Intersectional Theory in Sociology

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Sept 01, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


What Is Intersectional Theory?

Intersectionality is a perspective that investigates ‘how intersecting power relations influence social relations across diverse societies as well as individual experiences in everyday life’ (Collins & Bilge, 2020). 

Intersectional theory views the categories of intersecting relations such as race, gender, social class, sexuality, ability, and age as interrelated and mutually shaping one another. Through taking these intersecting factors into consideration, it paves the way of understanding and explaining complexity in individuals, the world, and in human experience. 

As a concept, intersectional theory contrasts monism, which is the idea that each factor of an individual (e.g., race and gender) can be adequately understood or investigated separately from one another, as a single dimension. Intersectional theory believes that speaking of these factors as separate entities is inaccurate as there is no such thing as gender issues being apart from class, and there is no such thing as sexuality being apart from race, for instance. 

Intersectionality aims to increase the understanding that humans are shaped by the interaction of different factors and that these interactions occur within a context of connected systems and structures of power. Some of these structures of power include laws, policies, governments, religious institutions, and media. Through this, people can be privileged and oppressed in many ways such as through racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and ableism (Hankivsky, 2014). 

Recognizing that people rarely experience oppression of a single factor, intersectionality adds additional layers of complexity to the understanding of social inequality.

Using intersectionality as a tool to analyze the relationship between individual differences moves beyond seeing social inequality through one lens (e.g., through race-only or class-only lenses) and instead sees oppression and inequality through the complex interactions among various power structures. 

History Of Intersectional Theory

The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper titled Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. Crenshaw recognized that there were socially marginalized people all over the world who were facing unique and individual challenges and dilemmas because of intersectional factors. 

The concept of intersectional theory is thought to have emerged from the ideas debated in critical race theory. Critical race theory is a cross-disciplinary social movement of civil-rights scholars and activists who sought to examine the intersection of race, society, and law, to challenge American approaches to racial justice. 

In her paper, Crenshaw primarily focused on the oppression faced by black women who face social inequality in two ways: first for being black, and second for being a woman. She described a case of a black woman who felt discriminated against being hired for a job based on these two intersecting factors.

However, the employer argued that she could not have been discriminated against on the basis of race since the company hired black people (black men). They also argued that she could not have been discriminated against for her gender since the company hired women (white women). 

Crenshaw recognized that black women’s oppression was often ignored or disregarded because there is a lack of societal understanding about how there are interconnected factors which can oppress people in unique ways. 

In 1991, Crenshaw expanded on the ideas of intersectionality by applying it to violence against women. She argued that women of marginalized race and ethnic groups in the United States face different structural barriers in trying to address the sexual violence which exists in their lives. 

Ideas of intersectional theory are believed to have emerged two decades before Crenshaw’s use of the term when black feminists began to speak out about the white, middle-class nature of mainstream feminism. Many black women found it hard to associate their own oppression to those of the main feminist movement, which tended to focus on white women. 

Simultaneously, during the civil rights movement, many black women experienced sexism and were excluded from leadership roles. This intersectional experience of suffering racism in the feminist movement and sexism in the civil rights movement encouraged black women to call for a feminist movement that includes their lived experiences. 

Although it has been predominantly used to explain the intersectionality of race and gender, intersectional theory is used to explain how any factors such as social class, religion, ethnicity, age, ability, and religion can oppress or privilege people in unique ways. 

Examples Of Intersectional Inequality In Society

Below are some examples of the ways in which intersectional inequality can occur in society:

Gender and disability 

Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are well-known disabilities. However, these are commonly thought of, and mostly diagnosed in males compared to females. 

This is partly due to the preconceived idea that these disabilities were male disorders. Much of the early research, theories, and diagnostic criteria comes from studying male samples, thus females who may have had these disorders were mostly ignored. 

Since there is not as much research into how autism and ADHD presents in females, many do not get diagnosed until they are much older, if at all. So, a woman with ADHD or autism may feel oppressed in a healthcare setting when seeking a diagnosis.

They may generally feel intersectional oppression for being a woman with a disability which is stereotyped as being a male disorder. 

Age, gender, and poverty

Child marriage is an example of how gender and age can intersect with poverty. In developing countries, young girls are particularly vulnerable to the practice of forced marriage, many being married before the age of 18. Therefore, young girls in these poverty-stricken areas may feel oppressed by the intersecting factors of being young, female, and poor. 

