Communication and Identities in Institutional Arenas - Part I/McCall, Leslie (2005): The complexity of intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Volume 3 (3) s. 1771-1800

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Leslie McCall: The complexity of intersectionality[edit | edit source]

Summary and reflections on The complexity of intersectionality (Leslie McCall, 2006)

Taking the claim that intersectionality is the most important theoretical contribution of women’s studies, Leslie McCall’s article deals with intersectionality as a central category of analysis and raises questions relating to the methodology of studying intersectionality. According to McCall, the emergence of an intersectional perspective has introduced new methodological problems in research and has thus limited the range of methodological approaches used to study intersectionality.

To me, it is interesting that McCall raises the perspective of methodology into discussion as this issue has attracted my concern as well. Being an ethnographically inspired researcher, the absence of methodological discussions and concerns has been striking to me in those intersectional texts I have studied so far. This article thus complements at least in some ways, what I felt the other texts within this course theme have lacked.

McCall’s article describes three methodological approaches to the study of ”multiple, intersecting and complex social relations” (p. 1772-1773). These approaches are defined by their stance towards categories that are considered necessary for dealing with intersectionality and are listed as follows: 1) anticategorical complexity – based on a methodology that deconstructs analytical categories, represents one end of the continuum 2) intercategorical complexity (exemplified by author’s own research) – requires scholars to adopt and work with existing analytical categories, represents the other end of the continuum 3) intracategorical complexity –located between the two above mentioned in the continuum, focuses on the boundary-making process itself; origins of intersectional analyses

The author’s interest in these methodological categories deals not just with strictly methodological concerns but also their philosophical underpinnings, which is also seen in the article. The purpose of the article is thus to gain understanding concerning the interrelationship of methodological issues and the development of feminist research towards a more interdisciplinary direction.

Dealing with both anticategorical and intracategorical complexity, McCall outlines a brief chronology of the development of women’s studies. Discussing the internal critiques (from poststructuralists, antiracist theorists and hegemonic feminist theorists) of early women’s studies the author points out that it was from this critique that the methodology of anticategorical complexity was born. Challenging the validity of existing analytical categories was thus an important issue. “The methodological consequence is to render suspect both the process of categorization itself and any research that is based on such categorization”, McCall writes (p.1777), and continues on to point out that the approach has been “effective in challenging the singularity, separateness and wholeness of a wide range of social categories” (p. 1778).

In terms of intracategorical complexity, McCall points out that this perspective seeks to complicate and use existing analytical categories in a more critical way. In some ways it can be considered as the origins of intersectional analyses. From a methodological point of view, both personal and group narratives are discussed under the headline of intracategorical complexity. These form the traditional forms of analyzing intersectionality. Extending this approach to more recent studies can mean working with “cases”; in-depth studies of a single group, culture or site. Closely associated with qualitative studies, their ability to “reveal diversity, variation and heterogeneity” is emphasized. Rather surprisingly for me, ethnography is only shortly mentioned here.

This part of the article ends in some reflections concerning the general developments of any scientific field. McCall points out that the development of the two above discussed phenomena has not occurred without having an impact on the production of knowledge about intersectionality. Making a connection between women’s studies as they were a few decades ago, she concludes that “the development of a new field is celebrated on the tomb of the old”, which in terms of women’s studies (as within many other disciplines) has meant that as a field, it has grown to be increasingly fragmented, multidisciplinary.

The third approach to the study of intersectionality, intercategorical complexity, is discussed in the following section. Through examples from her own research, McCall attempts to explore “whether meaningful inequalities among groups even exist in the first place” (p. 1785) or treats complex differences and inequalities between groups as a hypothesis. Questioning her own argumentation in order to bring about depth in the analysis, McCall then discusses a different kind of focus, claiming the following: “Relationships of inequality among social groups do not enter as background or contextual or discursive or ideological factors…but as the focus of the analysis itself” (p. 1785-6). The subject of the study needs thus to be multigroup and the method of analysis systematically comparative, she continues. This way, both advantage and disadvantage of intersections of multiple categories can be examined simultaneously. The following part of the paper presents then some examples from McCall’s own research, dealing with structural inequalities among women, ranging from race to gender and class, (wage inequality in regional economies in the US, educational level).

In the conclusion of her paper, McCall states that the major restriction within feminist research on intersectionality, besides its philosophical and theoretical problems, has to do with methodology. My own final conclusion is that, despite its stated focus on methodological issues, the article, to me, does not fully succeed in offering answers to the reader’s questions concerning methodology in intersectional research.