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Intersectionality: what is it, and what can it be?

Intersectionality involves making a conceptual distinction between gender and/or sexuality and something else - social class, ethnicity, age, geographical region, religion, (dis)ability - and looking at relationships (‘intersections’) between the different concepts. Our understanding of identity tells us that intersectionality – in some sense – is crucial in the study of language, gender and sexuality. It has become a truism to see identity as multiple. And although one aspect of a given person’s identity - say, ethnicity – may either be experienced as most relevant, or be made particularly relevant by someone else, it is very hard to see the role of any aspect of our identity not being somehow shaped by or filtered through another. This necessarily places limits on generalisations about ‘women’, ‘men’, boys’ or ‘girls’. As Deborah Cameron points out, “The first question that needs to be asked about any statement that ‘men do so-and-so and women do such-and-such’ is ‘which men and women?’ Are we talking about David Beckham or the Archbishop of Canterbury? Ann Widdecombe or Madonna?”[1] The other side (or is it the same side?) of this coin is the importance of diversity - among women and among men, but also among, say, working class women, and working class men in any given cultural context.

Intersectionality has always been part of any sociolinguistic variationist study worth its salt (Labov, 1966). Lesley Milroy (1980) for example famously looked at the pronunciation of women from different areas of Belfast (gender and geographical region) and related this to employment, network density and multiplexity. However, ideologically, this is not a simple or socially neutral matter of combining social variable/identity A with social variable/identity B in a given study or analysis. Elizabeth Spelman (1988) referred to the ‘ampersand problem’ in a specific warning to feminists not to ignore gender and social class. This is important politically: it is highly likely, for example, that (Western) middle class women have on the whole benefitted from the (Western) women’s movement more than have working class women. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989, 1991) focussed on race: “The problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure ... the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (1989: 40). And here it becomes interesting: Crenshaw is not talking about ethnicity and gender, but racism and sexism: a complex system of experienced power/oppression. As Michelle Lazar writes:

Even though women as a social category are structurally disadvantaged in the patriarchal gender order, the intersection of gender with other systems of power based on race, social class, sexuality and so on means that gender oppression is neither materially experienced nor discursively enacted in the same way for women everywhere. (2014: 189; my italics)

Appropriately, this understanding of intersectionality does not assume equal political or epistemological status for the systems of power in question: for Crenshaw, racism predominates; in a study of intersectionality by Block and Corona (2014), the main concern was the oppression of the social class system.

I conclude by considering the extension of intersectionality to representation (as opposed to naturally-occurring/scripted talk or other social behaviour). With reference to a set of song lyrics, Crenshaw wrote: “ ‘representational intersectionality’ would include both the ways in which these images are produced through a confluence of prevalent narratives of race and gender, as well as a recognition of how contemporary critiques of racist and sexist representation marginalise women of colour” (1991: 1282-3). In our work on young children’s picturebooks featuring same-sex parents, in which we considered multimodality as well as written text, Mark McGlashan and I (2012, 2013) identified sexism (in terms of differential representations of female and male parents), but not heterosexism (although, perhaps inevitably, homonormativity). Here, then, representations of sexism (a system of oppression) intersected with those of sexuality (an identity or social variable). So it may be that we do not need to be absolute here: looking at intersectionality in terms of systems of oppression may be more powerful and socially relevant than looking at it in terms of social identities/variables, but looking at the intersection of one system of oppression with one social identity/variable may be better than not looking at a system of oppression at all (see also Sunderland 2016).

email j dot sunderland at lancaster dot ac doc uk


Block, David and Corona, Victor (2014) ‘Exploring class-based intersectionality’. 27(1): 27-42.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989) ‘Demarginalising the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.’ : 139-167.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.’ 43(6): 1241-1299.

Labov, William (1966) . Washington D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Lazar, Michelle (2014) ‘Feminist critical discourse analysis: relevance for current gender and language research.’ In (2nd edn., eds. Susan Ehrlich, Miriam Meyerhoff and Janet Holmes). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 180-199.

Milroy, Lesley (1980) Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Blackwell.

Spelman, Elizabeth (1988) Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sunderland, Jane (2016) ‘Similarities and distinctions in gender and language study’. In Shifting Visions: Gender and Discourses (ed. Allyson Jule). Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 5-26.

Sunderland, Jane and McGlashan, Mark (2012) ‘The linguistic, visual and multimodal representation of two-mum and two-dad families in children’s picturebooks.’ Language and Literature 21(2): 189-210.

Sunderland, Jane and McGlashan, Mark (2013) ‘Looking at picturebook covers multimodally: the case of two-mum and two-dad picturebooks.’ Journal of Visual Communication 12(4): 473-496.

[1] (accessed June 5 2016)

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