Book Reviews/Communication and Identities in Institutional Arenas - Part I/De los Reyes, Paulina & Mulinari, Diana (2005): Intersektionalitet: kritiska reflektioner over (o)jämlikhetens landskap

Summary and reflections on Paulina de los Reyes & Diana Mulinari (2005): Intersektionalitet – Kritiska reflektioner över (o)jämlikhetens landskap edit

Why this book?

The authors begin by referring to their previous book, (Maktens (o)lika förklädnader…), the purpose of which was to problematize and place on stage how relations of superiority and inferiority are articulated in different historical and spatial ”rooms”. The simultaneous effect of gender, class and ethnic/”race” structures is a central component in the constitution of power, they claim. Intersectionality is thus seen as an alternative for a traditional feminist theory with its focus on the construction of gender, not taking other aspects into consideration. The purpose of the book is to expand the analysis frames and open up for reflections on power and inequality, all in favor of building a critical perspective within science. (7-8)

Among both neo-marxist and poststructuralistic theorists there is an ambition to develop theoretical models that capture present-day social relations, identity formations and material inequality by going beyond one-dimensional power analyses. The authors argue that intersectionality as a concept should not be “locked” within feministic theory or constructed as a feministic concept, as it has bearing for many other theory constructions as well (8).

One of the main aims of the book is to reflect upon inequality that is constructed in the intersection between different levels of society and the specific forms of consensus and suppression that emerges in the intersection of power structures, institutional practices and individual actions. The authors refer to a number of specific phenomena, among which “hedersrelaterat våld”/patriarchal violence within families is named. Through and intersectional analysis of several levels it is possible to see how patriarchal structures in the society are empowered by racist practices on institutional level, which in turn weakens the situation for abused children and women on individual level. (9)

Intersectionality shows also how power is intertwined with whiteness, maleness, gender, heterosexuality, class, and so on, through a re(creation) of the relationship between “us” and “them” through social codes. (9-10) According to the authors, power is articulated in unequal material conditions, linguistic constructions, everyday actions and ideological fundaments that vary both historically and spatially. Power is thus seen as both complex and mobile. (11) Last, but not the least, the book also sheds light on unequal power relation within the academia – in relation to science.

The book consists of 8 chapters and introduction, summarized above. The first chapter argues for the necessity of an intersectional perspective based on a critical tradition where power and inequality are focused. Ch.2 includes a critical review on previous research, discussing the relation between intersectional analyses and feministic traditions. This critical reflection is based on Etienne Balibar’s Race, nation and class as well as Charles Tilly’s Durable inequality. At the end of the chapter both Marx and Foucault are included within the framework of an intersectional analysis. Ch.3 discusses power and inequality through racial processes and historical ways of articulating ideas of race together with gender and class. Stuart Halls Black feminism is also studied in this chapter.

Chapter 4 focuses postcolonial theory, thus identifying intersections between discourses in time and space and different forms of power acts. Postcolonial thinking represents an important shift in paradigm concerning theories on power and inequality. Ch.5 studies “Swedish feminism”. Ch. 6 & 7 analyze how gender, class, sexuality and ethnicity are articulated in different power positions (as seen in interview materials). A central question is: How does intersectionality challenge the idea of the Swedish “folkhem” (people’s home)? The 8 th and final chapter critically discusses the possibilities and limitations of an intersectional analysis from both theoretical and methodological points of view.

In the following, I will comment on some of the ideas presented in the chapters.

Ch 1 The ideological home of intersectional thinking

One of the core questions of the book is: What kind of understanding of power makes it possible to relate the existence of multiple identities to different axes of power asymmetry? (15).

For the authors, intersectionality is not only a perspective through which a complex reality can be described. It is also a theoretical perspective that forces us to look at the reality through a different kind of lens and makes us question the “knowledge” and given social order we live in. (23) Furthermore, power relations are something that is made/created, not given (23).

Intersectionality is based on an epistemology where individuals, ideologies, knowledge, discourses and material conditions are involved in a ever-proceeding construction of power and oppression/suppression (25).

Ch 2. Voices on power and inequality

An intersectional perspective is applicable also outside the feministic field, as the interest towards a broader and historically situated understanding of power and inequalities is broader than feminism itself. Racism, for instance, is embedded in other social relations such as gender relations. The authors reflect upon these issues through a critical examination of two fundamental works: Race, class, nation (a classic dialogue between Balibar & Wallerstein) and Durable inequality (C. Tilly). Apart from this, the authors make an attempt of creating a “third model of intersectionality through creating dialogue between Marx and Foucault. Race, class and nation is described as macro-structural class analysis where ethnicity and gender make grounds for exclusion from the society, its resources and lack of power and influence. The role of nation in this model is that it is constituted around a territory, a language and a given “original”national population makes it possible to establish (and legitimize) a border between us and those who don’t belong to the nation. National identities, thus, reproduce a system of inequality and exclusion, where the fellowship between us is based on confrontation and distance towards “them”. Relying on a Marxist tradition, Balibar and Wallerstein analyze the inner contradictions and exclusion mechanisms of capitalism and nation states (30-31).

