including intersecting identities and the processes that determine their value, change over time and place


The Diversity of Knowledges

Given the focus in intersectionality-based policy analysis (IBPA) on addressing inequities and power, knowledge generated through an IBPA can and should include the perspectives and knowledges of peoples who are typically excluded in policy analysis.

IBPA expands understandings of what is typically constituted as “evidence” by recognizing a diversity of knowledge, paradigms and theoretical perspectives, such as knowledge generated from qualitative or quantitative research; empirical or interpretive data; and Indigenous knowledges



Social Justice

Theories of social justice frequently challenge inequities at their source and require people to question social and power relations.

Intersectionality strongly emphasizes social justice (Grace, 2011). Approaches to social justice differ based in whether they focus on the redistribution of goods (Rawls, 1971) or on social processes (Young, 1990); however, all approaches share a concern with achieving equity (Sen, 2006)



The term equity is not to be confused with equality. For example, where inequality may refer to any measurable difference in outcomes of interest, inequities exist where those differences are unfair or unjust.

Closely tied to the social justice principle of intersectionality, equity is concerned with fairness. As expressed by Braveman and Gruskin (2003), equity in public policy exists when social systems are designed to equalize outcomes between more and less advantaged groups.



Olena Hankivsky, PhD (April 2014) Intersectionality 101. The Institute for Intersectionality Research & Policy, SFU.