Problematising the Critical Realist Positional Approach to Intersectionality

By Ioana Cerasella Chis
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 1/3 |

In Developing a Critical Realist Positional Approach to Intersectionality, Martinez et. al. (2014) argue that Critical Realism (henceforth ‘CR’) solves what they identify as the methodological ‘crisis’ within intersectionality research. In this review I posit that the CR positional approach presented in the paper is anti-intersectional and ontologically oppressive, replicating the hegemonic politics it purports to criticise, because it sees the undermining of oppression through radical social transformation as contingent.

The argument is presented as follows: firstly, critical realism tries to offer a scientific and positive ‘general theory’ of social reality which reduces oppression to abstractions detached from agents’ experiences, thus depoliticising intersectionality; secondly, the a priori definition of its framework, agents, and structures, makes the CR positional approach’s ontology immune to revision.

I contend that standpoint theory propounds a more nuanced approach to intersectionality due to its grounding in a politics of transformation, as opposed to Martinez et. al.’s implied politics of reform.

Intersectionality research requires political awareness of abstraction, a reflexive positioning of social scientists and their scholarly work, and the acknowledgement of individuals’ lived experience.

Finally, I propose that intersectionality research requires political awareness of abstraction, a reflexive positioning of social scientists and their scholarly work, and the acknowledgement of individuals’ lived experience.

Intersectionality – Introduction and Positioning

Intersectionality is a much contested term which has been considered ‘a theory, a paradigm, a framework, a method, a perspective, or a lens’ (449; see Carbin and Edenheim 2013; Davis 2008). Academically, it offers a bridge for both generalist and specialist theorists to discuss the inter-relatedness of oppressive structures, identities, and experiences (Davis 2008:74-76). Hancock wonders whether intersectionality ‘can be the intellectual property of a single demographic group or whether it is in fact a meme’ (2015:624), while Carbin and Edenheim assert that intersectionality has become an institutionalised, consensus-based, liberal European project (2013:234).

In a celebratory fashion, Davis renders the term’s vagueness and lack of precise definition as the very reason for intersectionality’s success and usefulness, as it stimulates creativity (2008). On the other hand, May warns us that ‘if not dropped entirely, intersectionality may be absorbed into conventional practices – it is frequently misrecognised, or even violated, in the terms and conditions of its uptake’ (2015:8).

Less pessimistic, I endeavour to suggest that intersectionality does have explanatory and transformative potential, and that the ‘problem’ lies in the political goals to which intersectionality has been employed by some scholars. Thus, intersectionality has been used either radically, when it acknowledges lived experiences and context to advance transformative politics against domination, or ornamentally, to accommodate other theoretical frameworks, subsequently depoliticising and limiting its transformative scope (Hancock 2015; Erel et. al. 2008).

This distinction is akin to debates within intersectionality over its methodology: we can identify the contrast between an additive model of political inclusion (‘adding up’ identities, differences, and experiences to ‘include’ them into a schema1), and a politics of radical change, which dismisses boundaries and mere counting (Murib and Soss 2015:651).

Dissatisfied with intersectionality’s ‘disparate approaches’, ‘methodological rifts’, and ‘under-theorisation’ of methodology (449), Martinez et. al. promise to solve its inadequacy by providing a novel CR methodological approach ‘to inform research and theory building’ (461). In developing the CR positional approach2, they claim that ‘the notion of structural positions within critical realism strongly echoes the intersectional notion of positionality’ (462).

They go further to point that ‘structure = durable relationships that position, constrain and/or enable. Social positioning [is] a continuous process, negotiated by agency’ (462). Thus, critical realist positionality stems from the dialectical relationship between structure and agency, meaning that the abstract concept ‘women’ corresponds not to identity, but to a structural position: ‘women’ are ‘”qualitatively different from lived reality” […] they will correspond to structural positions’ (461).

A similar contention is found in Lawson, a scholar of critical realism for whom individuals are ‘slotted’ into positions; positions are defined ‘in relation to other positions’, together forming society (1999:34; 2003:121). This way of imagining positionality, I argue, is formalistic, resembling a rigid chessboard, with individuals as chess pieces unable to step outside their allocated squares on the board; it also limits the scope for the possibility of transformative politics and does not address the positioning and role of the researcher within the research process. In trying to offer a systematic explanation of (social) reality, critical realism neglects the unexpected/unanticipated.