Race and social class

Intersectional analyses can demonstrate how there are racial inequalities for people of color and the opportunities that are available to them. For instance, black people may often find that they face oppression for their race, but even more so if they are also from a working-class background. 

If they face oppression for being black, and they are not wealthy enough to afford college tuition, for instance, this affords them less opportunities compared to white people who are from a wealthier background and could afford college tuition. 

People of color from a working-class background can face further inequalities if intersected with other factors such as physical disability, their age, and their gender. 

Crime and race 

Social class, age, gender, and race do not afect crime rates in isolation; they work together to shape the experiences of individuals as well as the larger society.

When it comes to crime, people of color may face different levels of inequality from many intersecting factors. For instance, a black person who is from a poorer geographical region may be more likely to face criminal charges for something due to being black and for not being wealthy. 

Likewise, gender and age can also intersect with race which makes it more likely for a black man of a certain age range to be stopped and searched by police, or to face greater punishment for a crime, compared to if a white person of another age range may for the same crime. 

Transgender and gender non-conforming violence

In 2020, a report found that there were a record number of violent and fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people. What was found was that a significant number of these victims were black transgender women (Human Rights Campaign, 2020). 

This is the result of misogyny, racism, and transphobia, each of which can intersect and oppress these individuals. 

What is Intersectional Feminism?

Early feminist movements have been criticized for being too focused on the experiences of primarily white, western, and middle-class women.

For example, while the suffragette movement was influential in first wave feminism for helping to extend voting rights for women, the voting rights of working class and minority ethnic groups were mostly ignored at this time. 

Intersectional feminism considers that misogyny and the exploitation of women does not just affect white middle-class women, but there are many intersecting factors. This type of feminism offers insight that not all women experience oppression in the same way. For instance, a black woman, a transgender woman, and a lesbian woman will each have their own unique experiences of oppression intersecting with misogyny. 

While, for example, a transgender woman may experience misogyny and transphobia, she will experience misogyny differently from a cisgender woman and transphobia differently from a transgender man. 

Crenshaw (1989) discussed how feminism can leave out the experiences of black women. She claimed that since the descriptive definitions of patriarchy are based on white women’s experiences, people who are informed by feminist literature may make the mistake of assuming that patriarchy does not apply to black women. This is because the traditional role of black women in the family and in other black institutions does not always resemble what is described as patriarchy in white communities. 

Many supporters of feminism claim that any work towards women’s rights must be intersectional so as not to exclude large majorities of women or classifying their experiences into the same group as white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied women. 

What Can Be Learned From Intersectional Theory?

Below are some of the ways in which intersectional theory has expanded understanding of individuals in a society:

  1. Humans cannot be reduced to a single category

From an intersectional perspective, human lives cannot be reduced to single categories. People’s lives are multidimensional and complex, being shaped by different factors and social dynamics operating together. 

Moreover, policy analyses cannot assume that any one social category has priority over understanding people’s needs and experiences. Individuals in a society do not have to choose which category they best fit into. For instance, a black woman does not have to choose between fitting into the ‘woman’ category or ‘black’ category, rather society can see that both factors are valid and affect her in unique ways. 

  1. Feminism can be exclusionary

Other feminist theories and past feminist movements can be criticized by intersectional theory for excluding many groups of women. Politically, feminists who try to organize ‘as women’ are actually excluding those women who are defined as ‘different’ from whatever it is that brings together that subgroup of women – usually privileged, white, western, able-bodied women. 

Ignoring the intersectional factors that can affect women means that some feminists overlook different groups of marginalized women such as those from an ethnic minority, disabled women, transgender women, and working-class women. 

Therefore, modern feminist perspectives are encouraged to become more exclusive of every type of woman to attract more feminist supporters and not be restricted to appealing to a certain type of woman. 

  1. Intersectional theory provides a deeper understanding of oppression 

Intersectional theory has provided a stronger understanding of how many different forms of oppression can affect individuals in unique ways. Theorists of intersectionality insist that we cannot understand the ways in which people are disadvantaged through one form of oppression unless their other forms of oppression are also taken into consideration. 

Specifically, theorists claim that certain aspects of social inequality, social problems, and injustices will be invisible if factors such as gender, race, and class are analyzed separately. 

  1. People can be advantaged and disadvantaged by structures of oppression

It is important to recognize that intersectionality is not just a concept that applies to marginalized groups. Social structures do not only disadvantage certain groups, but they also privilege groups, again, in ways unique to them, dependent on the situation they are in.

