Book Review: Complexifying Understandings of People through Intersectionality
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
Thomas Moeller, Editor
Intersectionality: Concepts, Perspectives and Challenges
New York: Nova Science Publishers
2020 pp. 1 – 140
For a democracy to thrive in a pluralistic society, the pathways to opportunities should be open to all equally, with level playing fields and mitigations against stereotyping and exclusion. This should especially be so in institutions of higher education, which can be the differences not only for individual lives but for societies as a whole. There are benefits to including creative and divergent thinkers and doers. One step in this direction is to better understand social relationships in society, including problem areas that may need attention.
Thomas Moeller’s Intersectionality: Concepts, Perspectives and Challenges (2020) is comprised of three works surround the issue of “intersectionality,” as a way of understanding people’s complex identities and embodied experiences and their social statuses (or its lack) in contemporary societies. As a term, “intersectionality” is a highly contested one.
Intersectionality, as a framework, refers to “how aspects of one’s social and political identities (e.g., gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, etc.) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination” (“Intersectionality,” Feb. 15, 2020); the insights from this approach are used to help address combined discriminatory injustices, given the real-world complexities of human interrelationships.
This concept is mostly applied in qualitative research, perhaps from a “critique” (feminist school, Marxist school) perspective of social orders (past, present, and future). This is a term that carries political weight, with implications of social fairness and justice, idealisms with real-world effects. Such critiques hold a mirror to people’s social norms and practices to focus on what may not be seeable otherwise. Societal oppressions based on people’s mix of marginalized identities can hold them back from opportunities to learn, to advance careers, to create satisfactory personal lives, and other endeavors. These require concerted efforts to address in order to empower every individual.
Some 31 years ago, this term was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw in discussing the oppression of African-American women. While “intersectionality” has been common tender in some academic contexts for years, it has only been recently that the general public has been “read into” its meanings and implications. This term was rediscovered more broadly when the Oxford English Dictionary included it in 2015, and then again when it was used in the 2017 Women’s March. It has since been at the center of the so-called “intersectionality wars” based on adversarial cultural stances (Coaston, May 28, 2019). In a recent Q+A in Time Magazine, Crenshaw elaborated on what intersectionality means:
These days, I start with what it's not, because there has been distortion. It's not identity politics on steroids. It is not a mechanism to turn white men into the new pariahs. It's basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What's often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts. (Steinmetz, Mar. 2 - 9, 2020, p. 82).
In this interview, she goes on to discuss political implications and the importance of "self-interrogation...(as) a good place to start."
Intersectional STEM Students Transitioning from HBCU to a Diverse Urban University
David M. Sparks, Kathryn Pole, and Jason Denhartog’s “’I’m Representing All Black People’: A Case Study of the Intersectional Experiences of STEM Students Transferring from an HBCU to a Diverse Urban University” (Ch. 1) privileges qualitative research methods by following two individuals, one male and one female, from Historically Black College and University (HBCU) as they transition to a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) [and a Minority Serving Institution (MSI) and a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS)] for graduate studies in biochemistry. Both learners were scholars in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which “paid a significant portion of their graduate school tuition and provided feedback and mentoring…(and) programming in responsible conduct of research, expectations and goal setting in graduate study, accessing internal and external financial as well as social resources, proposal writing, effective teaching practices, learning to be an effective mentor, professional communication and preparation for conferences, networking, and writing their dissertation (if they choose to continue their doctoral studies)” (Sparks, Pole, & Denhartog, 2020, p. 7). The research is based on face-to-face semi-structured interviews and a focus group, with the resulting transcripts analyzed through thematic analysis.
While the university itself is “14% Black, 26% Latino, .3% Native American, 38% White, 12% Asian, and 9.7% International and other,” the particular Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s students have “a general lack of diversity for both faculty and graduate students, specifically in Latino and African American populations” (Sparks, Pole, & Denhartog, 2020, p. 2). The researchers suggest that in HBCUs, African-American students “are immersed in communities of like-minded Africans and African Americans who are peers, faculty, and mentors” with “monocultures” (p. 3). Transitioning away from that context requires them to resolve the need to be a part of the community on the one hand and the need to be in “control over their decision of whether or not to interact with the dominant group” on the other (p. 3). The new learning spaces, with focuses on self-efficacy, may feel unwelcoming, unsupportive, and even “overtly hostile” because of the cultural differences (p. 5).
