A Short Review of Collins’ Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory

Patricia Hill Collins is a professor emerita of sociology, a co-author of Intersectionality, and an editor of the influential anthology Race, Class, and Gender. img_1548Her recent book Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory (8/2019) is a dense, and somewhat unsatisfactory, excursion into the “paradigm” or “concept” or “framework” or “heuristic device” or “theory” (p. 3) of intersectionality.

Given the book’s title, Collins understandably begins by discussing the nature of intersectionality (“Chapter 1 – Intersectionality as Critical Inquiry”). A key summary of the four “guiding premises” of intersectionality is found in Table 1.1:

(1) Race, class, gender, and similar systems of power are interdependent and mutually construct one another. (2) Intersecting power relations produce complex, interdependent social inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, and age. (3) The social location of individuals and groups within intersecting power relations shapes their experiences within and perspectives on the social world. (4) Solving social problems within a given local, regional, national, or global context requires intersectional analyses.

While the academic terminology in this excerpt might be a bit difficult for lay readers to parse, Collins elaborates on each of these ideas throughout the book.

First, a “defining feature of intersectionality” is “[t]he premise that race, gender, class, and other systems of power mutual construct one another now functions as a taken-for-granted truism within intersectionality” (p. 16) In other words, an analysis will be incomplete if it examines only class, or only gender, or only race without probing how these attributes interact.

Second, all of the aforementioned categories are “power relations.” Race, class, gender and a host of other social markers are not socially-irrelevant attributes like eye-color or ice cream preference. Instead, they are the basis of social inequality, domination, and oppression. “Power relations shape all social relations… Even the most homogeneous communities contains considerable differences in power –those distinguishing the old from the young, women from men– the very categories of analysis that have been core to intersectionality itself.” (p. 146)

Far from being neutral, these categories are used to naturalize and justify social injustice: “[Other academic frameworks believed that] the causes of social inequality often law in fundamental forces that lay outside the particulars of race, class, gender [suggesting that] social inequality was inevitable because it was hardwired into the social world, into individual nature, or into both. Intersectionality rejects these notions that normalize inequality by depicting it as natural and inevitable. Instead, intersectionality points to the workings of power relations in producing social inequalities and the social problems they engender.” (p. 46)

Third, our membership in either dominant or subordinate social groups will shape our experiences. While “Western epistemologies” (i.e. ways of knowing truth) tend to undervalue experience, “resistant knowledge projects” produced by subordinated people (women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, etc…) will use their lived experiences to produce knowledge that resists their oppression: “Tools of epistemic resistance used by subordinated people –namely, testimonial authority, identity politics, and standpoint epistemology– all rest on implicit assumptions about the utility of experience for producing knowledge.” (p. 157)

Finally, if intersectionality is a necessary component of social analysis and we recognize that social inequalities are unjust, then the fourth principle follows: dismantling injustice requires intersectionality. “Intersectionality itself can be seen as a knowledge project of resistance, one in which critical analysis underpins its intellectual resistance” (p. 10). Similarly, “[at] its heart, intersectionality is a set of ideas that is critical of the established social world“, (p. 53) and “Vivian May contends [that intersectionality is] ‘a form of resistant knowledge developed to unsettle conventional mindsets, challenge oppressive power, think through the full architecture of structural inequalities and asymmetrical life opportunities, ad seek a more just world'” (p. 119).

Despite laying out these four guiding premises, Collins cautions that intersectionality is a nebulous term, open to many different conceptualizations:”[i]ntersectionality has not yet crystallized into a canon with founding figures, a coherent narrative of its point of origin, and a list of its core tenets.” (p. 185)

If developing a precise definition of ‘intersectionality’  is challenging, developing a precise definition of ‘critical social theory’ is even more difficult. Collins does not provide any concise or clear definition of “critical social theory” throughout the book, even though Chapter 2 is entitled “What’s Critical about Critical Social Theory?”

Collins rejects the idea that ‘critical social theory’ is equivalent to the Frankfurt School: “I [capitalize] Critical Theory to distinguish the specific discourse of the Frankfurt school as a specific school of thought. In contrast, I use the phrase critical social theory to refer to range [sic] of theoretical projects that self-define or might be classified as critical.” (p. 56)

We also find scattered quotes that hint at the nature of what makes a social theory ‘critical’:

critical social theory is a particular form of intellectual resistance. (p. 10)

Some [theoretical projects of Western social theory] explicitly aim to be critical; others do not. Marxist social theory, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, existentialism, liberation theory, and British cultural studies all have a critical impetus at their core. Other projects may carry the mantle of critical social theory, as in the case of postmodernism and poststructuralism, yet they might be more wedded to criticizing society than to reforming or transforming it. (p. 145)

Critical theoretical projects resist and criticize not just the intellectual and political arrangements that accompany specific forms of domination, but also how dominant epistemologies make these structures of knowledge notoriously difficult to upend. (p. 152)

Because critical social theories have a vested interest in opposing political domination, the question of freedom has been central to many resistant knowledge projects (p. 190)

From these and other comments sprinkled throughout the text, I think we can tentatively propose that Collins regards a “critical social theory” as one that analyzes and critiques the existing social order with the aim of transforming society to achieve greater justice. In particular, critical social theories expose how knowledge is produced to justify existing social hierarchies. For example, European scientists might “discover” that non-Europeans are less intelligent than Europeans, thereby justifying European imperialism. Yet one of Collins’ final comments on the nature of critical social theory is probably the most relevant: “The meaning of critical social theory is far from settled.” (p. 275)

For Christians interacting with the concept of ‘intersectionality’, two warnings are in order.