Someone may be intersectionally marginalized (e.g., a black working-class woman), intersectionally privileged (white wealthy man), or a combination of both. A white woman of a working-class background may be intersectionally privileged for being white but intersectionally marginalized for being working-class. 

Social relations are so complex that nearly everyone is privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others – this does not mean that everyone is equally advantaged and disadvantaged. 

Evaluation Of Intersectional Theory

Through intersectional theory, new and more complete information can be generated to gain a better understanding of the origins, root causes, and characteristics of social issues. Intersectionality enables more effective and efficient responses to solving growing social inequities compared to an approach which tries to fit people into one box.

Intersectional theory expands upon previous ways of understanding the relationship between social structures. For example, the ‘dual systems’ theory was developed to understand the co-existence of systems of oppression based on gender and class – the idea that patriarchy and capitalism are two distinct systems that coexist together.

Intersectionality suggests that the effects of gender and class cannot be reduced to the effects of either set of social relations alone and that everyone is marked by multiple social structures. Thus, intersectionality criticizes and improves on the concept of ‘dual systems.’

Through intersectionality, researchers, policy makers, and social change leaders can be encouraged to move beyond single identifying factors or group-specific concerns which are not thorough enough to explain human life.

The impact of policies and laws can be more inclusive of all types of people and social groups and people are less likely to fall through the cracks through an intersectional approach. 

The main criticism of intersectional theory is that, while it tries to move away from lumping people into singular identity boxes, it still tends to stereotype people into categories. While the groups people are put in are more complex, the theory still groups people based on identity markers. It may not always be considered that each person has unique experiences. 

The created groups can have an infinite number of shared additional characteristics which separates them further into smaller and smaller groups until there may only be one person that fits into the new category. For instance, after considering factors such as gender, race, sexuality, ability, and class, one could look at everything that causes opposition such as appearance and personality. Perhaps everyone’s experience in a society is so unique that they cannot be classified so simply. 

Why is intersectionality important in criminology?

Criminologists have usually been interested in investigating the relationship between race and crime, as well as between gender and class.

They have also been interested in observing how these factors determine any differences in offending and victimization. However, the intersection of these factors may have been overlooked. Intersectional research suggests that using many intersecting factors can help to measure the social inequalities which can influence criminal behavior (Collins, 1998).

Many forms of systemic social disadvantages such as being working-class, and an ethnic minority have led to these individuals being over-criminalized. For instance, these groups may be more likely to be a suspect of a crime, even if they did not commit it, and they may be more likely to receive a longer jail sentence compared to someone who is not as socially disadvantaged.

Therefore, it is suggested that criminologists need to look at different forms of discrimination in the justice system not as separate issues, but as interwoven with each other.

Why is intersectionality important in social work?

Intersectionality is especially important in social work. In using intersectionality, social workers can have a better understanding of their clients in relation to how they are potentially oppressed by the society in which they live.

In terms of those who experience domestic violence, while it can impact people of all backgrounds, society may not always treat victims of abuse equally. Social biases influence how society perceives survivors of domestic violence and stereotypes often create barriers for care and support.

Social workers should then ensure that they approach each victim as an individual and not contribute to the oppression individuals can face in the system.

What is an intersectional approach in research?

An intersectional approach to research might include focusing on the unique challenges that those who have intersectional and interwoven systems of discrimination and oppression face.

For instance, research could focus on the experiences of transgender people who live in poverty, or black homosexual women. When collecting data from research, applying an intersectional approach means that factors such as gender, class, disability, among others, are considered.

This data can be obtained to create a more specific, and in-depth analysis of how these factors influence the data. However, researchers should take care to not make generalized assumptions for each intersectional factor based on quantified data.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Sept 01). Intersectional Theory in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/intersectional-theory.html

References

Collins, P. H. (1998). Intersections of race, class, gender, and nation: Some implications for Black family studies. Journal of comparative family studies, 29(1), 27-36.

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2020). Intersectionality. John Wiley & Sons.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. In Feminist Legal Theories (pp. 23-51). Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Identity politics, intersectionality, and violence against women. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Hankivsky, O. (2014). INTERSECTIONALITY 101. Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy. 

Human Rights Campaign. (2020). An epidemic of violence: Fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States in 2020. Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Weldon, S. L. (2008). Intersectionality. Politics, Gender and Concepts: Theory and Methodology, ed. Gary Goertz and Amy G. Mazur, 193-218.