The co-authors observe some intersectional dynamics in the assignment of the graduate advisor, to whom both learners are assigned.
While the advisor matches Dania’s identity in two specific attributes (African-American and female), she does not specifically match Donald’s identity (African-American and male). Although he speaks highly of the advisor, it is possible that he is lacking the connection of a mentor that matches his identity specifically as an African-American male. We also see that both students recognize the differences they have with African international students, as well as the struggles they face trying to understand the variations of diversity inherent in STEM programs at this Predominantly White Institution (PWI). (Sparks, Pole, & Denhartog, 2020, p. 9)
The pressure to always “represent” for particular minority identities puts undue pressure on these learners. The more rigorous curriculum exposed some of the deficiencies in the prior learning (Sparks, Pole, & Denhartog, 2020, p. 10). The larger learning environment exposes both learners to a wider diversity of cultures (including those of international students), leading to an expanded appreciation for differences (and similarities). One of the students “Dania” (a pseudonym) observes some racial tensions among the faculty, especially a lack of support for the lone Black female professor in the department (p. 13). How demanding and technical the field is may prevent those who need to focus on survival from focusing on the necessary learning groundwork to succeed in chemistry and biochemistry. “Dania” also pointed to the pressure to simultaneously also focus on getting married and having a family during her studies, as a woman (p. 14). Both point to the importance of having representation of professionals of different backgrounds in the field as role models, mentorship, job shadowing, tours, and other efforts (p. 14). “Donald” observes “a lack of intersectional representation of African American males in STEM” in the receiving university (p. 16). [“STEM” refers to “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields.]
This case study focuses on the lived experiences of two learners sharing their lived experiences and respective humanity. Both speak to hard truths about the challenges of their paths, which resonate with truth and the reality of hardship and sometimes loneliness for most high achievement. The co-authors suggest the responsibility of learners to adapt but also for university STEM departments to make “African-American students feel welcome and help them successfully integrate into this subculture, a process I call domain acculturation” (Sparks, Pole, & Denhartog, 2020, p. 17), to lower learner anxieties.
How can learners deal with negative stereotypes (that may affect their learning performance)? How can “intersectional adaptation theory” (Sparks, 2018, as cited in Sparks, Pole, & Denhartog, 2020, p. 18) help learners adapt to STEM culture? How can the intersectionalities of race and gender be considered more deeply in STEM fields? How can the nurturance of HBCUs be extended to other academic contexts, to help learners continue their learning trajectories and to help them become professionals in challenging fields?
Bisexual Latinx Women in the Intersectional Minority Stress Model
Intersectionality is about “navigating multiple marginalized identities,” such as that of “bisexual Latinx experiences,” which involves “multiple identity integration” as studied in Dumayi Maria Gutierrez’s “I’m Not Going to Choose a Side Hermana: Adding Voices of Bisexual Latinx Women to an Intersectional Minority Stress Model” (Ch. 2). Social exclusion of the marginalized is seen to have negative health outcomes including “higher negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety, mood disorders, depression and suicide attempts” (Bostwick, Boyd, Hughes, & McCabe, 2010; Cochran, Mays, Alegria, Ortega, & Tekeuchi, 2007, as cited in Gutierrez, 2020, p. 28).
The Minority Stress Model suggests that those who identify with a minority sexual identity may experience various stressors, which include
…distal stress (objective stress that is influenced by social relationships such as discrimination and prejudice), proximal stress (subjective intrapersonal stress such as internalized heterosexism, expectations of rejection and concealment), ameliorating factors (coping resources and social support), and mental health outcomes” (Meyer, 2003, as cited in Gutierrez, 2020, p. 29).
