Doing intersectionality in empirical research

intersectionality

Many Gender Studies students are well versed in the language and politics of intersectionality. But this often seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to designing their research projects. Intersectionality is easy to say, but difficult to do: this is work of designing and redesigning, questioning and (in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s words) ‘asking the other question’. In her famous article ‘Mapping the Margins’, Crenshaw defines three levels of intersectionality:

Structural: how the social locations of Black women make their lived experiences qualitatively different from those of white women;

Political: how feminist and antiracist politics have both marginalised the concerns of women of colour; 

Representational: how the cultural construction of women of colour is produced by ideas about gender and race.

When students try to apply intersectionality, the representational level often feels easier and more natural. But without attention to the political and structural, this can get superficial quite quickly – a focus on representing additional groups rather than exploring how identities are co-constructed within multiple oppressive systems (what Patricia Hill Collins calls the ‘matrix of domination‘). I don’t pretend to have got everything right myself – intersectionality is a process rather than a destination – but I’ll summarise some of the protocols I give my students for more intersectional research.

Before I start, here are a couple of maxims:

If you're trying to do intersectional research without having read any Black feminists, this is both (a) not going to get you very far, and (b) disrespectful to the thinkers who have given us this framework. And this brief guide is certainly not intended to take the place of attentive and thoughtful reading. 

Start with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis and Jennifer Nash. Hill Collins' book with Sirma Bilge is an excellent introductory text, and you could also read some of Bilge's other work. Other feminists of colour to read: Chandra Mohanty, Sara Salem, and Jasbir Puar. 

It might seem obvious, but applying a framework effectively requires us to understand it. And white researchers especially have a tendency to use intersectionality as a buzzword which is abstracted from its theoretical roots.

Once you have a good grasp of Black feminist theory and the work of other feminists of colour, you’ll understand that intersectionality is not an additive principle but an inherent one that requires us to interrogate the very foundations of our work. In other words, we need to apply it from our ontologies and epistemologies, through our research questions and sampling, to the knowledge claims we make.

Ontology

Research always proceeds from ontology, whether this is a well-developed theoretical perspective or a simpler set of ideas about life. At its most basic level, it is how you think the world works. And if you’re not intersectional in your ideas about the world, it will come through in your research. This isn’t just about acknowledging the existence of different types of people: you also need to think about structures such as heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism, and institutions such as the family, religion and the state. Our ontologies are often constructed from the perspective of a particular group, usually the dominant one.

For example, since the 19th century Black feminists have pointed out that state institutions such as law enforcement can be understood and experienced radically differently by Black and white people because of the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Privileged white women tend to look to the police for protection: for Black women police are more often perpetrators of state violence against them and their families (usually in the name of protecting whites). But the ‘neutral’ account of law enforcement is that they are here for everyone’s security. If you conduct research on an issue such as the under-reporting of sexual violence based on this ontology, your project will not be very intersectional.

Developing a more intersectional ontology in Gender Studies means understanding power relations both between genders and within them, mediated by categories such as race, class, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and age. It also means accounting for geopolitical power relations. This radically (re)shapes our concepts: understanding a concept such as violence intersectionally broadens it from physical and sexual forms to include state, political, cultural and symbolic ones, involving factors such as community and nation as well as gender, class, race and other markers. Within this framework, a one-dimensional term such as ‘violence against women’ may be inadequate. We need to constantly challenge our ideas, and work towards more complexity, as we map the ontologies of our research.

Epistemology

At a very basic level, epistemology is the theory of how we know what we know. Intersectionality is closely related to standpoint theory, which says that people more marginalised by social structures can be better placed to understand them (although a standpoint has to be developed; it isn’t given). It’s easier to understand something from the bottom up than from the top down; it’s also easier to see how power operates when you have first-hand experience of what it does. Hill Collins calls Black women ‘outsiders within‘ who have a special standpoint on white supremacist society. bell hooks, describing her childhood in small-town Kentucky, writes:

'living as we did - on the edge - we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside and in from the inside out . . . we understood both.' 

