Welcome to our newest PEA Soup Blog Ethics discussion!

This discussion focuses on Annette Martín‘s recent paper “Intersectionality without fragmentation”. To begin, we will pass things over to Katharine Jenkins for a critical précis.

There are many joys to be found in doing philosophy. One of them is encountering a surprising new claim that, on reflection, leads one to profoundly change one’s mind about something. Another – less often celebrated, perhaps, but no less pleasurable or generative – is encountering a claim that one already believes or that tallies with one’s existing beliefs, but that is framed in a particularly elegant, insightful, and compelling way that opens up further fruitful avenues for exploration. The latter was my experience of reading Annette Martín’s excellent paper ‘Intersectionality Without Fragmentation’ (hereafter, IWF). I have no doubt that for those readers who (unlike me) are not already sympathetic to many of the main claims of the paper,* IWF will indeed provoke many changes of mind. I am also confident that even those who are not ultimately won over to Martín’s view will find much to stimulate their thinking on the important topics of intersectionality and oppression.

So, what is intersectionality, and how might it be thought to lead to some sort of fragmentation?

The concept of intersectionality seeks to capture the ways in which experience of oppression are structured simultaneously by various and (at least apparently) distinct axes or dimensions of oppression. For example, a Black woman who receives substandard medical care during pregnancy and birthing, due to the prejudices of the medical staff with whom she interacts, may be having an experience that cannot be explained by reference only to sexism, only to racism, or even by reference to both racism and sexism considered separately (with racism taken to explain some aspects of the substandard care while sexism explains others). Rather, it may be necessary to appeal to the complex interactions of racism and sexism, for example, to the way that the stereotype of “the angry Black woman” leads staff to label the woman as “a difficult patient”, with a detrimental effect on the care she receives. The concept of intersectionality encourages us to engage in this type of joined-up thinking.

In IWF, Martín sets out to tackle a question that has bedevilled the literature on intersectionality in the thirty-plus years since Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s coining of the term: how can we recognize the phenomenon of intersectionality without becoming committed to a problematic fragmentation of identity categories and types of oppression? If any woman’s experience of oppression that seems to be based on her gender is also at the same time an experience of racism or of racial privilege, of queerphobia or of straight privilege, of disablism or of abled privilege, and so on, then how can we even speak coherently of ‘gender-based oppression’ at all? Doesn’t that notion simply fall apart in our hands, fragmenting into a mosaic of ever-more-specific types of intersectional oppression, until all we are really able to talk about is the experience of specific individuals occupying incredibly precise intersections of many dimensions of social identity? This worry extends to social categories: if there is no common core to women’s social situation, because all women occupy different precise intersections that inflect their experiences, then can we even conceive of women as a social group at all? Moreover, these ontological worries are often (though not universally) thought to lead to political worries, such as the worry that without a significantly unified category of woman or conception of gender-based oppression to take as a focal point, a feminist social movement is impossible and even incoherent.

This challenge of avoiding fragmentation has preoccupied many feminist theorists, as Martín relates. It’s also something that I think comes up very intuitively for many people when they encounter the idea of intersectionality for the first time. I taught a topic on intersectionality the other week in a final-year philosophy module on race and gender, and several students, whilst finding the idea in many respects compelling, were concerned about precisely the possibility of losing our grip on the generality of forms of oppression such as racism and sexism, and of the implications of this for feminist and anti-racist politics.

In IWF, Martín departs from much of the existing literature in focusing on the issue of avoiding the fragmentation of types of oppression, such as gender-based oppression, rather than avoiding the fragmentation of identity categories, such as the category of woman. She argues that we should think of a particular type of oppression as being constituted by a collection of patterns of injustice that is (a) domain-crossing (cropping up in many areas of life, such as work, family relationships, and media representations), (b) interlinking, and (c) robust (difficult to shift). What’s more, each individual pattern must be (d) persistent (ongoing and enduring) and must (e) track a certain ‘Sort’. By ‘Sort’, Martín means ‘an ideological conception of a group or kind’ (228). So, the Sort <woman> has to do with conceptions of women, rather than the actual group of people who are women. A handy illustration of this difference is that ‘vampire’ does not name a genuine social group – there are no actual people who are vampires (sorry, Twilight superfans) – but there is a genuine Sort <vampire>, in virtue of the shared ideas about vampires that are present in our society (that they are undead, that they can be repelled with holy water, and so on). Whilst Sorts are themselves abstract and immaterial, they have material effects because they help to organise our behaviour.