Lesbian identity as one dimension fails to capture the multidimensionality of bisexual Latinx women, suggests the author, so the present work offers a more complex real-world dimensionality in its approach. The Latin American cultural context has as a central part the Roman Catholic faith, which is “a source of tension for Latinx with sexually marginalized identities” (Garcia, Gray-Stanley, & Ramirez-Valles, 2008, as cited in Gutierrez, 2020, p. 30), such as from social rejection and non-affirmation. The core importance of family (as social supports) can be another challenge, with some pulling away or being “manipulative and controlling to protect traditional family values” (p. 32). Gender can be another challenge: “Latinx women historically hold a subdued position within Latinx culture through labor, unequal earning, child bearing, earning potential and lack of economic independence” (Acosta, 2010) with prevalent “culturally sanctioned gender roles, called marianismo (Miranda, Bilot, Peluso, Berman, & Van Meek, 2006, as cited in Gutierrez, 2020, p. 32). According to various research, the bisexuality may be seen as “a threat to feminism and resistance to oppressional systemic patriarchy, resulting in high tension with the bisexual community,” confusion or greed, over-eroticization, and sexual availability (Gutierrez, 2020, p. 33).
This study involved semi-structured interviews with ten “self-identified bisexual cis-gender women between the ages of 18 and 35 years old”; as Latinx, they identified as Mexican, Dominican, Mexican/Dominican, and Venezuelan” (Gutierrez, 2020, p. 34). They were recruited through convenience and snowball sampling. Four main themes emerged: (a) Proximal Stress: Concealment Among Family, (b) Distal Stress: Gender Discrimination; (c) Distal Stress: Religiosity, and (d) Ameliorative Factor: Religious Identity” (Gutierrez, 2020, pp. 27-28). This work includes some of their direct quotes, which add color and richness to their experiences. They talk about the stresses of concealing aspects of themselves to the world, of a sense of invisibility and lack of social recognition, and the disparity between sacred religious values and practices and their own contexts. For many of the subjects, they chose to move away from their respective religious upbringings and religious cultures.
A core idea is that people want to be treated as holistic individuals and not to be stereotyped by a dimension or combined dimensions.
Figure 1. Intersectionality Visual
Modeling Intersectionality through Population Health Data in Argentina
Matias S. Ballesteros and Mercedes Krause’s “Adding Interactions in Order to Model Intersectionality: An Empirical Study on Self-Perceived Health Status in Argentina” (Ch. 3) opens with the observation that intersectionality originated from feminist debates around gender…and other dimensions of identity. The co-authors suggest that intersectionality has achieved “hegemonic status” in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with incorporation into qualitative studies and research methodologies “deemed to be best suited to address the complexity which lies within (e.g., ethnography, deconstruction , genealogy, ethnomethodology and case studies)” (Ballesteros & Krause, 2020, p. 55). Of late, the various quantitative approaches have been emerging within this framework in population health research, including multivariate analysis with logistic regression models and “additive models from multiple linear regressions, where different ‘levels of intersectionality’ are included in different steps of the regression” (p. 56).
This particular work involves the analysis of the data of National Survey of Risk Factors (2013) by the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses and the National Ministry of Health in Argentina to study “the effect of different sociodemographic and geographical variables on self-perceived health status” with interactions between “gender and educational level, between gender and the income quintile and between gender and the age group” (various intersectionalities) (Ballesteros & Krause, 2020, p. 56). This empirical analysis of health inequalities of adults in urban Argentina involves both learning about the population health attitudes of the population but also methods for applying quantitative methods to intersectionality-framed studies.
The coauthors lay effective groundwork for their research. They suggest that the inherent “ambiguity and open nature” of intersectionality enables room for quantitative methods and various models of analysis, including emergent statistical analysis methods (Ballesteros & Krause, 2020, p. 58). They point to the importance of using social categories of people (race, age, class, etc.) and their interaction effects to evoke the intersectionality framework.
