On the Inseparability of Social Categories and their Relations


Intersectionality is the concept used to refer to the interactions among multiple social categories such as gender, race, sexuality, class, age, etc., that affect people’s experience. One of its main insights is that social categories such as gender, race, sexuality, class, etc., interrelate in complex ways so as to produce specific forms of oppression for particular social groups or identities. From a theoretical and philosophical perspective, there are at least two claims that intersectionality research has presented as crucial: the inseparability of social categories and the fact that social categories relate with each other in complex ways. The first one refers to the idea that social categories cannot be understood in isolation from each other, and the second claim focuses on the question of what’s the relation (or relations) that exist(s) among social categories. Both observations are often stated in the literature and purport to play a significant role in intersectionality theory but they are not very often accounted for.

In this paper I aim to advance a view of both the inseparability and the interaction claims. I begin with some preliminaries on what intersectionality is about, and then present an assumed view on the inseparability and relation observations: the mutual constitution model. I present different senses of ‘mutual constitution’ we find in the literature and criticize the model mainly because it operates with a reified conception of social categories. I illustrate the point with an analysis of the different metaphors of intersectionality. Then I propose an alternative framework that views categories as properties of individuals. I then propose to understand the question of the relation among social categories within the general framework of the emergent intersectional property view, according to which intersectional properties are wholes constituted by certain configurations of social categories’ effects. This general framework allows for a multiplicity of specific empirical relations (such as intensification, mitigation, etc.) to occur among social categories, thus making it a plural view on the relation question. And I argue it accounts well for both the inseparability and the relation observations.


3 thoughts on “On the Inseparability of Social Categories and their Relations

  1. Jorba, Marta says:

    Hi Olivier, thanks for your comment! Yes, I know there is a similar discussion there and I should definitely have a closer look. The discussion has many parallels, as we can say that what we have associated with social categories are also values and ones that can be different for parts and wholes. The option of maintaining the additive approach with change of value in the parts when they are in the whole sounds interesting and I will examine it more carefully in connection with the intersectionality discussion. This option seems to have the following problem, according to Brown: “A variable evaluation assigns multiple values to a single object: it assigns one value to the object considered as a whole, but a different value to the object considered as a part of something else. However, the former value, value as whole, is all we need: the latter, value as part, is entirely redundant.” It is interesting to think whether this kind of problem in the context of the discussion of holism about values is also a problem in the context of intersectionality or rather a virtue, as I’m inclined now to think, given that ‘woman’, for instance, might plausibly be said to have a different value considered “alone” than considered in ‘black woman’/ ‘white woman’ and so it is not redundant at all (and so not a problem). The key decisive point then is how to decide whether the value that changes is a value associated with the whole as such or with the value of the parts in the contexts of those wholes.

    Many thanks for this!

  2. Massin, Olivier says:

    hi Marta, thanks again for the nice discussion this morning, one quick thought. The problem you address is very close to —and in fact maybe an instance of— a problem discussed in value theory under the name “organic unity” (you may be already aware of this), which is about how the value of the whole relates to the value of the parts.

    Suffering is bad. Pleasure is good. So you would expect that putting the two together in a single whole, they would mitigate each other. But in fact taking pleasure in sb else suffering makes for an even worse whole. Or : vanilla ice cream is good; gravy is good; the the two together are…yuk.

    Roughly there are two main wasy to deal with this: either you say and the value of the whole is not the sum of the values of the part but sth else —which reminds me of your emergentist approach. Or you say that the value of the whole is the sum of the value of the parts, but that the value of the parts change when they are in the whole.

    That paper by Campbell Brown care out the issue very nicely: https://academic.oup.com/pq/article-abstract/57/228/456/1433842

    Hope this may help !

    1. Jorba, Marta says:

      Hi Olivier, I replied to your comment, but I now realised I did it as a “general comment” not aa “reply” to your comment, so sorry! 🙂

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