Any account of intersectionality which does not engage with its history and political grounding results in depoliticising it (May 2015:188). Given this, intersectionality research ought constantly to reveal and interfere with injustices, to provide political imaginaries for a material reshaping of society and new social relations - in intersectional research and politics, the agent makes visible the wrong of oppression.

In this paper it will be asserted that CR positional approach’s method of political inquiry is underpinned by a liberal conceptualisation of politics (limited to redistribution and lessening of oppression) in which intersectionality plays an ornamental role. The authors are preoccupied with preserving the critical realist ontology, rather than intersectionalising/disrupting critical realism - thus adding little to no explanatory depth to intersectionality. In contrast, standpoint theory is subject-centred as it engages with the lived experiences and knowledge of those experiencing inequality; celebrates political intervention; avoids critical realism’s shortcomings, and provides a compelling analysis of intersectionality by considering problems and solutions as shaped heavily by individuals/groups. Let us see in more detail what Martinez et. al. propose.


Martinez et. al. contend that critical realism can ‘advance intersectional theory’ (457) as it offers an

augmented conceptual framework and novel methodological approach […] to enable intersectionality to provide causal explanatory accounts of the “lived experiences” of social privilege and disadvantage (447).

Against the static conceptualisation of intersectionality (i.e. identities are affected in a fixed manner by the intersections of categories), the authors agree with Anthias’ definition of intersectionality as a ‘social process of practices and arrangements giving rise to particular forms of positionality’ (448) and indicate that positionality, more than intersectionality, provides a better explanatory potential of agency, privilege, oppression, and disadvantage, due to the former’s acknowledgement of shifts and contradictions. For this reason, they develop a CR positional approach as an ‘alternative philosophical foundation for future intersectional research’ (449).

It is argued in the paper that positivism and hermeneutics’ involvement in the development of intersectionality research is responsible for the lack of explanatory ability regarding agents’ concomitant positioning in multiple social categories, the subsequent impact upon their life-chances, and the reproduction of inequality (447). Both traditions are accused of committing the epistemic fallacy3, that is, ‘what we consider real is limited to what we can know’ (450). Accordingly, positivism ignores absence or potential in the world and claims that the unobserved is not real (456). Hermeneutics, by collapsing positionality/structural discrimination into ‘identity’, is unable to make truth claims (454-455) - what cannot be directly perceived is not ‘considered part of the social world (456)4.

Martinez et. al. make the case for the superiority of CR to advance intersectional research because critical realism can account for causality, transfactuality, and agency, and can better explain privilege and positionality. The social world, following the CR tradition, is stratified into ‘at least’5 three domains: the empirical, the actual, and the real (455-6) – this is CR’s ‘depth ontology’ (461). The authors, following Bhaskar, posit that causal mechanisms

are considered real and external to individuals, but transcendentally so […] The possibility of knowing their existence is pursued through the development of fallible theories, including that of their potential transfactuality (456).

Transfactuality, a CR term, is different from causality, insofar as it represents ‘the idea that causal powers can exist without being actualised in events or recognised by observers’ (456). Transfactuality can also help conceptualise an individual’s concomitant subjection to oppression and privilege. Privilege can be accounted thus, within CR: it is real even when its bearer may not acknowledge or realise it, and it represents the absence of obstacles to success, due to one’s ‘belonging’ to privileged categories (456-457). Finally, following Archer, it is maintained that positionality does not determine, but conditions life-chances. As such, the CR positional approach to intersectionality accounts for structures’ enablement or constraint of groups or individuals, and for the way in which structures can be affected by agency (460). In short,

a positional approach enables the claim that generative structural mechanisms of oppression and privilege can emerge from the durable yet dynamic intersections of social categories (462).

The Ontological Limitations of Critical Realism

It is vital to introduce critical realism’s approach to knowledge and reality, in order to offer a context regarding the tradition the authors adhere to. CR is a philosophy of science which makes a distinction between transitive and intransitive domains of knowledge, prioritising ontology over epistemology (Kemp 2005:181; Kivinen and Piiroinen 2006:225; Bhaskar 1998:29). The transitive domain represents scientific knowledge about reality, which is fallible, and the intransitive domain is represented by ‘the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world’ which are independent from us (Bhaskar 1998:17).

Philosophy is regarded a ‘conceptual “underlabourer”’ for science, removing false ontologies (Cruickshank 2009:7; Archer 1998:197; Bhaskar 2013:11). The underlabouring is limited, given CR’s lack of clarity regarding its ontology: Cruickshank interestingly identifies within CR ‘two mutually exclusive definitions of ontology. Ontology is defined as both a fallible interpretation of reality and as a definitive definition of a reality beyond our knowledge claims’ (2004:567).

