Problematising the Critical Realist Positional Approach to Intersectionality

By Ioana Cerasella Chis
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 2/3 |

Applying Critical Realism to Intersectionality

This section illustrates how CR’s methodology undermines the lived experiences of individuals, in its quest to advance an abstract theory of society. Despite the authors’ critique of positivism and identity-centred intersectionality for their static definition and separation of categories (451), CR itself separates and reifies categories at the abstract level, having rigid conceptualisations of systems of inequality (Cruickshank 2010:584-585). As such, considering oppression and privilege the two emergent properties of ‘intersections of social categories’ (462) is truistic, resting upon the constraint-enablement dualism. Simply acknowledging privilege by its beneficiary is not enough, unless one acts upon it; otherwise, recognising privilege becomes yet another ‘ornamental’ gesture towards liberal politics.

Martinez et. al. account for inequality positively (as opposed to normatively) by treating categories as ‘abstract starting points’ (464). Thus, despite their seeming agreement with Nash that categories are ‘shifting, slippery, [and] highly contextual’ (451), they do not engage with the complexity of intersectionality without first identifying categories and box-fitting agents. In this respect, it is important to consider that racism and sexism are often defined by white women or black men, rendering the experiences of black women invisible (Crenshaw 1991:1252; hooks 1984:26): ‘feminist universalist theories are unable to identify female Blackness, while universalist theories of race are unable to specify Black femaleness’ (Geerts and van der Tuin 2013:173).

This universalism is found in Martinez et. al. who state that women have common interests, with the implication that gender is a stable category of analysis (Barker 2003:104): ‘women are a real group, joined by the abstract social category of “woman”’ who ‘may have some universal interests despite the reality of heterogeneity’ (458). An example which counters this assumption of commonality is that women in the Global South may ‘side’ with men and reject Western feminism as oppressive, due to its advocates’ benefitting from the exploitation of people in the Global South (hooks 1984:18).

Even more, the distinction between ‘women’ as a real group and ‘woman’ as an abstract social category resembles the realist distinction between sex and gender made by Willmott (1996) on the basis of the nature/society hierarchical dualism. In his view, sex is associated with nature, whilst gender is a social construct (Hood-Williams 1997) although sex is also socially constructed (Peterson 2014). Indeed, ‘sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis’ (Mohanty 1986:339).

Within CR, the fear of the epistemic fallacy leads to the construction of fixed categories. Thus, it is assumed that systems such as capitalism and patriarchy are separable and have distinguishable causal powers: ‘capitalism and patriarchy are two contingently interacting systems, either of which could exist without the other’ (Sayer 2000:707-8). According to Sayer (2000:716-717) and Willmott (2007:5-6), capitalism and patriarchy may occur together, but they must be defined as separate structures by abstraction, so co-occurrence is nothing more than a contingent link. This separation is also to be found in Martinez et. al.:

The notion of misogynoir, defined as the hatred of black women and girls, is […] structurally emergent from the interactions of racism and sexism (463 – italics in original).

The authors do not offer substantive explanation about the contingent interplay between the social categories considered to be part of intersectionality. I argue that ‘misogynoir’ may be analytically useful to illustrate the concrete practices and experiences of oppression - it is not simply the interaction between two separate and contingent ‘mechanisms emergent from the level of society’ (462). It follows that in the paper too, systems of oppression are a priori defined, contra experience, as separate (Tsilipakos 2015:27; Holmwood 2014:1), but ‘patriarchy’ on its own has very little explanatory weigh and political meaning.

Moreover, in Sayer’s work we find a distinction between (unchanging) ‘systems’ which ‘go beyond the subjective experience of actors’ (2000:711) and (changing) ‘lifeworld’ (lived experience) (2000:710). Holmwood goes against the transfactual reference to abstract structures, inviting us to look at empirical problems and how they are connected, to realise that necessarily, capitalism is patriarchy: ‘whatever is systematic is also embodied and what is embodied is also systematic’ (2001:961-962). Starting explanations of oppression with a meta-theoretical analysis of abstract categories which are ‘mutually shaped by, and shaping, each other’ (464), and having a framework for research, do not necessarily lead to the most insightful questions (Kemp 2005:171).

Critical Realism’s Scientific Illiteracy

The political underpinning of critical realism's intersectionality is not stated in the paper, nor do the authors make clear in whose name, how, and for whom CR intersectionality speaks, and what the role of the (CR) researcher is. Postcolonial theorists point to the ‘forgetting of Time and Self’ when the founders of CR are considered the principal developers of a theoretical framework to which anything else comes after, or is a referent (D’Souza 2010:266), and pose a crucial question to CR: ‘how can the “native informant” be known, or understood, or heard?’ (2010:271).