Balibar touches also upon the relation of the concepts race and culture. As previously accepted connections between “racial” superficial differences and social behavior have become politically inadequate/incorrect, the notion of culture has been “fed in” as an explanatory fact (32). (Jfr. Wikan, Mulinari et al, KOIIA 2). There is a risk that essentialism remains despite developments in this line of thought. (32). Operating on categories such as ethnicity, race, class and gender means in some ways that they are locked or trapped within themselves. How can we see individuals or situated social practices instead?

Charles Tilly’s Durable inequality is characterized as a systematic model that focuses on processes creating inequality, based on structural relations and institutional conditions. Tilly claims that creating inequality is relational as it is formed in the social interaction between individuals and groups. Different forms of inequality, especially category-based, are transformed and reformed from one social interaction to another (34). The strength in Tilly’s theory is formulation of an analysis model that connects structural relations to institutional processes, but that doesn’t predetermine the causality between these levels (37). In terms of identity, he is critical of an analysis of social differences based on an identity perspective, because individuals’ identities are formed and reformed by the social relations they are a part of. (38) To see social differences as identity equals according to him reducing social processes to individual actions. Based on Tilly, the authors see studying the connections between identity formation and the society’s forms of exploiting individuals as their central task. (39)

The final section of this chapter is an attempt to merge the thoughts of Foucault and Marx. For Foucault, analysis of power captures the creation of “normality” and stigmatization of “different” as a societal norm. Marx, in his turn, connects the exploitation made possible by private ownership and societal division between work and capital. (42-43) The classic categories class, status and prestige have thus been transformed to class, gender and ethnicity (Bradley 1996). Problematizing this, the authors remind us about the fact that stigmatization and deviation are also associated with individual and collective subversive actions that challenge the societal norms. (44) The authors conclude that it is necessary to keep the processes of exploitation and stigmatization analytically separate in order to be able to study how they interact (45).

Ch 3. Intersectional dialogues

This chapter introduces a theoretical model consisting of two analytically separate understandings of inequality; socio-economic and cultural/symbolic. The thinker behind this model is Nancy Fraser, a feminist political philosopher. For Fraser, exploitation is defined as not only through the classic contradiction between work and capital, but also through lack of symbolic and discursive power. (48). Pages 49-50 include Judits Butler’s criticism of Fraser; a discussion of the right/left –wing ideals in politics and the fact that the same leftist movement that criticizes the class division and exclusion also can foster homophobic and racist ideas.

The ideas presented in the chapter are a part of a general discussion on “identity politics”, (based on ideas or individuals as carriers of these ideas identity politics has been seen as a way of including different groups’ interests, experiences and capabilities in political decision-making). The authors strive to problematize the concept and react against the phenomena. Instead of identity focus, the authors, in concert with Fraser, argue that one should focus on institutional perspectives (53). Despite its advantages, Fraser’s theory is criticized for being Eurocentric, thus is the perspective of Black feminism raised. The criticism Black Feminism raises against traditional feminism can be described in two central concepts: “making invisible” and “otherness”, of which the former is defined as the process of constructing gender through the experiences of white middle-class females, thus making others’ experiences invisible, the latter being constructed through a “brutal display of the other as defect, strange or suppressed” (55). When introducing Stuart Hall’s thinking (1992), the authors describe the important questions of how race intervenes with class relations and what effects does this have on the stability in capitalist systems. If race is seen as a relational category, not essential, then racified forms of oppression can be connected with the privileges associated with whiteness. (60) Race, or social ideas of race are thus a constitutive part of the inequalities system that simultaneously with class and gender creates suppression and oppression.

Ch 4 Intersections in the postcolonial room

Chapter 4 discusses an important paradigm shift in social sciences, the emergence of postcolonial theory. According to the authors, the postcolonial field offers a critical re-reading of the production of Western knowledge and is interested in the relation between racified forms of power, knowledge production and politics (64). Thus, translation and portraying of experiences and world views through language is an important area of study within this theory. In 1998, Slater listed four different ways of studying the postcolonial: 1) postcolonialism in a specific historical time 2) postcolonialism associated with postmodernism and poststructuralism 3)postcolonialism – interaction/reciprocally constituted roles between the colonizer and the colonized 4) critical examination of hierarchical power relations within knowledge production in academia (65).

Furthermore, postcolonial theory problematizes systematically the cultural, linguistic, historical and psychological borders created by the Western colonialization (75) – a starting point in this thinking is that colonialization has not only carried out a new economic and social order in the world but also promoted the European modernization project as a model for the entire humanity (75). All in all, the chapter emphasizes and discusses a number of interesting postcolonial intersections: knowledge/politics, dominans/hegemony, discourse/materiality, time/space.

Ch 5 Hegemonic feminism? An attempt to identify a discoursive field

As my interests lie elsewhere than in feminist theory, I will here only leave the reader with the core idea presented in the chapter, namely this: If intersectionality is to be merged within the feminist theory, the entire core of that theory needs to be transformed (87).