Despite knowledge being considered ‘fallible’ in the transitive domain by CR, in effect the scholar is assumed to provide an account of the ‘really real realm behind mere appearances’ by defining it with ‘conceptual isomorphs’ (Cruickshank 2009:2). Consequently, the critical realist scholar needs to assume their definitions of the intransitive domain of society as correct (Cruickshank 2010:580; Kivinen and Piiroinen 2006:227), thus begging the question.

It follows that the fear of the epistemic fallacy makes CR take up a position that is closed to revision, there being little empirical or logical ways to challenge intransitive knowledge (Holmwood 2001:953-954). This makes it difficult for epistemological claims to falsify and change the CR framework, as the explanatory form is ‘coupled with the search for rigid conceptual models’ (Tsilipakos 2015:27). The validity of explanatory concepts, then, rests upon CR’s ontological presuppositions, and the former’s consistency with the latter (Kemp 2005:180-186), in a desire to avoid empiricism (Cruickshank 2010; Kivinen and Piiroinen 2006:226-227).

Martinez et. al. are concerned with analysing ‘unrecognised structural impediments and their relationship with individual agency’ (454), implying that we are meant to see the world in terms of structure and agency. Archer, Bhaskar, and Martinez et. al. justify their ontology by assuming that lay agents see constraint and enablement (463), meaning that structure and agency are true. The problem, however, is that considering the agent as always ‘rational’ and ‘knowledgeable’, and their knowledge as an ‘epistemic proto-exemplar’ is a shortcut solution for the ‘explanatory breakdown’ of CR, as it is impossible to know whether or not actors are knowledgeable. This a priori definition of the agent, though meant not to ‘derogate’ them, in effect captures them in a framework (Cruickshank 2010:581-600; 2006:118; Kemp 2005:173) which rests upon transcendental universalism.

Indeed, ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ are the ‘prime contenders’ for the status of ‘intransitive objects’ with ‘relative durability in social life’ (Archer 1998:197-198). However, within critical realism, the conceptual form of agency-and-structure never changes, so experience is hardly allowed to change ontological categories. In CR, structures both condition, are dependent upon, and can be transformed and reproduced through agents’ action (Lawson 1999:32-33; 48). Although Archer acknowledges agents’ power to enact structural change through mediation, change takes time (1995:78; Martinez et. al. 459-460). Nevertheless, CR scholars hold that ideology masks reality (Edgley 1998:407), the CR scholar being in a privileged, ‘scientific’ position to shed light on reality, leaving no room for politics to explain exploitation. For instance, a person may reproduce oppressive politics despite their ‘lack’ of privilege (Erel et. al. 2008:278).

The notion of causality is crucial to CR and Martinez et. al. as they claim, following Bhaskar, that ‘the lack of an articulated ontology concerning causality is the tacit adoption of an implicit one’ (453). Transfactuality is said to solve the problem of identifying causation, as it means that ‘causes can exist without our knowledge of them’ (453) but, they argue, transfactuality is neglected by other intersectional researchers, thus restricting their research. However, this accusation is underpinned by the fallacy of ‘an argument from silence’, insofar as transfactuality does not allow for the idea that researchers may identify wrong causations; assume causations when there may be none, or misidentify someone’s ‘real’ abstraction – potentially dismissing claims which do not fit with CR’s (transitive) knowledge of the real (Holmwood 2001:950-951; 2014).

In an attempt to avoid the actualist definition of structures, i.e. reality can be reduced to events (Lawson 1999:45) characteristic to positivism, and seeking to develop a transfactual approach in which structures are causal emergent properties, Archer contends that structures are activity-dependent in the past tense; they are ‘products of past human agency’ (459; see Cruickshank 2010:589). Kivinen and Piiroinen warn us that this move is guilty of ontologising time, ‘so that the actions of people in the past […] become irreducibly structural once they have receded into history’ (2006:226). Transfactuality requires reference to fixed underlying structures and holding that their interplay is contingent, not necessary - otherwise there is the danger of saying that observed patterns are part of a closed system or associational thinking (Sayer 2000) and are guilty of the epistemic fallacy. Transfactuality, then, is a term used to avoid positivism and to find fixed patterns or associational thinking (Holmwood 2001; Kemp 2005).

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