Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Life, Science, and their Many Intersections

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality

Anyone who closely follows academic innovations or social activism has probably heard the term “intersectionality” thrown around recently. But like many authors writing for the already well-informed, these sources generally don’t define that term. That leaves us uninitiated, merely interested audiences struggling to derive its meaning, usually from context or etymology. This has created no shortage of confusion and flagrant misuse of the term. Or is that just me?

Professors Collins and Bilge, of the University of Maryland and the Université de Montréal respectively, strive to overcome this neglect. They define intersectionality as a heuristic (another term scholars toss around indiscriminately) linking different influences that shape individuals and communities. This may include geography, religion, and learning. For our purposes, however, Collins and Bilge focus on the most readily quantifiable: the classic race/gender/class troika.

As an introduction to a philosophical concept, this book rapidly telescopes between global discursion on (putatively) universal notions, and narrow, applied examples. In the first chapter, for instance, after laying out the terms of discussion, our authors address the multiple layers of social inequality exposed by the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. How do we discuss racism, for instance, in a country that doesn't track race, where race officially no longer exists? How do we discuss working-class issues in a country with widespread poverty, where Pope Francis’ influences have recently muddled the Catholic Church's historical anti-communism? The overlap of issues creates a massive intersectional maze that makes discussion more complex, but more meaningful.

(I think the authors miss a wonderful opportunity. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto writes, the notorious Brazilian favelas host a vast off-the-books parallel economy that in some ways mirrors, and in other ways remedies, the inequalities of the official economy. But authors, of course, have to make choices.)

Professors Patricia Hill Collins (left) and Sirma Bilge

Our authors often use terms in a very self-reflective or “meta” manner that readers will absorb more through osmosis than reason. “Intersectionality as a form of critical praxis,” they write, “refers to the ways in which people, either as individuals or ad part of groups, produce, draw upon, or use intersectional frameworks in their daily lives.” Notice how the definition contains the word it seeks to define? Your Freshman Comp professor would’ve graded you down for this, but it’s common in scholarly writing.

Therefore, once Collins and Bilge establish the terms, their reasoning may seem superficially circular. One doesn’t so much receive their writing like information, as contemplate it like a Zen koan. As a heuristic, that is, as a semi-guided experimental approach to learning, intersectionality invites us to perceive a world outside our usual individual experience. It isn’t a research method, so much as an invitation to get lost in someone else’s world. Who could resist?

Like most scholarly writing, this book makes its most important points in the early chapters, then spends the remaining pages explaining, clarifying, and sharpening how those points apply. Less committed readers could dip casually into the first sixty or so pages, get the general thesis, and move on. Admittedly, after that range, the writing gets somewhat abstruse and pointy-headed. Though I consider myself a minor scholar, I found the latter chapters rather slow, difficult reading.

However, that doesn't mean the later chapters aren't worth reading. As Collins and Bilge consider the applications of intersectionality to education or public protest, not exactly fun bedtime reading, I felt the discussion challenging my outlook on areas I assumed I understood pretty well. As a sometime educator, I’ve struggled with how race, sex, and economic standing have influenced my students’ learning capabilities. The intersections of these forces, though, often remain invisible until someone calls our attention to them.

Thus, these authors have a somewhat self-selecting audience. Readers who embrace difficult reading, hoping to see their worldview changed, will find plenty to love between these covers. Running barely 200 pages plus back matter, this book’s fairly standard length for academic writing. Though readers should expect to make slow progress, that progress remains consistently meaningful and transformative.

This book is part of the “Key Concepts” series from Polity Books. Over the last few years, I’ve reviewed several Polity titles, in categories ranging from politics and current events, to history, to philosophy. Polity may be the best, most influential publisher you’ve never heard of. I have not agreed with every Polity title I’ve reviewed, and a few have pushed me into awkward positions as a critic. But they’ve always pushed me. Polity titles always leave me a better, quicker, more refined thinker.

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