By resting on the dyad between hermeneutics and positivism, Martinez et. al. eschew the particularity of the standpoint approach. They dismiss standpoint theory on the grounds that it has not been influential enough in intersectional research (451), therein themselves reproducing the problematic omission of engaging with this body of thought. Importantly, as we shall see, some of CR’s limitations can be highlighted through standpoint theorist Harding’s distinction between two forms of objectivity. Weak objectivity, identified with objectivism and judgemental relativism (characteristic to positivism, hermeneutics, and CR):

permits scientists and science institutions to be unconcerned with the origins or consequences of their problematics and practices, or with the social values and interests that these problematics and practices support (Harding 1991:147).

Strong objectivity is what standpoint theory calls for. It represents the acknowledgement of the ‘social location of scientific claims’ (Harding 1991:142), recognising the claims made by those affected directly by marginalisation as significant, democratic, and substantive (not merely instrumental) contributions to knowledge (Peter 2003:98). Martinez et. al. would disagree with Harding’s categorisations of objectivity, as they make the straw-man claim that standpoint intersectional theory (located by them within positivism) is actualist and guilty of the epistemic fallacy because it conflates experience, theory, and knowledge: ‘they do not separate ontological claims from their epistemological origins’ (452).

Instead, standpoint theory considers epistemology before ontology, makes overt the partiality of beliefs, and asks for research to start from the vantage point of the marginalised, whose experience of social reality has been neglected and/or misinterpreted by the ‘disembodied’ rationality found within research programs, including critical realism (Harding 1991:184-185; Clough 1994:62). Harding reminds us that ‘economics or science theorists, ontologists, and epistemologists – occupy social structural positions as intensely as anyone else’ (2003:154-155). Following the standpoint approach, we can focus on anti-hegemonic problem-solving, rather than framework-fitting to avoid universalism (Hampsher-Monk and Hindmoor 2010:47) and to advocate for a move ‘away from falsity, rather than toward truth’ (Harding 1991:185).

In seeking ‘pure’ (weak) objectivity, although it holds that theories are fallible/transitive, critical realism does not take scientists’ background into account. It sees science as exemplary and above social and political problems (as does positivism), privilege-based bias being considered part of objective science (Walsh 2015:62). It emerges that the authors and CR scholars in general start their research by choosing an ontological claim, to engage in research, theorise, and make justifications only later (Kemp 2005:182).

Consequently, the authors see positionality in terms of enablement or constraint of individuals by structures, without paying any heed to experiential situatedness, trying to go beyond marginalised epistemologies and towards a neutral theory of the social world, to a ‘transcendence of gender which thereby increases objectivity’ (Harding 1992:343). Indeed, it is the objective of CR to provide a general theory of the agent and experience (Lawson 2003:132-133), which becomes detached from experience and complexity (Nelson 2003:115). Theory is given by CR a position beyond research, which is identity-blind and unable to be transformed (Holmwood 2001:948-952), whereas ontology is held to exist prior to politics and culture (Harding 1993:154). Therefore, CR’s ontology is too general and cannot escape the knowledge/bias of the scientist, making CR ineluctably guilty of objectivism, rendering itself irrelevant to those experiencing inequality. Conversely, intersectionality’s task is to dismantle epistemic distortions and structural power asymmetries (May 2015:189), and rectify the ‘illiteracy’ of objectivist scientists who neglect history, privilege, and false universalism. Hence,

those who are the best educated science people in the West are illiterate about the very nature of our own scientific project and of the possibilities for developing in more progressive ways (Harding, interview with Hirsh and Olson 1995:13).

Rectifying the illiteracy of objectivism ought to be done by ‘literacy stewards’ (Hancock 2015:624-626) whose research does not accommodate, but questions and interrupts objectivist schemata. Harding suggests that feminists embrace the ‘instability of analytical categories’ (1992:341), replace traditional ideas with ideas originating from marginalised groups’ experiences, and find concepts that are ‘free of the patriarchal flaws’ (1992:340). Notably, our experience and understanding of reality is shaped by our position in the world at a given time and place: ‘what we or any other historical group take to be the basic ontology of reality is itself located in the social structure of our time and place’ (Harding 2003:155).

Everyone can contribute in concrete ways to challenging oppression from their position and context (see Murib and Soss 2015). Regrettably, Martinez et. al. restrict their contribution to showcasing the compatibility and application of CR concepts to intersectionality, without demonstrating any substantive difference their approach makes. They seek to fit reality and social facts within the boundaries of their abstract, singular ontology, ‘dictating the shape of reality’ (Barker 2003:107) and ignoring intersectionality’s other ontologies and politics (Peter 2003:98).

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