Martín further argues that this account of oppression enables us to accept the insights of intersectionality without losing our grip on gender-based oppression as a distinctive form of oppression (that is, without running into the issue of fragmentation). Individuals who are caught up in the patterns that constitute gender-based oppression are also caught up in the patterns that constitute racial oppression, heterosexist oppression, disablist oppression, and so on. Accordingly, different individuals caught up in the patterns relating to a single Sort can have different experiences of injustice, so long as those experiences all feature in the relevant pattern, and there may be no experience of injustice that all individuals share. Moreover, what it is like overall for an individual to experience a certain type of oppression will depend on all the different Sorts they are associated with. These diverse experiences nevertheless form a collection of patterns that meets the criterion for being a distinctive type of oppression, unified by a Sort, and therefore we have avoided fragmentation.

IWF is striking for the clarity of its exposition as well as the elegance of its argumentation: Martín covers a lot of ground without making anything feel rushed or confusing. This makes the paper very accessible and I’d recommend it as a good entry point to debates about intersectionality and fragmentation. I’m also looking forward to using it in my teaching.

The main question I would like to invite Martín to comment on here concerns Sorts. Martín makes it clear that for her, Sorts play an important ‘unifying role’ (238). She writes, ‘[o]n one level, the schemas that help constitute a Sort, as well as the institutional structures that they help shape, give rise to patterns of injustice that affect individuals associated with that Sort. In this way, Sorts unify the events that make up a particular pattern of injustice.’ (238) Sorts, then, bear a lot of weight in the account. They are, it seems to me, the main reason why Martín can characterize gender-based oppression as a distinctive type of oppression without having to appeal to a unitary definition of woman as a group or kind.

I worry, though, that Sorts may prove a little elusive. Martín allows that Sorts can be implicit in the sense that we can have shared schemas – beliefs, concepts, attitudes, and dispositions – about people with certain features without anyone being aware that this is the case or even having a term to refer to those people as a group. She also allows that Sorts can be implicit in a deeper sense where ‘there are no schemas whose contents are about a particular collection of individuals, and yet there are implications [of existing schemas] for individuals with particular features’ (232, note 57). But if a Sort can exist simply in virtue of there being some people who are systematically impacted by several different schemas or ideologies that don’t include any kind of representations of those people themselves, how does that fit with Martín’s earlier definition of a Sort as ‘a conception of a group or kind’ (p. 229)? In the case of implicit Sorts, is it that there is a conception on the part of the theorist who posits a Sort, based on observing the patterns that are co-ordinated by schemas/ideologies? That wouldn’t seem to give the right result, as it wouldn’t allow that types of oppression can exist before anyone knows about them, which is something Martín does want to allow.

To be clear, I very much want to get on board with the idea of Sorts, as they provide such an elegant and useful way of unifying types of oppression. But in order to have them play this role, we need to be crystal clear on what they are, and I, at least, am not quite there at the moment. I look forward to hearing more from Martín in the discussion about this interesting and innovative piece of theoretical apparatus, and to hearing the thoughts of other readers of this fantastic and valuable paper.

*Reading Mari Mikkola’s excellent book The Wrong of Injustice (2016) already persuaded me that feminist politics does not require a substantive and unified category of woman on which to rest, and my own work on the ontology of social kinds (2019, 2022, 2023) takes an approach to intersectionality that has some significant parallels to the approach Martín develops in IWS with regard to the ontology of types of oppression.

Katharine Jenkins, 04.02.2024

12 Replies to “Annette Martin “Intersectionality Without Fragmentation”. Précis by Katharine Jenkins

  1. To start, I want to thank Katharine for her thoughtful and generous engagement with the paper! You do a lovely job of concisely capturing the main moves, and you raise a great question in pressing me on Sorts. Truth be told, this is a point that I have continued mulling over after finishing this paper. So I don’t know that I will have fully definitive answers here, but I will share where some of my thinking has gone.

