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Intersectional Dialogues

Intersectionality as Critical Method

Credit: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York.

October 12, 2022

While many scholars in the field of gender studies are convinced that intersectionality is an essential part of good feminist theory, it is not always clear how intersectionality should be adopted in the context of research. In practice, intersectionality raises many questions, for example: What categories should be included in an intersectional analysis? Should researchers always stick to the “big three” of gender, race, and class, or should they cast a wider net? Some scholars have asked whether categories should be used at all, as they may be misleading and fail to capture the broad diversity of experiences and identities.

How to apply intersectionality

The US legal scholar Mari Matsuda came up with a simple procedure for intersectional analysis which she called “asking the other question”: “When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’” This procedure turns out to be a surprisingly simple, but definitely useful way to begin analyzing the ways intersectional power works in people’s life stories and how these intersections can be both enabling and constraining.

How freedom can be seen to depend on integrating struggles

As an example, we applied this method to the life history of Mamphela Ramphele, a famous South African medical doctor, writer, and anti-apartheid activist. She was imprisoned and her work banned for many years, but she went on to become the first Black woman to head a South African university, a managing director of the World Bank, and a presidential candidate of the Democratic Alliance in the general elections of 2014[1]. We used three ways of “asking the other question”: a) to situate ourselves as researchers prior to the analysis; b) to discover blind spots that emerged during the analysis; c) to complicate thinking about power relations.

a) Following Donna Haraway’s famous argument that (feminist) researchers need to admit that the knowledge they are producing is always situated, partial, and reflexive, we recognized that as White, feminist, European/US researchers with an anti-racist agenda, our desire to analyze Ramphele’s biography was not an innocent endeavor. Being critical of the neglect of race and racism in feminist scholarship, we hoped that Ramphele’s life history would allow us to implement our project, namely, to demonstrate that it is impossible to talk about gender without talking about race. We were initially surprised at her seeming reluctance to situate herself as a Black African in the context of apartheid or to talk about her own experiences with racism. She even seemed to distance herself from race and racism by drawing upon her privileged position or the ways that she was extraordinary or different. Even more remarkable was the fact that throughout the interview she seemed more comfortable positioning herself as a woman. It was her repeated emphasis on gender that stopped us in our tracks and made us realize that we needed to go back to the drawing board.

b) By again “asking the other question,” we considered more closely some of those moments when Ramphele insisted that gender inequality and sexism were the driving forces behind her development. In contrast to our assumption that racism would be the most salient feature of her life under apartheid, Ramphele continued to reference patriarchal gender relations in order to make sense of her life. Her narrative strategy was instrumental in establishing her special position, something she could more easily accomplish via her gender identity in racially bifurcated South Africa. She did not position herself as a Black woman or as a South African, but rather as a daughter and a sister who had to fight against the men and male-dominated institutions which prevented her from doing what she wanted to do. In this way, she established herself as distinctive: different from her family, friends, colleagues, and comrades.

c) By “asking the other question,” we were able to understand Ramphele’s determination to present herself as an independent-minded woman. Her deep desire to overcome the normative constraints of a woman’s role in society became the grounds for her success as a self-made scholar, an activist, a professional, and a single mother. She focused on the activities that she had accomplished under her own steam (and not, for example, as the lover of the famous Black Power activist Steve Biko) and emphasized repeatedly that it was not only race, the apartheid state, or the Black Consciousness Movement that mattered to how she saw her identity. She demonstrated how different aspects and social positionings in her life became salient at specific moments, depending on the context in which she found herself. Take, for example, her rebellion against the ANC’s prioritizing of the struggle against racism over feminism:

“You can’t have divided freedom. I asked, How am I going to define myself as a free person if I become free as a black person and remain trapped as a woman? There is no way in which my body can be divided between the woman in me and the black person in me. And if you’re going to address my freedom, it’s got to be integrated.”

In this beautiful example of intersectional thinking, she brings gender and race together, making it clear that for her, freedom depends upon both struggles being integrated.

Credit: I.B. Tauris.

How everyday strategies allow us to resist or accommodate power

The method of “asking the other question” enables us to make intersectional sense of Ramphele’s biography by allowing us to critically interrogate our own assumptions and social location, to recognize how our blind spots impede our analysis of the interview, and ultimately to uncover how the interviewee herself provided a complex reconstruction of her life, using an intersectional understanding of gender, race, and other social difference to create a narrative that made sense for her. The use of intersectionality is not restricted to researchers, sociologists, feminists, and critical race scholars; ordinary people use it themselves. Analyzing intersectionality requires that we pay attention to how people position themselves in different contexts and at different moments in their lives. It means acknowledging vulnerabilities which are not equal or similar in every situation and looking at how individuals develop strategies – often with considerable resourcefulness – to cushion or absorb these vulnerabilities. And, most important of all, it involves looking at the everyday strategies people use to resist or accommodate power: strategies that are inevitably more complicated and contradictory than we expect.

[1] This analysis is based on an interview conducted by a colleague, the former civil rights activist and oral historian Mary Marshall Clark, as well as several autobiographies written by Ramphele herself.


Kathy Davis, Free University Amsterdam, Netherlands <k.e.davis@vu.nl>
Helma Lutz, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany <lutz@soz.uni-frankfurt.de>

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