Intersectionality – becoming a trojan horse!


Diminishing return as a concept- Unmixed blessing is a rarity. It is difficult to find in social science a concept that takes care of everything. The notion of intersectionality is one such case. It is supposed to be an advancement over social stratification categories like race, caste, class, gender. However, if we look closely, we can see that it has the possibility of being employed as a trojan horse argument.

In a way, intersectionality is a sociological basics. Students start their sociology with concepts like ‘role-set’, ‘status-set’. The usual example which is given is that of a person being simultaneously a son, father and doing a job – each conferring a role-status. But sociology textbooks also mention ‘master status’ which means that one or two aspects of an individual can override other aspects of that individual. A person’s low caste doesn’t leave the person no matter what the person achieves. Caste, class and gender can be social stratification categories because of this reason.

Surely, the claim of intersectionality could be that it explains the individual situation better. For example, two persons having the same amount of income would belong to two different sub-classes if one of them is with physical disability. Surely the person with disability is worse off. But suppose the person without disability has a lot of dependents while the person with disability has no dependent and from a rich family then it can become difficult to decide who is worse off. The predicament of many of the schedule caste government job holders is this- many dependents. We can see that if we move from group situations to individual situations then possibly sky is the limit. Once you turn the attention on individual situations, then you cannot stop intersectionality going beyond macro stratification categories and trying to capture individual ‘differences’ because its focus is on the individual.  This can become a wild goose chase. Neoliberalism criticizes the welfare state by saying that the welfare state has hastened its own demise by its own excesses. Similarly, intersectionality too can loose potency by its own excesses, for example two persons having similar income can belong to two different classes depending on the number of dependents. This will result in missing the woods for the trees.

Sociology is not mathematics or economics. These days there is an index, probably for everything, taking into account multiple indicators, even qualitative, and converting them into a quantitative measure (for example an index for democracy).  Intersectionalism smacks of such desire for attaining objectivity. While an index can appear to be very objective and quantitative, the relative weight given to particular indicators in an index is a subjective decision. Where intersectionality starts and where it ends, the number of variables – all these still require a subjective judgement. How can we decide the relative weight of caste, class and gender and many other candidates for intersectionality! If we give them equal weight then they can cancel each other and we can reach a dead end.

Practically calculating the level of marginality of an individual is very difficult. If we take the trinity of caste, class and gender in case of India we can have an endless permutations and combinations. There might be three thousand castes and many class categories. Even within the category of mahadalit there can be a hierarchy. Class in the sense of income can range from small amount to a very large amount. How many categories can justify such a vast income range!

If intersection is playing with existing handful of macro stratification categories like caste, class, gender, then it’s not bringing something very insightful on the table. For example, the vertical and horizontal reservation is already able to incorporate intersectionality. Scheduled caste reservation, which is a vertical category, contains within itself the woman quota, the disability quota or any other quota which are the intersection points. On the other hand, if it moves beyond the macro social stratification categories capturing individual ‘differences’ then it can become more of a theoretical exercise without any practical policy consequence.

The major problem of an intersectional framework is that it sees the individual in isolation. It doesn’t take into account the fact that the individual lives in a family and a group. The advantage or disadvantage to the individual will be heavily influenced by the family or the group. Intersectional framework may not do much damage to the black-unity in the USA because there are not ten varieties of blacks. But it can damage inter-sub caste solidarity which is necessary to face the upper caste brutality. The caste society is a very different terrain.

One cannot be an Ambedkarite and intersectionalist at the same time. For an Ambedkarite, caste is the most important issue. Therefore, to be an ‘intersectional Ambedkarite’ is not tenable. If intersectionality paradigm is there in the USA, there is also the Critical Race Theory which puts a premium on race. As human beings with agency we have the capacity to determine which is important and which is urgent.

Distorting policy –  OBC Creamy layer, the EWS reservation and Brahmin welfare corporations in different states shows what havoc the concept of intersectionality at the hand of the powerful can do. Just like the scientists cannot avoid the blame for the dangerous inventions they make, similarly social scientists cannot escape the blame for the dangerous consequences their concepts bring.

Emile Durkheim’s concept of ‘sui generis’ points out that social realities like caste, class, gender cannot be translated neatly at the individual level. In jurisprudence the group right is not translatable to individual rights. Generalization is a feature of science. De singularibus non est scintia (in singularity there is no science). Hasty generalization is bad science. One cannot pass a general comment that Dalits are better off than upper castes in India. Only when intersectionality is given legitimacy then there can be a statement that (some) Dalits are better off than (some) upper castes. This statement should have been of no practical policy consequence but for the a priori legitimacy of intersectionality. OBC Creamy layer and EWS reservation are not defensible without a priori legitimacy of intersectionality. What matters to the policy is the ‘average’ and not the ‘outliers’. What intersectionality does is legitimising the outliers.

Supporting neoliberalism by playing Trojan horse

Some people may say that creamy layer and EWS reservation are misuse of the concept of intersectionality rather than its rightful use. But if we probe then we can see that constructive use of intersectionality is not much possible under a liberal framework.

Applying intersectionality will give rise to two extreme points – the most privileged and the least privileged. It implies that we should do something for the least privileged. But how can you do something for the least privileged without doing something about the most privileged! Are you going to give a poor, ST female student triple the scholarship amount – one on each account! Are you going to give the most impoverished Dalit or tribal family deep inside a forest some huge amount of money! Are you going to give the child of one such family a central government job without passing any examination because s/he is disadvantaged on many counts! As a corollary to this the rich brahmin male, the triple advantaged, should have been ineligible for any government job. This is not possible under a liberal framework. Neo liberalism is not going to support the most privileged group cut down to size. Intersectionality has done one thing. It has taken the focus away from the most privileged and put it on the least privileged eclipsing the big picture – social stratification. There is a lot of talk about the poor Dalit woman as triple disadvantaged. But there is hardly any talk about the rich brahmin man as triple advantaged! Since intersectionality is about individuals and it will lead willy nilly to a glorification of individualism and consequently neoliberalism. We are in a real fix if a triple disadvantaged cracks the IAS by chance. Hail individualism!

Intersectionality will focus on how scarce resources has to be used rather than the fundamental question that how first of all the scarcity came into being. For example, the issue of creamy layer deflects questions about how 27% reservation is sufficient for 52% of Other Backward Classes, what is the rationale and justification for 50% ceiling on reservation etc.

The intersectionality discourse can also bypass the human rights discourse. Basic human rights should be the bottom line for a liberal democracy. There will always be millionaires and billionaires. But what matters for a liberal democracy is whether certain basic human rights (food, education, health) are provided to all. If we adopt universalisation of basic socio-economic human rights then we don’t need intersectionality. Some may say that intersectionality supported liberalism is not the real but a pervert liberalism which robs the majority and deceives by doing something for the miniscule employing the logic of intersectionality. It prevents class unity by highlighting the within-class difference.

It is understandable that intersectionality comes into being at the expense of macro social stratification categories. What is of importance is that whether it’s still profitable to employ it in a caste society as compared to a race society. It seems the cost outweigh the advantage in the Indian caste society because it can deflect principal question and legitimise state policy distortions.

Sthabir Khora, Professor and Dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

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