This suggests that if we want to understand how intersecting structures work, we need to centre the experiences of those at the sharp ends of them. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you should go all out to recruit marginalised people as your research participants, especially if you are not an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider within’. There are many other ways of doing interesting and useful research on an issue. A more intersectional epistemology does mean that you need to develop your own understandings from the understandings of those best placed to know. Read (and cite) Black feminists; read (and cite) thinkers who are members of other marginalised social groups, read (and cite) thinkers affected by the issues you are interested in. Do not rely on dead (or living!) white men to tell you how the world works; challenge the idea of the ‘canon’ as it has been presented.

More intersectional epistemologies also allow for multiple, and sometimes contradictory, experiences based on how people are positioned within intersecting structures of oppression. Beware unitary terms such as ‘women’s experience’ – this implicitly privileges the narratives and concerns of the most privileged and doesn’t allow for differences between women or, indeed, how some women can oppress others. Let’s go back to the term ‘violence against women’ – this implicitly centres white women as victims, and erases our role in the structural violence of colonialism and how our allegations of sexual violence have been used to justify the brutalisation of Black communities and other communities of colour.

Having more intersectional epistemologies also means we need to be reflexive about our own standpoints, whether we are ‘insiders’, ‘outsiders’, or something in between (although this does not mean making your research all about you, unless you are doing autoethnography!) We especially need to think about how our privileges might be impeding our understandings: for instance, as a relatively privileged white woman I work hard to move away from a one-dimensional understanding of gender. Exploring our own positionalities isn’t a weakness: there’s no such thing as ‘objective’ research, only thoughtful and honest work. Thinking about how we come to know what we know helps us become more open to other knowledges and perspectives.

Research questions

Our knowledge about the world, and how we have gained it, shapes the research questions we choose. This is why it’s so important to spend time reading about and trying to understand an issue before researching it (this sounds very basic but students often don’t do this!) However, sometimes even with an intersectional worldview it’s easy to slip back into one-dimensionality when we think about questions for an empirical project, because writing research questions is hard. To make your research questions more intersectional, check that you are ‘asking the other question’ as well.

For instance, in a project on under-reporting of sexual violence, questions should allow for different understandings and experiences of law enforcement. For some women (Black women and/or sex workers, for example), reporting to the police may not even be an option. If you’re researching gender equality in parliamentary politics, make sure you’re not seeing ‘women’ as a homogeneous group. Doing so might allow the relative success of some white middle class women to stand in for ‘women in politics’ in general, hiding persistent inequalities for women who are not white and middle class. Avoiding this pitfall might involve asking more specific questions about particular groups of women in the political system.

A more intersectional approach might also require you to go back to your ontology and in particular, your ideas about how you think the world should be. Do you think any woman holding political office is a sign of progress? What about the substance of their politics? ‘Asking the other question’ here might involve exploring how policies implemented by privileged women in political office affect others who are more marginalised. In a project on under-reporting of sexual violence, ‘asking the other question’ might require you to acknowledge that for some women (especially those from communities that have been blighted by criminal punishment), prosecution and imprisonment of sexual violence perpetrators might not constitute progress either.

Sampling

We should usually aim for diverse samples in empirical work, but when we are trying to apply intersectionality this becomes even more important. For instance, if your research aims to understand gendered street harassment, you’ll need to account for the very different ways this is experienced. Women are sexualised in varying ways depending on intersecting categories such as class, race, disability and age, and gender-nonconforming people are also subjected to street harassment which has both similar and different dynamics. In qualitative research, samples are often convenience-led and we must work with what we are given. This is fine – but you need to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of your sample, explore any gaps, and temper your claims accordingly.

Research informed by intersectionality can also be done using a limited and very specific sample, as long as you are honest about it. In fact, specificity can be a strength. Imagine you want to study a local women’s yoga group, and find that it’s exclusively white and middle class. If approached in an intersectional way, this could add depth to your research: you could explore how gender intersects with whiteness and class privilege in the specific yoga group you are studying. You could set the experiences of your participants against those of more marginalised women using any available literature: in the absence of a more diverse sample, this can add depth to your research as well.

