Welcome to our newest PEA Soup Blog Ethics discussion!
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