First, like every contemporary critical theorist that I’ve read, Collins accepts without question the idea that racism, sexism, classism, ageism, nationalism, and heteronormativity are all forms of oppression which must be overthrown by dismantling systems like white supremacy, capitalism, and the heteropatriarchy. To show just how fundamental this assumption is to Collins view, consider the following quotes:

Scholar-activists… seek compelling, complex analyses of how colonialism, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and neoliberal capitalism.. inform their realities. (p. 5)

resistant knowledge traditions… aim to address the deep-seated concerns of people who are subordinated [by] racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and similar systems of political domination and economic exploitation. Whatever the form of oppression they experience —race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, ethnicity, and nation— subordinate groups have a vested interest in resisting it. (p. 10)

For people penalized by colonialism, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and similar systems of power, experiences with oppression are often the catalyst for critically analyzing these systems. (p. 12)

Despite being familiar with oppressions of race, gender, class, and sexuality, Beauvoir never advanced an intersectional analysis of oppression or freedom. (p. 14)

These are just a few of the quotes expressing the same underlying idea in just the first 15 pages of the book! Needless to say, Christians who don’t believe that justice demands the destruction of the heteropatriarchy, should question the basic assumptions of Collins’ ‘intersectional’ project.

Second, many of Collins’ statements about “Western epistemologies” border on outright relativism:

Theorizing about philosophical topics such as democracy, inequality, freedom, social justice and love stems from efforts to make sense of human life and experience. There are no right or wrong arguments, no absolute truths, only narratives or stories that are more or less relevant to the search for meaning. Because intersectionality encompasses both social sciences and humanities, it can be conceptualized alternatively as a social theory that guides the search for truth and as a social theory that guides the search for social meaning. (p. 51-52; see also p. 243)


Truth is not an absolute. Instead, the rules that determine what counts as truth mean that some truths count more than others… Epistemology is crucial for understanding why some truths are present in intersectionality’s knowledge base while others remain neglected, as well as whose truths are believed and whose are dismissed. How we come to believe in what we see as true is just as important as the substance of the ideas that we take as true. (p. 288)

To be fair, it’s not entirely clear what Collins means by ‘absolute truth’; it may be that she intends to refer to ‘absolute certainty.’

That said, her rejection of “Western epistemologies”, her suspicion of ‘dominant knowledges’ and her eagerness to deconstruct taken-for-granted truths should give Christians pause. It’s hard to overstate how central the idea epistemology is to her idea of resisting injustice. In Collins’ mind, one of the main ways that we can resist oppression is by calling into question truth claims which support social inequalities:

viewing intersectionality as a resistant knowledge project highlights the political dimensions of knowledge. Just as critical race theory as a resistant knowledge project aspires to resist racism, intersectionality as a knowledge projects may aspire to resist the social inequalities within intersecting systems of power. (p. 96)

Epistemic resistance, or resisting the rules that govern what counts as knowledge, constitutes an important dimension of critical theorizing in academic venues (p. 118)

Vivian May contends [that intersectionality is] ‘a form of resistant knowledge developed to unsettle conventional mindsets, challenge oppressive power, think through the full architecture of structural inequalities and asymmetrical life opportunities, ad seek a more just world’ (p. 119)

Christians should be mindful of how our cultural context can cloud our interpretation of Scripture. But we cannot assent to a wholesale postmodern deconstruction of truth-claims, nor should we assume that ‘truth’ must always bend to our ideas of ‘social justice.’ As Christians, we believe that God has spoken truth clearly and definitively in Scripture and that these truths can be understood by all people in all cultures, regardless of their social location.

In summary, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory is a useful book for those interested in cutting-edge ‘intersectional’ scholarship. It certainly provides a good overview of historical antecedents of intersectionality, its adopting by disciplines like critical race theory, queer theory, and feminism, and its basic outlook on social problems.

However, I wish Collins had engaged in more careful reflection on the basic philosophical assumptions implicit in her entire project: Can we know truth? What is justice? Are all social inequalities oppressive? Are gender, class, race, disability, sexuality, and age all socially constructed? These are the vital questions that Christians need to ask before investing heavily into “intersectionality” or related frameworks.

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