Findings

Following on from this, when you derive conclusions from your data make sure they aren’t over-generalised and they are appropriate to your sample. In the project on the women’s yoga group, for example, you shouldn’t be making claims about ‘women’s yoga’ in general, but much more precise points about this particular white, middle class community of practice. This doesn’t preclude raising broader questions or linking your work to more general themes: for instance, the relationships between whiteness, class privilege and the appropriation of Eastern practices in the West, and the historical and geopolitical contexts for this. But you must be clear on what your dataset confirms, what is interpretation and what needs to be left unanswered for now.

You should also make sure you’re not just generalising about your sample when there’s differentiation within it. Imagine you’re researching with a small group of sex workers, many of whom have negative experiences of mainstream support services. You could derive legitimate conclusions here about sex worker stigma and judgment in the statutory and third sectors. But an intersectional approach would require you to dig a little deeper. It might become apparent that the sex workers reporting the worst experiences are sex workers who use drugs, for instance. Or trans sex workers (or people who fit both these categories). This would require you to ask additional questions about transphobia and stigma around drug use, and how these dynamics might also be at play.

After doing all the above, you may end up feeling completely confused and as though you’re unable to say anything at all. Congratulations! You have started to do more intersectional research. The challenge for us all is how to hold on to the complexities of social life with its multiple dynamics of privilege and marginality, while constructing research narratives that are engaging and intelligible. You will never, ever see the finished picture: but if you are lucky, you will get to be part of the process of finding a piece.

Neoliberalism and the commodification of experience

The personal is political, that revolutionary phrase which illuminated the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and after, was originally coined in response to claims that consciousness-raising was navel-gazing with no coherent programme for social change. It posed a direct challenge to the idea that ‘personal problems’ and especially so-called ‘body issues’ should not be brought into the public arena, an assumption which feminism has done an excellent job of destabilising. Politicising the personal through the production of research on gendered bodies has fed the development of epistemologies based on the validity of experiential knowledge, and this, in turn, has brought to light the impossibility of objective analysis.

However, more than 30 years on, it is time to ask questions about what has befallen the personal in a neoliberal political context. Neoliberalism individualises, interiorises and neutralises – within this framework the political uses of the personal have shrunk as difference has transformed into ‘diversity’, and experience and emotion have become part of a broader ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ in which popular culture and politics have been saturated with feeling. As Ahmed (citing hooks) reminds us, this narcissistic and therapeutic moment and movement can easily co-opt and depoliticise our personal pain (although she cautions that this does not mean it should be ignored). In the current political climate, affect and emotion often serve to detract from structural critique: as Pedwell argues, inequality is frequently seen as a failure of understanding rather than a product of neoliberal and neo-colonial governmentality. Furthermore, the pain which has always been (justifiably) central to feminist politics can accumulate and stagnate in what Wendy Brown calls ‘wounded identities’ which both legitimate and depend upon state power.

We are currently doing feminism in amongst a commodification of distress. Moreover, this transforms experience into currency with which to buy into broader ideologies or ‘gazump’ potential political opponents. This is revealed by the frequency with experience is ventriloquised by politicians and privileged ‘experts’, who use empathy as a technology of access to marginalised lives, often upstaging grassroots communities who may be able to claim ownership of their stories but lack a political platform. Neo-imperialist agendas strategically centre ‘native informants’, often women, whose narratives of oppression are used to constitute Other cultures, usually those of Muslim-majority societies or communities, as uniquely and inherently misogynist and homophobic. Domestic and international politicking around the sex industry is characterised by a fight for experiential authenticity, which in the mainstream media is often transmuted into a ‘debate’ between the extremes of the ‘victimised survivor’ central to abolitionist agendas and the ’happy hooker’ who often materialises as a rebuttal to that type of feminist politics. As part of its resurgence, anti-choice politics has recently undergone a shift away from its sanctification of the foetus, towards advocating the idea of abortion as a deep personal trauma which is contrary to women’s best interests.