    The inspiration for the speculation that there might be Sorts that could be implicit in a more thoroughgoing way– where there isn’t any contents specifically about the category– was inspired by thinking about, say, cases where policy decisions are made with implicit assumptions that people affected are “normal” in some way (e.g. the thought that this will be an “easy walk” for everyone assumes that everyone has a certain level of mobility; or the thought that of course people have photo identification cards assumes that everyone has access to the relevant time and resources). These decisions systematically affect those who deviate from the implicit representation of “normal” being used, but there may not actually be schemas about “the Other.” The Other (or, an Other, since it will be relative to the particular assumptions in play) could then perhaps be implicitly carved out by the negative space of the schemas that are in operation. A kind of anti-Sort Sort might thus be carved out.

    A few thoughts to follow up on this. First, this does suggest that Sorts are perhaps not best characterized as a conception of a group or kind, per se. I think that characterization is a useful entry point into thinking about Sorts, but for this reason among others, I do think it might be too limited. The speculative “anti-Sort” is still a product of the ideology, however, just implicitly so rather than explicitly so. So that is still broadly in keeping with this way of thinking about Sorts as parts of an ideology. A second point I want to flag is just that I wonder whether such “anti-Sorts” are likely to remain wholly implicit, or whether it isn’t likely that there will also be schemas that explicitly give shape and contents to the Sort.

    Another related thought (continuing to put pressure on my own claim in the paper) is that I have been thinking that I should shift from thinking merely about Sorts to thinking more broadly about *Sorting*– to include both Sorts (characterized in this ideologically defined way sketched out in the paper/ above) and institutional processes that target a particular collection of individuals (and which can thereby be thought of as engaging in a kind of Sorting process), but where the targeted group does not match up with any pre-existing Sort. For instance, my mind always goes back to Haslanger’s (2004) example of a company that decides to implement drug testing for a subset of employees, and thereby creates a division that was not meaningful before that policy decision. If this kind of institutional process were sufficiently widespread and systematic, then it could give rise to oppression in the absence of the existence of an ideological Sort. (Though, as suggested above, I suspect it is likely to also give rise to a Sort over time.)

    In short, I have not fully decided how to pin this all down, but I think I want to expand the characterization given in the paper. I think I may want to shift to centering the idea of Sorting, which often occurs through these ideological Sorts, or leads to the development of these ideological Sorts, but can also include implicit and/or institutional Sorting.

    Thank you for pressing me on this, Katharine! It is so useful to have a space to write out some of these thoughts I have been mulling over since writing the paper.

  2. Thanks so much for this illuminating response, Annette! I love the idea of focusing more on ‘Sorting’. (And fwiw I agree that Sorts are likely to be swift to emerge in practice when you get this kind of institutional process going on.) When I was first pondering the paper I had been even tempted to ask if we can cut out the middle-man and simply identify types of oppression based purely on the nature of the patterns themselves, without invoking Sorts, at least in a definitional role. I have baggage to declare here, though, in the form of my own account of the metaphysics of intersectionality in relation to social kinds (2022, 2023) where I did something along these lines. And I think that approach, while OK as far as it goes, leaves a lot out of the picture about how all of this actually happens, and could for that reason be seen as unsatisfying. I’m now wondering whether a focus on ‘Sorting’ as a process might be something of a happy medium… lots to think about!

    I also had one final question for you that didn’t make the precis. Feel free to ignore it if it isn’t interesting! I came away from the paper less than fully clear about whether your contribution is better framed as enabling us to understand ‘gender oppression’ or ‘the oppression of women’ (or, equivalently to the latter, ‘women’s oppression’). You talk mostly about ‘gender oppression’ and ‘gender-based oppression’, but the account itself seems to individuate oppressions by Sorts and the main Sort you talk about is . So the structure of the account as given in general/schematic terms plus the examples you use seems to point more towards it being a theory of ‘women’s oppression’. And doesn’t seem like it would fit in as a Sort (is that right?). So I just wondered if you had any thoughts about this point? Like I say, no worries if not!

    Thanks again for a brilliant paper, I so enjoyed thinking about it and will continue to do so (both to think and to enjoy), I am sure!

  3. Oh, weird, looks like my text in angle brackets vanished! In the second paragraph that should be ‘… and the main Sort you talk about is [woman].’ and then later ‘And [gender] doesn’t seem like it would fit…’

  4. I’m glad to hear that focusing more on Sorting sounds promising to you, Katharine! I do think it’s helpful to keep the ideological Sorts around for a more concrete picture of how the Sorting can happen, as you suggest.

