Doing intersectionality in empirical research

Most of my Gender Studies students are well versed in the theory and politics of intersectionality. However, this often seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to designing their research projects. Intersectionality is easy to discuss, but takes work to apply; this is work of designing and redesigning, questioning and (in 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 attempt to apply intersectionality, the representational level often feels easier and more natural. However, without attention to the political and structural, this tends to lend itself to a superficial approach focused on ‘adding’ particular groups rather than exploring how systems and identities are co-constructed (what Patricia Hill Collins calls the ‘matrix of domination‘). In what follows I will attempt to sketch out some suggested protocols for ‘doing’ intersectionality: central to these is the fact that intersectionality is not an additive principle but an inherent one which requires us to interrogate the very foundations of our work. In other words, we need to apply it right from our ontologies, 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. It is how you think the world works. If you are not intersectional in your ideas about the world, it will come through in your research. This is not just about acknowledging the existence of different types of people: crucially, you also need to think about how you define and locate structures such as the family, religion and the state. Our structural interpretations 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/experienced radically differently according to race. Privileged white women tend to look to the police for protection: for black women law enforcement is more often an agency of state violence against themselves and their families (usually perpetrated in the name of protecting whites). Despite this, 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 be exclusionary.

Developing an intersectional ontology also means interrogating key concepts such as gender, power and violence. This demands that we understand 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 flows of power between groups, nations and states in different regions of the world. Understanding a concept such as violence intersectionally asks us to broaden it from physical and sexual forms to include state, political, cultural and symbolic ones, which affect some communities more intensely and implicate others as perpetrators. Colonialism is the paradigm example. Within this framework, a term such as ‘violence against women’ becomes one-dimensional and inadequate. We must constantly challenge and complexify our ideas as we map the ontological foundations of our research.

Research questions

The ontologies underpinning our work should define the questions we choose to focus on. However, sometimes even with an intersectional worldview it is easy to slip back into two dimensions when we think about practical questions for an empirical project. To make your research questions more intersectional, check that you are allowing for difference and ‘asking the other question’, where necessary, about your topic. For instance, in a project on the under-reporting of sexual violence, make sure your questions incorporate and acknowledge different understandings and experiences of law enforcement. If you are researching gender equality in parliamentary politics, understanding ‘women’ as a homogeneous group risks allowing the success of some white middle class women to conceal the continued struggles of those who do not fit this category. Make sure your questions are designed to avoid this pitfall: this might involve asking specifically about particular groups of women in the political system. It may also be necessary to interrogate your ontology of ‘progress’: if this is defined as any woman holding political office, you may not be ‘asking the other question’ about how politics and policies led by privileged women might affect others who are more marginalised. A more intersectional appreciation of ‘progress’ might be necessary, and you should frame your questions accordingly.

Sampling

We should usually aim for diverse samples in our empirical work. However, intersectional research can be done using a limited and very specific sample, as long as you are honest about it. In fact, specificity can be a strength. Your desired sample will sometimes be dictated by your topic and what you aim to explore: if your research brief is to understand gendered street harassment in broad terms, for example, you will need as diverse a sample as possible. 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 different dynamics. Often in qualitative research, samples are convenience-led and we must work with what we are given. Imagine you are asked to study a local women’s yoga group and you find that it is exclusively white and middle class. If approached in an intersectional way, the specificity of this sample could add depth to your research, allowing you to investigate how whiteness and class privilege are articulated in, and police the boundaries of, the space.

Knowledge claims

Many research projects in Gender Studies are grounded in the epistemology of experience, as a challenge to more masculinised, positivistic approaches. This is often situated within a testimonial politics focused on allowing more marginalised people to speak for themselves. If you are familiar with intersectionality theory you will already have a critical appreciation of terms such as ‘women’s experience’, knowing that this is not unitary or static and that to ground your research in such a principle may implicitly privilege the narratives and concerns of the dominant. In an intersectional research project you need to engage critically with different epistemologies in deciding where to locate yourself, realising that all knowledge claims are partial.

With this in mind, when you derive conclusions from your data make sure they are not over-generalised and that they are appropriate to your sample. In the project on the women’s yoga group, for example, you should not be making claims about ‘women’s experience of yoga’ but much more precise points about this particular white, middle class community of practice. This does not preclude raising broader questions or linking your work to more general themes: for example, the relationships between whiteness, privilege and the appropriation of Eastern physical-spiritual traditions in the West, and the historical and geopolitical contexts in which these are formed. However, you must be clear on what your particular dataset confirms, what has the status of interpretation and what needs to be left unanswered for now.

You should also ensure that you are not just generalising about your sample when there is differentiation within it. Imagine you are researching with a small group of sex workers, many of whom have extremely negative experiences of outreach and support services. You could derive legitimate conclusions here about sex worker stigma and judgment in the statutory and third sectors. However, an intersectional approach would require you to think about additional factors which might be at play. It might become apparent that the sex workers reporting the worst experiences are women over 45, linking to themes around how age, gender and sexuality are co-produced. You might begin to develop an analysis around perceptions of sex work as ‘sex’ rather than ‘work’, and how this interacts with the desexualisation of older women.

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After doing all the above, you may end up feeling completely confused and as though you are unable to say anything at all. Congratulations! You have started to do intersectional research. The challenge for all of us is how to hold on to the complexities of social life with its multiple dynamics of privilege and marginality, while constructing narratives through our research which 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.