intersectionality as a public idea

In a forthcoming ASR paper, Tim Hallett, Orla Stapleton, and Michael Sauder introduce the concept of public ideas. Hallett et al are interested in that subset of ideas that are produced by social scientists and enter into mainstream public discourse. They define public ideas as those with the following properties:

mediators use them as an object of interest (being the news), (b) mediators use them as an interpretant (making sense of the news), and (c) the ideas are used as objects and interpretants in a variety of ways as part of an unfolding career.

In the paper, Hallett et al focus on seven public ideas ranging from “bowling alone” to the “second shift”, tracing the citations to each idea in 12 mainstream newspapers for the 10 years after its initial publication. They categorize the seven ideas studied into a few main clusters based on the trajectory of the number of citations and the trajectory of the share of citations that treat the public idea as an object of interest or an interpretive tool. For example, “culture of fear” is a “coaster” (meaning a relatively steady flow of cites) and is “interpretant heavy” (meaning it’s mostly used as a tool for interpreting other events, rather than a focus of the news story itself – journalists were not writing stories about the culture of fear, but using it to make sense of, say, reactions to terrorist attacks). Hallet et al offer several observations and propositions about the sources and trajectories of public ideas (noting that their sample came from elite institutions, often in books published by crossover/trade presses, etc.), without proposing a full-fledged theory.

Over on Twitter, Beth Popp Berman wondered what their analysis would have looked like if they’d extended their timeframe beyond 2011 and in particular if they’d included intersectionality. Beth pointed to a recent write-up of intersectionality from Vox, pointing to its ubiquity as both a rallying cry on the left and a target of demonization on the right (a great example of an article citing the concept as an object of interest, in Hallett et al’s terms). In this post, I’ll try to see what we can learn by thinking about intersectionality as a public idea.

It’s interesting to note that the way Hallett et al. sampled and built their dataset could not possibly pick up a riser as late as intersectionality. The publication usually pointed to as coining the term intersectionality is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 article  “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” (Though, as Crenshaw and many others note, her key insights about the complicated intersections of systems of oppression are rooted in a tradition of feminist and anti-racist scholarship and activism coming out of groups like the Combahee River Collective, including the brilliantly titled 1982 volume All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave.) Hallet et al. use a 10-year window following the first publication of an idea. In intersectionality’s case, there was almost no newspaper discussion in the 90s and so intersectionality did not and could not make their cut for notability. Their methodology seems to work well at picking up ideas published in trade books by notable academics. But intersectionality’s recent rise suggests that some public ideas emerge via alternate routes.

Here are some data on intersectionality in public discourse. Looking just at the New York Times, intersectionality appears only six times through 2015. The first time it appears is in 2003, and then 5 more citations in 2014-2015 with none in-between. So intersectionality is a very late riser. Interestingly, the 2003 appearance is in an article titled “Blacks’ Guide to Harvard Covers History and Tips” and the mention of the term is in reference to a discussion of the “10 stupidest things” said to Black women (“How do you deal with the intersectionality of race and gender, being doubly oppressed as black and female?”). The next two appearances are a 2014 piece by Crenshaw herself, reviewing a book about Justice Sotomayor, where the term appears only Crenshaw’s by-line(!), though the idea is discussed in the text, and then a 2014 op-ed by Mark Bittman, in a quote from William Barber II of the NAACP. Given the existence of these articles, and others, which mention intersectionality as an explanatory/interpretive tool, along with the debates like the one in Vox about intersectionality as an object of interest/politics, I think intersectionality likely now meets Hallett et al’s definition of a public idea.

Looking at a broader swath of newspapers, a search of Proquest’s US Newstream database reveals 4,855 results from 1994-2019, going from less than 10 per year in the 1990s to more than 1,000 in each of 2017 and 2018, with the jump starting around 2013:

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 2.39.02 PM.png

Beyond newspapers, both Google Books and Google Trends show a slow build-up of discussions, without a single discontinuous moment of emergence. Here’s Google Books, which unfortunately only runs through 2008 and shows a steady increase through the 2000s presumably reflecting its use in scholarly publications (though it would be interesting to know if it continues spiking through the 2010s):

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 2.22.57 PM.png

And here’s the Google Trends chart, showing search activity and again a relatively steady increase from the beginning of the data in 2004 (with some seasonality that might be reflective of the academic calendar, with lulls it the summer):

