An Integral Intersectionality

Intersectionality or intersectional theory is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, and is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. The concept is often used in critical theory to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Such a theme of both interconnection and the sense of non-extricability also has home in integral theory.

Integral theory attempts to draw together disparate and individually irreducible paradigms to suggest that the most adequate account of reality is one which haaqals space and means for inclusion of them all. The idea with the axes in this model is that we cannot know the interior, without the exterior, and we cannot know the individual, without the collective, and vice versa in each regard. By setting each axis at right angles we arrive at an account of consciousness which suggests that psychological, biological, cultural and social aspects of any occasion of consciousness are irreducible to each other.

The two approaches thus seem to have some commonalities – there’s a sense that the paradigms in question can’t easily be extricated from each other, and, as a corollary, some way that the paradigms seem to mutually reinforce or influence each other. Integral theory would make no direct reference to systems of oppression, and in fact would claim that development in psychological, biological, cultural and social phenomena actually occurs along an axis that seeks into the conditions of freedom – becoming more complex, and more integrated, along the way.

I’m curious about bringing intersectionality into contact with integral theory in part to find out what happens, in their own intersection. One way to do this is to sense into what happens for each, when the principles of one are made available to another. For example, to bring an intersectional approach to integral theory, there might arise the question of in what way and how, does the biological influence the social, or the psychological place particular emphases on the cultural? What we’re speaking of here perhaps is a mutual interpenetration of these well-defined quadrants – acknowledging not only that the boundary lines connect, as much as they separate, but also that they might not reflect reality – where the social might compound the biological (think about developing alcoholism from social drinking), or negate the psychological (think about how we make an exchange of an orange piece of plastic in material reality equal to a $20 transaction, negating the simple material exchange part and attributing a monetary value to the operation).

What about the potential for an integral encounter with intersectionality? This might invite some consideration of the freedom/oppression duality in concert with first-person, second-person and third-person perspectives, in intersections. What stands to be revealed here is a kind of movement dynamic – in what way do freedom/oppression intersect by virtue of what I do, what you do, and what the situation we inhabit is and does? If some aspect of this freedom/oppression dance is shifted across any of those perspectives, what more becomes possible in subject-to-subject relationships? What can be seen, that couldn’t be seen before, in the space, between us?

Where earlier incarnations of feminism may have emphasised re-vision as functional to the construction of identities (a thinking for example of women in different roles, roles never really socially conceived, before), an integral intersectionality invites a re-cognising – a reflective ground on which thought (or consciousness) may come to encounter itself as thought (or consciousness) and thus know itself a little better. An integral intersectionality seems to imply a kind of double knowing in different ways – a sense of the interior/exterior individual/collective free/oppressed aspects of ourselves, a knowledge of ourselves as self-, and intrinsically, other-constituted. Free, and not free, but not necessarily limited, to any just-one.

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5 thoughts on “An Integral Intersectionality”

  1. Hi Trish
    I am not directly familiar with the terminology of ‘intersectionality’, though I do recognise the general idea well enough! As you might expect, though, I am rather deeply familiar with integral theory and would like to point out that Wilber’s version at least is well able to talk about the meaning of oppression within the general model – especially under the rubric of ‘transcend and exclude, or repress’, where a more powerful capability, person or group rejects, ignores or actively fights against another dimension of the person, other person or group of people seen as ‘other’ and unacceptable for one reason or another. Within a person, this directly causes psychopathology. Withing society, it directly causes oppression and discrimination. An interesting question would be whether intersectionality contributes something to our understanding of oppression that integral theory does not or cannot. I have seen essays which claim this, but they utterly failed to convince me. Any thoughts?
    Cheers
    Keith

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    1. Hi Keith, my sense would be that integral theory does not directly offer an account of how social constructions of different types can interact to form situations of oppression. For my sense of things intersectionality is less about transcend and repress than about how multiple labels may be combined into a system of oppression. To understand how this works for any given person (and to understand the creation of the category And label) demands attentiveness to subject-subject relations, whereas integral would emphasise subject-object relations. Appreciating your mileage may vary.

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      1. Hi Trish
        ‘Subject-subject’ rather than ‘subject-object’? ‘Subject-subject’ would seem to suggest inter-subjectivity, which further brings to mind Habermas’ work on free and open communication as the key to avoiding oppressive relations. Expressions like ‘multiple labels combined into a system of oppression’ are presumably about the use of particular sorts of language without the free consent of some to exclude, harass or discriminate against them. Here there is clearly a lack of free and open communication between the groups involved. Wilber is very much up to speed on this – what are we missing?
        Cheers
        Keith

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      2. Hi Keith,

        You seem very motivated to force-fit new concepts into the rubric of what has already been said in integral theory. This draws some curiosity for me – how does the advent of the new appear, to and for you? Trish

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  2. Hi Trish

    I don’t experience it as anything like ‘force-fitting’. I have just had a little read around on intersectionality – not exactly a new idea, it seems. It appears to be a particular application in feminist theory of the idea that our self-identities – which of course have a close interaction with the various roles that we take or are made to take in society – are made up of numerous elements that need to be taken into account. Nothing very controversial about that, except that intersectionality seems tacitly, or maybe not so tacitly, premised on oppression deriving primarily from multiple differences from a ‘white male norm’. That opens up a can of worms, I think. For me, it is like seeing the world through a lens that is subtly out of focus, as oppression exists in a wide range of forms across all of humanity, many of which have little or nothing to do with white males, and some of which have lots of the latter on the wrong end!

    So as to new things and integral theory, my first impulse would be to see how they relate to integral theory, with the expectation that they are likely to map readily onto it in some fashion. If they don’t, I would next wonder whether they are deficient in some way, and only once I had satisfied myself that they are not would I want to augment the theory with the new insights. Hence my repeated wondering about whether intersectionality truly adds something missing, as I still can’t see that it does. I am open to being convinced about this. It may be that integral theory has not been sufficiently articulated in the appropriate directions. It would be hard to convince me that it does not contain the conceptual materials to be so articulated, however. That would be the truth behind the sense of ‘force-fitting’.
    Cheers
    Keith

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