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:

  1. Structural: how the social locations of Black women make their lived experiences qualitatively different from those of white women;
  2. Political: how feminist and antiracist politics have both marginalised the concerns of women of colour;
  3. 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 dictums:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Author: alisonphipps

Feminist; queer; ballet; Prince. Professor of Gender Studies. She/her

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