    To address your other question, I did find it tricky to determine how to best talk about this. I shy away from “women’s oppression”/ “the oppression of women” because of debates about how we should use the word “woman”, and because I don’t think that the set of those affected by [woman]-oppression (i.e. oppression tracking the Sort [woman]) maps neatly onto the set of people that we should describe as women. That is why I opt for “gender oppression,” but that’s not perfect either if you think there are other forms of oppression tracking other gender Sorts besides [woman]. I think more accurate might just be “[woman]-oppression” (which I think will be an instance of gender oppression or gender-based oppression). I hope that helps.

  5. Thanks Annette, for a great paper! It’s really cool to see how you’ve developed these ideas.

    I have a question that follows up on, and maybe presses a bit further, Katherine’s question about Sorting versus Sorts. As I was reading the paper, I was pondering how a Sort differs from a social group, and what would be lost if the concept of a ‘social group’ were substituted for that of a ‘Sort.’ You write that a Sort is a “conception of a group” (229) that guides action and structural mechanisms, such that Sorts gain a measure of social reality. I understood that you wanted to focus on the social processes through which classification occurs in the first place, and avoid ‘social group’-talk that might ontologically fixes these processes.

    One question that came out of this for me was whether you think the process of Sorting itself is oppressive, or that what is oppressive are patterns that track pre-existing Sorts (I am thinking, for instance, of the Marxist idea that it is the social construction of classes of proletariat and bourgeoisie that is the problem, not the way those classes are treated). Or perhaps this isn’t a meaningful distinction for you? I would be interested to hear more!

  6. Thank you to Annette Martín for this illuminating and rich paper, and to Katharine Jenkins for the helpful commentary. I so look forward to teaching this paper.

    First – thanks for the Sorts! They are a helpful piece of conceptual apparatus, applicable to a range of debates. For example, armed with a notion of Sort as distinct from Group, one could diagnose the apparent failure of entirely socially-oriented accounts of gender as grounded in the fact that such views conflate Sort with Group. The Sort is something like the conception of a group (though see helpful clarification in the discussion here), and thereby the primary mechanism for social construction, the source of oppressive double binds, and so on. The group is related to the Sort but distinct from it, so any view that conflates the two is missing something significant.

    The fact that Sorts can be incoherent is a particularly valuable feature. Indeed, given their centrality to oppression, I suspect that this incoherence is the source of the contradictory double binds characteristic of oppression. Sorts may *need* to be incoherent to play a central role in oppression.

    So, overall, here’s to Sorts!

    However, I worry that a version of a classic fragmentation concern re-appears at the level of Sorts. This arose in response to discussion of sub-Sorts on pg 235. We are asked to consider the racist pattern of touching someone’s hair without permission.
    The author notes:
    “First, the account allows that this pattern could be distinctive to and still help constitute the oppressive kind that tracks , insofar as it is persistent and tracks features associated with . Second, the account allows that this pattern may simultaneously help constitute multiple oppressive kinds—including one that tracks and one that tracks .” (pg 235)

    How can the first clause can be met given that this pattern is also distinctive to and not merely to ? Does this not preclude the pattern persistently tracking features associated with given that it will equally (perhaps, that’s an empirical claim, but perfectly possible) persistently track features associated with ? Perhaps this is simply a worry about the empirical facts about this particular case, rather than a concern about the view itself. But I worry that this case reveals something about the framework – a difficulty in incorporating a pattern associated with overlapping sorts (, ), rather than nested sorts (, (Black women>). Any thoughts welcome on how to resolve this concern!

  7. Apologies for some formatting issues in my comment above. All of the Sorts are missing because of how I formatted them! I will repost with different formatting below.

  8. Here is the second half of my comment above, re-formatted to include the missing mentions of Sorts (here listed in curly brackets):

    However, I worry that a version of a classic fragmentation concern re-appears at the level of Sorts. This arose in response to discussion of sub-Sorts on pg 235. We are asked to consider the pattern of touching someone’s hair without permission, which tracks {Black Women}.
    The author follows:
    First, the account allows that this pattern could be distinctive to {Black women} and still help constitute the oppressive kind that tracks {women}, insofar as it is persistent and tracks features associated with {women}. Second, the account allows that this pattern may simultaneously help constitute multiple oppressive kinds—including one that tracks {women} and one that tracks {Black women}.
    How can the first clause can be met given that this pattern is also distinctive to {Black people} and not merely to {Black women}? Does this not preclude the pattern persistently tracking features associated with given that it will equally (perhaps, that’s an empirical claim) persistently track features associated with {men}? Perhaps this is simply a worry about the empirical facts about this particular case, rather than a concern about the view itself. But I worry that it reveals some difficulty in incorporating a pattern associated with overlapping sorts ({women}, {Black people}), rather than nested sorts ({women}, {Black women}). Any thoughts welcome on how to resolve this concern!