Ch 6 Intersectional discourses of resistance

Whereas previous chapters have emphasized that the ideological home of intersectionality lies in diverse backgrounds, chapter 6 shows some empirical (interview) examples reflecting how gender, class, sexuality and ethnicity are articulated in different power positions and strategies. This aim is pursued through portraying some “polyphonous voices” (89) in interview materials on pages 93-97.

The interview extracts show three young women in different positions, engaged in academic studies, union work and other different social contexts where they choose to or are forced to portray their gender, ethnic, sexual and class identities in different ways. Employing the interview examples as a part of their argumentation, the authors claim that if we cannot reform our one-dimensional view on class, gender and ethnicity, the result is only fragmented knowledge of power relations. (90) Gender is transforming and transforms when it encounters class, race and sexuality – therefore also the heteronormativity of our society needs to be contested and problematized (99).

Ch 7 Intersectionality – difference – inequality in “The People’s home” (Folkhemmet) or Sweden in the postcolonial room.

The chapter deals with different areas of society from an intersectional and postcolonial perspective: in terms of e.g. a gender-segregated and etnified labor market, intersectionality is needed in order to make the role of diaspora visible, thus analysing the role of the Swedish nation in the postcolonial room (103).

The authors highlight several societal areas from an intersectional point of view. Examples include access to paid, institutionalized employment as a measurement for fullworthy life (rights) as a citizen (105), labor market in general and the normalization of instability in particular(108). They also problematize the heteronormative family ideals as well as the idea of a society based on a two-parent (heterosexual, cohabiting) model (110). Furthermore, the role of race/ethnicity when being subjected to the sanctions of the legal system is discussed (113), together with the sometimes problematic access to welfare services of the “Folkhem”. Many of the ideas presented in the chapter point to one idea, that of conditional citizenship where access to and membership in society’s institutions is determined by structural dominance which can only be analyzed through an intersectional power analysis.

Ch 8 Intersectional strategies

The aims of the book can be summarized in following: The authors want to challenge existing perceptions on gender relations within feminist theory and pursue critical discussion that includes other theoretical perspectives. Feminist theory is also criticized for lacking depth theoretically, empirically and politically – intersectional perspective is offered as a solution as it raises questions of e.g. gender construction vis-à-vis nation building and highlights the citizens (or non-citizens) differentiated access to social and political rights (123-4).

One of the book’s great concerns is to reflect upon power as intersectional. It is also necessary to connect its constitution to different dimensions, spaces and levels of society, as intersectionality is not a closed theory of oppression and inequality (125). Finally, the authors suggest /summarize four central principles in an intersectional research strategy:

  1. Challenge simple/fragmented representations and make multiple identities visible through showing the complexity of categories (class, gender, ethnicity…) (127)
  2. Connect and articulate the critique against a positivist world order claiming that we have to fragmentize, categorize and separate phenomena in order to be able to understand and talk about how the world and the society are constructed. To connect and articulate is to create spaces/arenas for discussion and collective action. (127-128)
  3. Raise focus on institutional arenas instead of focusing on already stigmatized groups -> connection between societal structures, institutions and actors (128-129)
  4. Alternative thinking that challenges hegemonic voices, meaning that power should not just be seen as dominance and hegemony, but also as challenge and resistance. The creation of social identities should be examined through discursive and historical processes, not forgetting the alternative voices that seldom are heard. Finally, ethnocentrism, discriminative structures and exclusion mechanisms within the academia need to be challenged. (129-130)

Some reflections and questions for further discussion

  • This text evokes in me a problematization of the intertwinedness of politics and academics. I started reading the text as an academic reflection of the concept of intersectionality, but finished the reading as if it was a political pamphlet. Fostering an idea of neutral/independent science is hardly realistic, but I was nevertheless surprised and perplexed by the strong political/ideological undercurrents in the text.The examples are plenty, Black feminism, for instance, is portrayed as an intellectual position in which an academic activity is developed in concert with political activism. (see p. 56 in the book) Thoughts concerning being political/ideological have from time to time been present during my time as an academic scholar. Should one or should one not engage herself in minority debates, political engagements, be prepared to give ideological statements within the field one is studying, and so on? This is a concern I would like to discuss in class.
  • What the book succeeds in discussing is something that has been “disturbing” me in terms of intersectionality, and what perhaps has been a reason for me not fully embracing this kind of analysis as a part of my work. I’m talking about the original base of intersectionality as a part of feminist theory – as well as its focus on inequalities. Not denying the importance of highlighting unequal power relations, I see a risk in the intersectionality perspective focusing too often on “negatives” instead of “possibilities” or adopting an empowerment attitude. Therefore, I am wondering if a change of perspective would demand a maturization of intersectional theory yet not possible. Another part in maturization, as I see it, is to work with intersectional analyses, but starting from other points of departure than feminist theory – pursuing an intersectional analysis means, after all, that the different elements, ethnicity, class, and so on, are balanced against each other.
  • A final comment concerning the book has to do with the limited number of empirical examples in it. A lesser emphasis on empiricism is natural, considering the nature of the text, but at some points I wished that the authors would have reinforced their thoughts and ideas through empirical examples.