Introduction to Spotlighting interpretive approaches to public policy scholarship

Stephanie PatersonProfessor Stephanie Paterson

Professor Stephanie Paterson, one of the curators of our blog series spotlighting interpretive approaches to the study of policy and politics, explains our motivations behind the series and expands on the study of intersectionality from within critical policy studies…

Critical policy studies envelopes diverse approaches to the study of public policy, spanning institutionalist, materialist, and discursive approaches. A common feature, however, is their attention to power and commitment to social change.

Within this broad family of scholarship is intersectionality, a research paradigm originating within Black feminism that aims to expose and interrogate the intersectional or interlocking systems of oppression that shape lived experiences. Intersectionality has a long history that is rooted in Black feminist experience and thought (Bilge 2014; Hancock 2016). The paradigm began to take shape in the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), which identified an “integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” From this, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) articulated the concept of intersectionality with reference to the metaphor of a traffic intersection (see Hancock 2016 for an overview).

Since its naming, intersectionality has transformed academic and activist circles with widespread applications and implications for research and policy. In its current usage, Crenshaw (2015) suggests that “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.” As such, despite a variety of applications and approaches, the paradigm emphasizes standpoint, relationality, visibility and invisibility, and categorical messiness (Jiwani 2019; see also Hancock 2007). Thus, intersectionality is not a merely theory of identity, but rather one of power and oppression (Carastathis 2016).

Power and oppression are nicely captured by Crenshaw’s (1989) “companion metaphor” of the basement (Carastathis 2016, ch 2), in which “lines of power are imagined vertically rather than horizontally” (Carastathis 2016, location 1855). As Crenshaw (1989, 151-52) explains, the metaphor envisions a basement that contains all disadvantaged groups stacked from floor to ceiling. At the top, are those disadvantaged by a single vector, while at the bottom are those multiply disadvantaged. An opening in the ceiling enables only some folks – those at the top – to squeeze through. Those at the bottom can only move up by pulling themselves into the groups at the top, rendering invisible the other vectors that intersect to shape disadvantage. This often overlooked metaphor prompts researchers to consider the ways that identities are differentially positioned within a structure of penalty and privilege.

As an approach to policy, intersectionality attunes analysts to the role of policy in (re)producing or troubling systems of oppression. In addition, intersectionality makes space for lived experience, revealing the myriad ways policy is lived “in the real”. Hankivsky and Jordan-Zachery (2019, 2) explain:

Specifically, intersectionality draws attention to aspects of policy that are largely uninvestigated or ignored altogether: the complex ways in which multiple and interlocking inequities are organized and resisted in the process, content, and outcomes of policy. In so doing, the exclusionary nature of traditional methods of policy, including the ways in which problems and populations are constituted, given shape and meaning, is revealed. Further, intersectionalitypositions public policies as constituting structural domains of power (Collins 2017, 26) that can be effectively harnessed for social change, including creating environments to support well-being, social inclusion, and equality.

While intersectionality has had a profound impact on how we think about social justice, its potential to transform policy analysis and outcomes remains largely untapped (Hankivsky and Jordan-Zachery 2019; see also Smooth 2013). This despite the fact that several governments around the globe have established policy offices aimed at addressing intersectional inequalities and have adopted intersectional approaches to policy analysis (see Krizsán et al 2012). Moreover, its widespread take-up in multiple contexts has led to an erasure of Black women’s knowledges and experiences (Bilge 2013, 2014, 2020).

This spotlight on intersectionality, part of a series on critical policy studies, aims to bring attention to the origins and importance of intersectionality in both research and policy, and to encourage academics and practitioners to strive for intersectional and inclusive research and analytical practices that dismantle social hierarchies. Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery provides an overview of the genesis of intersectionality as a research paradigm, illuminating its contributions to social thought. Dr. Tiffany Manuel extends this dialogue by revealing the importance of intersectionality for policymakers. We hope that these exciting contributions mark the start of our, and your, sustained engagement with intersectionality theory and practice!

Suggested readings:

Bowleg, L. 2008. When Black + Lesbian + Woman ≠ When Black + n Woman: The Methodological Challenges of Qualitative and Quantitative Intersectionality Research. Sex Roles, 59(3), pp. 312–325.

Carastathis, A. 2008. The Invisibility of Privilege: A Critique of Intersectional Models of Identity. Les Ateliers de l’Ethique, 3(2), pp. 23–38.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. 2013. Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), pp. 785–810.

Crenshaw, K. 1993. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and the Violence Against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43, pp. 1241-1299.

Hankivsky, O., Grace, D., Hunting, G., Ferlatte, O., Clark, N., Fridkin, A., et al. 2012. Intersectionality-Based Policy Analysis. Vancouver: The Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy, Simon Fraser University. Available at:

Hankivsky, O. and Jordan-Zachery, J.S. eds., 2019. The Palgrave Handbook of Intersectionality in Public Policy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hill Collins, P. 1993. Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection. Race, Sex & Class, 1(1), 25–45.

Hill Collins, P. and Bilge, S., 2016. Intersectionality: Key Concepts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

hooks, b. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Jordan-Zachery, J. 2009. Black Women, Cultural Images and Social Policy. New York: Routledge.

Lorde, A., 2012. Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press.

Manuel, T. 2006. Envisioning the Possibilities for a Good Life: Exploring the Public Policy Implications of Intersectionality Theory. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 28(3–4), 173–203.

Wilson, A. R. 2013. Situating Intersectionality: Politics, Policy, and Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yuval-Davis, N. 2006. Intersectionality and Feminist Politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3), 193–209.

Previous Blog on ‘Spotlighting interpretive approaches to public policy scholarship’:

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site

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