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 2.00.49 PM.png

Together, these data suggest a possible alternative route towards the success of intersectionality as a public idea. As the 2003 off-hand mention in the NYT story about the Black student’s guide to Harvard suggests, intersectionality was a reasonably common topic of conversation among college students by the early 2000s. I recall hearing the term frequently from friends taking sociology classes when I was an undergrad (2002-2006). The generation of scholars trained in the 1990s debated, discussed, and elaborated intersectionality; those scholars then trained students in the 2000s. And those students are running news websites like Vox and social movements now. In other words, I wonder if the route to intersectionality’s success as a public idea here is less what Hallett et al find (an elite author writes a crossover book and successfully markets it to the “Take Class” of op-ed writers and elite journalists) and more diffusion via the curriculum. A generation of sociology and women’s studies majors leave college and bring the idea with them into various organizing spaces – along with the activist scholars most associated with the term itself!

Similarly, as noted in the Twitter thread, the 2000s also coincides with “Web 2.0”, including spaces like Livejournal and Tumblr where feminist ideas like intersectionality were discussed, debated, and popularized (and now, demonized). See, e.g. 2009’s “Racefail.”

Whatever the exact route or combination of routes – classroom, social media, feminist  and anti-racist activist organizations – the story of intersectionality is not the story of hitmakers in the publishing industry and elite media attention. Rather, and quite fittingly, it’s the story of collective mobilizations and consciousness raising over time, one rooted in scholarly research and writing, but not limited to it. If this analysis is more or less right, then it serves as a useful reminder that there are many routes to influencing public understanding, and that public sociology does not (and should not) measure its success by its direct, immediate influence elite media conversations, even if public sociology’s goals include eventually shaping that conversation.

UPDATE: Jeff Lockhart produced these lovely graphs comparing trends of papers published with titles or abstracts containing one of eight terms – the seven from Hallett et al’s paper and intersectional* (intersectional, intersectionality, etc.) – as well as a separate chart of citations to those papers.



Jeff’s commentary is on Twitter, and the data and code are available here. My quick take is that the order of magnitude of intersectional just overshadows the others, which I think fits my reading: intersectionality comes to be a powerful academic force and then becomes a public idea rather than entering public discourse directly. The trajectory is quite different for the other seven.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

2 thoughts on “intersectionality as a public idea”

  1. Dan, thanks for putting this together, it is very interesting and keeps the conversation going! As you note, in terms of our typology, intersectionality is a “riser.” What would be interesting to see would be how the idea is used during this dramatic late rise. Is “intersectionality” itself the topic or object of controversy and interest (“being the news”), or is it an interpretant for something else (“making sense of the news”), or some sort of combination of the two, or something else entirely? Based only on the Vox article and your preliminary analysis, it looks like intersectionality is quite often the object of controversial interest, or “the news,” meaning it could actually be an “object heavy riser,” which is an empty cell in our typology. In terms of its career attention pattern and how it is used, it strikes me that it might be a mirror to the chart for “bell curve” in our paper.

    You are right that there a likely multiple means through which social science ideas can become public ideas. In order to make our project tractable and to study the ideas in a way that was consistent across the sample in terms of sources and the publicity window, and to do so in a way that was rigorous and workable for both qualitative and quantitative analysis, we had to make some tough methodological decisions. I’m excited to explore the case of intersectionality (and other ideas) because, while it looks to have had a different initial path into the public, conceptually, it might be the same in terms of object, interpretant, and career, and it might fill a currently empty cell in the typology, or necessitate revisions to the typology or an explosion of the typology.

    Good stuff! -Tim Hallett


    1. Hi Tim! Thanks so much. I don’t know how representative the Vox story is – I included in part because it was a striking example of “object” citation, whereas most of the ones I’ve seen fall more heavily on interpretant. So I wonder if the sequence is something like:

      1. Emergence in academia.
      2. Diffusion through students, academics, and activists.
      3. Engagement with activist/academic intersectionality frame by diffuse journalists, mostly as interpretant.
      4. Sufficient awareness to trigger reflexive stories where intersectionality switches to being an object, engaging with either the academic debates (identity vs. structure foregrounding, say) or political debates (conservative pushback/demonization).
      5. Cycling between 3 & 4.

      Either way, I think it looks a bit different from the existing examples, though how different would be a question for empirical analysis!

      Thanks again for the comment and the paper.


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