  9. Thanks for these questions, Laura!

    As you know, I am still working on fully articulating why I think the shift from thinking about social groups to Sorts/ Sorting is significant. For one, I think it is significant in a context where essentializing assumptions (broadly construed) about social groups are prevalent– that is, where it is often assumed that there needs to be some substantive unifying feature or relation in order for there to be a group “woman.” In contrast, on the Sort picture, it could be that the only thing that all those individuals share is that they are Sorted as women in some context(s); there doesn’t need to be anything that they share in order for them to be Sorted as women. Now you could instead have a very thin conception of social groups where any set of individuals can be considered a group; that’s a lot closer to my conception of Sorts, in lacking those essentializing assumptions.
    But, going back to some of the exchange with Katharine, I think bringing in Sorts/Sorting gives some insight into how substantive contents or meaning gets layered onto these ontologically thin sets of individuals. So I think framing it in terms of Sorts simultaneously gives us a an ontologically thin picture (there is or need not be anything substantive these individuals share), and a thick picture (roughly, here is how this ontologically thin object becomes layered with meaning and comes to appear thick, because the ideology applies all of these schemas to it; or, in thinking about the more institutional processes, here is how this ontologically thin object can nonetheless can do a lot of work, because institutions systematically act upon these thin divisions).

    So, I think part of it is that there’s just a lot of metaphysical baggage that comes with talk of social groups and how we conceptualize social groups. And I think this picture of Sorts/Sorting can help us to understand how it is that we can have widespread, patterned, robust patterns of injustice without needing to rely on some thick notion of a social group.

    In terms of whether I think Sorting itself is oppressive or it’s merely the effects that are oppressive, I think that there can be a problem with the Sorting itself– for example, if that involves applying derogatory schemas to someone, or imposing unjustified norms/expectations. I am not sure that Sorts/Sorting itself will always be a problem– it seems there could be social divisions that aren’t hierarchical, or where there isn’t any objectionable contents that helps constitute the Sort. (For the record, I do feel the echoes of a normativity problem lingering in the background, where one might worry that Sorts will always end up being normative/ exclusionary– I am not sure if that’s the case.)

  10. Thank you, Elanor, for both parts of your comment! I particularly appreciate that the first part of your comment helped me think more about how to respond to Laura’s question.

    Since it took me a moment to understand the worry, I will try to restate it: I take the worry to be that the hair-touching pattern is actually tracking racial Sorts, not gender Sorts– that is, it is tracking {Black people} more generally, and so it can’t be tracking features associated with {women} specifically (because if it were, then that would cut out {Black men}). If I am getting that right, then I think, as you suggest, that there is an empirical question here about who/what the pattern in this example actually tracks, and this may turn out not to be the best example. (At one point I had a footnote addressing this empirical question about the example, but I can’t find it now, so it may have gotten cut for length reasons at some stage.)

    But, apart from the persisting empirical question, I also want to point out/make room for the possibility that there could be overlapping Sorts/schemas at play here. For instance, it could be that schemas associated with both {Black people} as well as schemas specifically associated with {Black women} play a role in giving rise to this pattern. This could lead to Black women being more likely to have this kind of experience, or to have this experience take particular forms, (and this could explain why, in my experience at least, I often hear this kind of example discussed in the context of Black women, though I don’t think it is exclusive to Black women.) If that is right, then the pattern could help constitute oppressive kinds tracking {women}, {Black women}, and {Black people}. But there is still be an empirical question as to which schemas are actually playing a role in giving rise to these patterns, and that would make a difference as to which oppressive kinds the patterns help constitute.

  11. Thanks Annette! That was indeed my concern (apologies again for the mess with the text). And this answer made the overall picture much clearer to me.

Comments are closed.