Within a lexicon in which experience is frequently and increasingly used (often second-hand) in the service of particular political agendas, personal stories begin to lose their humanity. Complex and varied narratives are simplified and homogenised for ideological ends and can then be dismissed by those in opposition as apocryphal or even corrupt. As debates become more heated, we tend to fixate on the first-person and discredit the experience when we ought to be questioning the surrounding politics. The relationships between particular experiences and powerful and often repressive political agendas have begun to define the narratives themselves and to rob them of legitimacy. Muslim women who speak out against gender inequality become unreliable because they must be stooges of the imperial West. Sex workers who acknowledge pain have been procured and perhaps coached by moralistic, prudish abolitionists who wish to strengthen the police state. In response, those with privilege and political power tend to defend themselves with attributions of false consciousness: Muslim women who choose to cover their bodies, hair and/or faces, and sex workers who declare choice and discuss self-expression, can both emerge as patriarchy’s dupes. In this politics of positionality, experiences are always already marked by ideology and the first question we ask (consciously or not) when someone shares their experience is, ‘whose side are you on?’

The ideologisation of experience has produced a flattening out of lived realities for fear they will be converted into foreign currency. In much the same way as the complexities of ending a pregnancy may be underplayed by pro-choice individuals and groups for fear of reinforcing pro-life agendas, sex workers may de-emphasise, hide or even deny difficult experiences within a politics of respectability which operates in opposition to the radical feminist rescue industry and in a dynamic in which ‘excited’ and ‘exited’ are the only positions available. As neoliberalism turns debates into bidding wars, experience is valuable only in the right currency, which polarises and renders invisible the possibilities in between. Those with differing experiences of the same phenomenon are unable to co-exist, as one person’s experience may outbid and ultimately annihilate another’s. This also creates little space within the individual for mixed or ambivalent feelings to endure: multiplex subjectivities must become less so in order to be intelligible within the dominant phraseology of concepts such as ‘objectification’, ‘victimisation’ and ‘empowerment’.

Such compelling but essentially meaningless universalisms hide the operation of structural and historical dynamics. These include the impact of successive waves of colonisation on religious institutions and their relationships with both state and mass forms of political action in many Muslim-majority countries and communities, the links between migration flows and identities, the ways in which repressive immigration policies and criminal justice systems encourage individuals to narrate themselves in particular ways, and the situating of commercial sexualities within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare. Furthermore, attempts at structural analysis often themselves inevitably collapse into appeals to experience: for instance, the radical feminist idea of patriarchy is frequently reduced to a homogenous experience of ‘male violence’, with little attention paid to the ways in which intersecting structures of oppression might produce varied encounters with this phenomenon and/or give rise to disparate analyses and forms of activism.

The contemporary politics of the personal prevents us from co-situating and productively analysing different experiences within such intersecting analytical frameworks, instead creating an anecdotal flow which is transmuted into a competitive deployment of one-dimensional stories and serves to create and widen gulfs between us. The fetishisation of experience also serves to restrict or conceal discussions based on other evidence, such as the compelling case against the criminalisation of sex workers and/or their clients, in which the figure of the victimised prostitute who must be rescued has made way for data pertaining to police and community harassment and repression, susceptibility to infectious diseases, risk of violence and access to health and social services.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not theorise from experience – indeed, the ‘view from nowhere’ with its attendant ‘voice of reason’ can also be that of the oppressor and reeks of entitlement and privilege (I say this with an awareness that in writing this piece, I may reasonably be read that way myself). Neither does it mean that all experiences, while valid, can be regarded as in themselves equally reliable sources of knowledge – what Haraway would term knowledge as an ‘act of faith’. Rather, we need to be able to translate experiences between situated, heterogeneous and power-differentiated communities, and use these as data to create knowledge informed by many types of evidence and frameworks of intersecting structures. We must also walk the fine line between respecting varied experiences, while critically appraising the uses to which particular experiences or technologies of empathy are put. Adding to our existing questions about ‘whose personal’ is political, we must be mindful of what it means to use the personal in the contemporary political context, ask whose experience counts within both dominant and marginalised thought and activism, and understand how neoliberalism depoliticises the personal and suppresses resistance by alienating us from each other.