May 2020

Intersectionality is a perspective in sociology and related fields that encourages researchers to consider the ways that different forms of prejudice and oppression interact with one another. So, for example, a person who is both of a racial minority and also gay may find—unsurprisingly—that both of these attributes can be a source of stigma. What intersectional analysis contributes to the study of such a person’s life is that the two prejudices or systems of oppression are not necessarily simply additive. They interact in complex ways that also deserve to be considered in their own right.

What does intersectionality add to our understanding of the world and those who inhabit it? And what specifically can intersectionality contribute to research that is otherwise done in the classical liberal paradigm? Classical liberalism has traditionally valorized individualism and looked with some suspicion on group identities in general. Voices on the right side of the political spectrum in particular have urged that intersectionality is not a useful lens for viewing the world at all.

One might think, then, that this fusion isn’t a particularly promising one, but our lead essayist for this month, Prof. Jacob T. Levy of McGill University, begs to differ. Joining him will be Phillip W. Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research, Prof. Fabio Rojas of Indiana University Bloomington, and Prof. Melissa Harris-Perry of Wake Forest University. Comments are also open through the month for readers to join the discussion.

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Lead Essay

  • Jacob T. Levy describes intersectionality as “the analytical strategy of thinking about such phenomena as race and gender, or racism and sexism, as interacting.” As such, he suggests that this approach is a promising one, and he defends it against some common criticisms. Those who view oppression of all kinds as a primarily state-mediated phenomenon should want to add it to their repertoire of useful ideas, he argues.

Response Essays

  • Phillip W. Magness warns that intersectionality theory amounts to little more than a qualitative approach to multivariate regression analysis—and a doubtful set of ideological commitments. For centuries, those now known as classical liberals fought against slavery and other forms of discrimination, and their successors today don’t need any such new and dubious theories to continue the struggle.

  • Fabio Rojas expresses ambivalence about intersectionality’s relationship to classical liberalism. On the one hand, there is a clear line of influence running from Marxism and critical theory to intersectionality’s key proponents and texts, and this influence brings with it hostility toward the market process. But on the other hand, he finds that intersectionality can offer new insights into how states perform oppression, and how marginalized voices can learn to speak back. There is no marriage here, but there should be a dialogue, he concludes.

Coming Up

Essays by Phillip W. Magness, Fabio Rojas, and Melissa Harris-Perry. Discussion through the end of the month.