Intersectionality is a theory which seeks to examine the ways in which various socially and culturally constructed categories interact on multiple levels to manifest themselves as inequality in society. Intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.
Intersectionality is an important paradigm for sociological and cultural studies, but there have been many challenges involved in utilizing it to its fullest capacity. Difficulties arise due to the many complexities involved in making "multidimensional conceptualizations that explain the way in which socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy. For example, intersectionality holds that knowing a woman lives in a sexist society is insufficient information to describe her experience; instead, it is also necessary to know her race, her sexual orientation, her class, etc. The theory of intersectionality also suggests that discrete forms, and expressions, of oppression actually shape, and are shaped by, one another. Thus, in order to fully understand the racialization of oppressed groups, one must investigate and examine the ways in which racializing structures, social processes, and social representations (or ideas purporting to represent groups and group members in society) are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, etc. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women within society, today sociologists strive to apply it not only to woman but to discussions of all peoples.
A comprehensive historical study of the development of the Intersectionality theory has yet to be documented. From the little documentation that exists, it is understood that the concept of intersectionality came to the forefront of sociological circles in the late 1960's and early 1970's in conjunction with the multiracial feminist movement. It came as part of a critique of radical feminism that had developed in the late 60's known as the "re-visionist feminist theory." This re-visionist feminist theory "challenged the notion that 'gender' was the primary factor determining a woman’s fate. The movement led by women of color disputed the idea that women were a homogeneous category sharing essentially the same life experiences. This argument stemmed from the realization that white middle class women did not serve as an accurate representation of the feminist movement as a whole. Recognizing that the forms of oppression experienced by white middle class women were different than those experienced by black, poor, or disabled women, feminists sought to understand the ways in which gender, race, and class combined to "determine the female destiny. Leslie McCall, a leading intersectionality theorist, argues that the introduction of the intersectionality theory was vital to sociology, claiming that before its development, there was little research in existence that addressed specifically the experiences of people who are subjected to multiple forms of subordination within society.
The term also has historical and theoretical links to the concept of "simultaneity" advanced during the 1970s by members of the Combahee River Collective, in Boston, Massachusetts. Members of this group articulated an awareness that their lives -- and their forms of resistance to oppression -- were profoundly shaped by the simultaneous influences of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Thus, the women of the Combahee River Collective advanced an understanding of African American experiences that challenged analyses emerging from Black and male-centered social movements; as well as those from mainstream White, middle-class, heterosexual feminists.
The term "Intersectionality Theory" was first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1970’s but gained prominence in the 1990’s when sociologist Patricia Hill Collins reintroduced the idea as part of her discussion on Black feminism. This term replaced her previously coined expression "black feminist thought", "and increased the general applicability of her theory from African American women to all women" (Mann and Huffman, 2005, pg. 61). Much like her predecessor Crenshaw, Collins argued that cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society, such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity (Collins, 2000, pg. 42). According to feminists of color, experiences of class, gender, sexuality, etc., cannot be adequately understood unless the influences of racialization are carefully considered. Feminists argue that an understanding of intersectionality is a vital element to gaining political and social equality and improving our democratic system. Collins' theory is one of particular interest because it represents the sociological crossroads between modern and post-modern feminist thought.k
There are three different approaches to studying intersectionality. Leslie McCall, a leading intersectionality theorist explains that these three perspectives are defined primarily by the way they "use analytical categories to explore the complexity of intersectionality in social life." The three approaches are anticategorical complexity, intracategorical complexity, and intercategorical complexity, and they serve to represent the broad spectrum of current methodologies that are used to better understand and apply the intersectionality theory.
Anticategorical Complexity: The anti-categorical approach is based on the deconstruction of categorical divisions. It argues that social categories are an arbitrary construction of history and language and that they contribute little to understanding the ways in which people experience society. Furthermore the anticategorical approach states that, "inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defined by race, class, sexuality, and gender, therefore the only way to eliminate oppression in society is to eliminate the categories used to section people into differing groups. This analysis claims that society is too complex to be reduced down into finite categories and instead recognizes the need for a holistic approach in understanding intersectionality.
Intercategorical (aka Categorical) Complexity: The intercategorical approach to intersectionality begins by addressing the fact that inequality exists within society, it then uses this as the base of its discussion of intersectionality. According to intercategorical complexity, "The concern is with the nature of the relationships among social groups and,importantly, how they are changing." Proponents of this methodology use existing categorical distinctions to document inequality across multiple dimensions and measure its change over time.
Intracategorical Complexity: The intracategorical approach can best be explained as the mid point between the anticategorical and intercategorical approaches. It recognizes the apparent shortcomings of existing social categories and it questions the way in which they draw boundaries of distinction. Yet, this approach does not completely reject the importance of categories like the anticategorical approach; rather the intracategorical approach recognizes the relevance of social categories to the understanding of the modern social experience. Moreover it attempts to reconcile these contrasting views by focusing on people who cross the boundaries of constructed categories, in an effort to understand the ways in which the complexity and intersectionality the human experience unfold.