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Race, Class, Gender as categories of difference and inequality: Which perspectives arise from the concept of ‘intersectionality’ for human and cultural sciences?
11 settembre 2009

What kind of opportunities of agency does a ‘local’ unmarried, Jewish maidservant (‚Judenmagd’) living in the Alsace have compared to a ‘foreign’ Jewish merchant (‘fremder’ ‘Handelsjude’)?
How do representations of ‘masculinity’ in the literature of the Weimar Republic and the structural categories of nation, race and populace corelate?
Which interplay of structures of inequality surfaces in the uprisings in the Parisian Banlieus in 2006?

The recent paradigm of ‘intersectionaliy’ reissues debates about ‘identity’, ‘subjectivity’ and ‘experience’, ‘possibilities of action’ and structures of social inequalities that pervade not only the theoretical and methodological discussions in the sciences humaines et sociales. The metaphor ‘intersectionality’ anticipates a multi-dimensional perspective, that aims to analyse as capacious as possible the positioning of subjects/persons and their courses of actions in concrete historical contexts within a heterogeneous, but by no means arbitrary field of discourses, institutions and social practices.

The concept can be traced back to the women’s and civil rights movement in the 19th century and is embedded in, and widely associated with, contemporary gender studies. The implementation of its capacious and various subject matters of analysis must, however, be carried out interdisciplinary and work-sharing.

‘Intersectionality’ is considered as a “travelling concept” that changes its profile according to the various cultures of science/knowledge. Since the 1980s, as started in the US, the diversity and complexity of various categories of differentiation have been analysed. Recently, various conferences and publications have shown the expansion of these discussions into European academia. While methodological questions have been discussed in German and English Humanities, the concept is still widely unknown in France. Therefore the conference seeks to discuss those developments in the Francophone and German Context.

Analyzing the various forms of social differentiation and inequality, the “buzzword” (Kathy Davis) ‘intersectionality’ is intended to connect social and cultural levels related to subjects, institutions and society. The selection and the number of the levels of interrogation can only be chosen according to the researcher’s aims and the object’s concrete historical context.

However, difficulties emerge along with the amplification of descriptive and analytical categories as well as levels of interrogation. As a consequence, the set of categories and its particular elements should be conceptualized and specified. It seems mandatory that these categories and elements should be described according to their historical forms of implementation without imposing particular (modern) analytical concepts. But those “axes of difference” (Klinger, Knapp) do not necessarily run parallel, or function similiarly, as, for example the comparison between the categories ‘gender’ and ‘class’ demonstrates. They might be equally dominant as well as hierarchically related, they might intersect or represent each other. However, arguments have been pushed forward against the intersectional approach holding that the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is impossible to implement since its required complexity and reasons of time management within scientific research conflict. How then can intersectional research be organized without despairing of its complexity?

Paris, EHESS, 11. September 2009