Using bivariate and trivariate tables, the researchers summarize their findings. Clear health inequalities may be seen based on population dimensions. Some of their findings echo common patterns: “…the highest percentages of the population with excellent or very good self-perceived health status are among those who have completed higher education (52.6%), among members of households in the 5th income quintile (48.6%), among people who reside in Buenos Aires City (46.1%), among men (38.5%) and among those who belong to the youngest age group (53.1%). On the contrary, the level of excellent or very good self-perceived health status is low among households in the 1st. (sic) quintile of income (27.3%) among the population that completed less than elementary school (16.7%), among women (33.6%) and among people aged 65 and older (16.6%).” (Ballesteros & Krause, 2020, p. 63)
They found spatialized health inequalities in some of the poorer regions of the country [“…residents of the Northeast (28.7%), of Buenos Aires suburban area (30.0%) and of the Northwest (31.5%) have lower levels of self-perceived health status than residents of other regions” (Ballesteros & Krause, 2020, p. 64)]. Then, in following models, the researchers analyze interaction effects between various demographic factors and self-perceived health status, with nuanced insights. For example, being a woman in the first quintile (poorest fifth of the country’s population) carries additional health burdens. Gender differences for those 65 and older are not statistically significant once the effects of the other variables have been controlled for as compared to those in other age groups.
The authors explain the intersectional implications of their work and make a cogent case for this approach.
In short, by applying an intersectional approach to the analysis of health inequities, we followed the international recommendations to no longer understand the population’s health as crossed by independent axes of inequality: for example, women’s health, educated people’s health or low-income sectors’ health. On the contrary, the development of intersectionality in the field of population health aims to understand that gender—as well as any other system of inequality—should not be separated from others since these are coproduced at the macrostructural level and they are simultaneously experienced at the microsocial level. In this chapter, we verified that gender inequalities in the self-perception of health status are broadened in sectors with lower economic and educational resources; and are also less significant for the older population. This probably occurs because gender is ‘created’ in different contexts…according to factors linked to many aspects of life: e.g., the labor market, the distribution of domestic tasks and caregiving work at home, as well as psychosocial factors and cultural stereotypes, etc. (Ballesteros & Krause, 2020, pp. 71 - 72)
After this work, there is a long bibliography from p. 72 to the book’s index; the bibliography feels like filler material. There is no epilogue.
Thomas Moeller’s Intersectionality: Concepts, Perspectives and Challenges (2020) may seem like a sparse work, with only three works, but the contributions are surprisingly enriched.
David M. Sparks, Kathryn Pole, and Jason Denhartog’s “’I’m Representing All Black People’: A Case Study of the Intersectional Experiences of STEM Students Transferring from an HBCU to a Diverse Urban University” (Ch. 1) depicts a world with macro and micro cultures and stresses as students move between each in critical transitions for their learning, careers, personal identities, and ultimate wellbeing.
Dumayi Maria Gutierrez’s “I’m Not Going to Choose a Side Hermana: Adding Voices of Bisexual Latinx Women to an Intersectional Minority Stress Model” (Ch. 2) suggests something of the complexities of being bisexual and racially minority in a conservative culture. This work makes the case for the need for understanding and empathy.
Matias S. Ballesteros and Mercedes Krause’s “Adding Interactions in Order to Model Intersectionality: An Empirical Study on Self-Perceived Health Status in Argentina” (Ch. 3) offers a fresh approach to research and analytics based on quant-based intersectionality; this work also suggest potentially different ways of approaching health interventions to improve health outcomes for a thin-sliced population and closer on-ground understandings of peoples and their lived experiences through intersectionality.
Humans are complex beings, and triply so with the overlays of socialization and cultural dimensions. Social identities are constantly evolving along with societies, and engaging these with empirical knowledge can be powerful in building more equitable and just and inclusive societies, for the benefit of all.
Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars: When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term 30 years ago, it was a relatively obscure legal concept. Then it went viral. Vox. Retrieved Feb. 17, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination?__c=1.
Intersectionality. (2020, Feb. 15). Wikipedia. Retrieved Feb. 17, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality.
Steinmetz, K. (2020, Mar. 2 - 9). Q+A: Kimberlé Crenshaw.... Time Magazine. 82.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks! A review copy of this book (watermarked .pdf file) was provided to the reviewer by Nova Science Publishers.
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