Let me explain: why we use intersectionality and complexity theories

In 2008, Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay called Men Explain Things to Me, and an anonymous responder coined the term “mansplaining”. In a recent article in The Guardian, Solnit comes back to the issue, warning that the absurdity of the phenomenon tends to hide serious consequences. She admits that many of the examples are funny – a man explaining one of her own books to her; another man explaining vaginas to a noted female gynaecologist.  However, she goes on to argue that mansplaining is part of “a colossal problem, in which biases, statuses and assumptions warp everyday life and allocate more credibility, audibility and consequence to some people than others”.

This inequality of voice, as she calls it, can harm or even kill people. Women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged from hospital when they are having a heart attack because diagnosis is based on male symptoms rather than the very different ones women experience. A report on criminal justice systems in Europe found that the police do not take reports of racist crime seriously or they do not believe the victims, especially if they are Roma or Black.

Solnit concludes that mansplaining’s meaning “requires the broader context of intersecting inequalities and assumptions”. Intersecting inequalities, or intersectionality, is the target of sustained criticism these days, often by people who are constantly (and non-ironically) on mass media complaining in essence that they are being silenced because you can’t say anything racist these days without being accused of racism.

So what is this intersectionality theory that so outrages people who rarely if ever suffer the consequences of discrimination? And why does COVINFORM use it as the theoretical basis for its work, along with the theory of complex systems?

The theory has its origins in the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s and 1990s. Crenshaw examined a number of court cases involving Black women to show how the legal system failed them by considering only one aspect of the injustices they suffered. The fact that the women suffered sex and race discrimination simultaneously was deemed irrelevant, and what mattered was the extent to which they suffered from the same discrimination as white women or Black men. One court even warned against creating “…a new classification of ‘black women’”.

Inequality and oppression are the result of combinations and variations of a number of factors, but as intersectionality theory is careful to emphasize, the end result cannot be calculated simply by adding up the various factors. Some factors offset others to a certain extent. A rich, well-educated, middle-aged Black woman is unlikely to receive the same treatment as a poor, badly-educated young Black man.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is abundant evidence gender, ethnicity, social class, and so on play a major role, and that health status and outcomes are determined by many factors beyond biology. Intersectionality helps to explain why this is so by looking at the systemic factors underlying health at different scales from the individual to society. Using an intersectionality lens to examine an issue can clarify how that issue is framed, make the data collection more relevant, sharpen the analysis of that data, derive more robust conclusions from the analysis, and offer better policy advice.

Identity is not the only factor determining outcomes in a domain such as public health. A whole series of systems interacting across different scales and temporalities combine to produce a given state of affairs at a given instant. The question then is how to focus on what is essential. Complex systems thinking allows us to identify the key drivers, interactions, and dynamics of the economic, social, and environmental nexus that policy seeks to shape, and select points of intervention in a selective, adaptive way.

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution led to a world view dominated by the metaphor of the machine. Previously, biological imagery had dominated, notably the concept of the “body politic”. In both, crises were the exception, and were compared to diseases in the body or external shocks knocking the well-functioning machine off course. We still use the machine metaphor today when we talk about “policy levers” we can pull to set things right again. This is essentially a linear, Newtonian view where given the correct data and other inputs, we can calculate the future course of events.

Physics abandoned this approach in the early 20th century following the paradigm shift triggered by relativity and quantum theory. Other sciences would soon start to follow, in some senses coming back to the more sophisticated concepts of mutual influence found in “the great chain of being” and “the harmony of the spheres”. The most striking metaphor produced by the new science comes from studies of the weather. In 1961, meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered that a tiny change in data he typed into his numerical weather model eventually led to a totally different forecast from the one using the original number.  At a conference to present his work, he compared this to the flap of a seagull’s wing eventually causing a storm thousands of miles away. A colleague suggested the more poetic flap of a butterfly wing in Brazil leading to a tornado in Texas.

In a Newtonian world where “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” the flap would only cause a reaction in the air the wings pushed, allowing the butterfly to fly. We have to move beyond action-reaction pairs to look at complex series of interactions, such as those that caused a local disease outbreak to provoke a global crisis and millions of deaths.

This is not possible using theories, models and ideas developed for cases where it is reasonable to assume that the system is normally in equilibrium until hit by an external shock; and that behaviours are linear and can be predicted by extrapolating from the behaviour of a typical “agent”.

To understand human systems, we have to take into account not only the socio-economic characteristics of a particular person, but also the history, environment, psychology, culture, beliefs, ambitions, hopes, fears, prejudices, etc. that influence how people behave and interact with each other. Intersectionality is a lens through which to examine the multidimensional aspects of the systemic disadvantage and privilege and how inequalities and oppression based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and physical ability interact.

Within the COVINFORM project, by combining intersectionality theory with complexity and systems theories, we can better understand some of the causes, impacts and consequences of crises like the COVID pandemic, and be better prepared for the next major crisis, whatever its form.


Author: Patrick Love, Factor Social