Intersectionality – of growing interest to social-ecological systems research

As a part of my Master’s education at SRC I had the opportunity to do a one month internship around the intersections between intersectionality and complexity. Here I present a summary and insight from the interviews I conducted. 

In addition to the interviews, I also organised an internal SRC workshop, “Why care about intersectionality”, in which we discussed the contribution of intersectionality to SES research. You can find a summary of the workshop here.  

 If you search for “intersectionality” in the SRC webpage search function, you will find only four results- of which three refer to Master’ students’ profiles. However, intersectionality is making its way to the SRC – both in research practice and in reflecting on our position as researchers.

But what is intersectionality in the first place? 

Davis (2008, p. 68) defines intersectionality as ‘the interaction between gender, race and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power’. For further reading, see Crenshaw (1989), who introduces and develops the theory of intersectionality.

There has been an interest to develop research and practice that applies intersectional approaches at the SRC, starting with the GRAID programme in 2017, in which Nadia Sitas, Michelle Dyer and Grace Wong were involved. Nadia Sitas and Michelle Dyer do not work at the SRC anymore but their work on gender and intersectionality have paved the way for many at the SRC. This year, the Transformative futures and stewardship (TranStew) theme has organised a reading group around intersectionality that initiated many conversations on the topic. Finally, some projects at the SRC are explicitly bringing in intersectional and feminist lenses to their research, such as the SEQUAL project, the OctoPINTS project and “The plastic pollution challenge: a global social-ecological perspective”, a PhD project pursued by Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez.

This demonstrates that many at the SRC and in our broader research community are engaging with intersectionality, although not always naming it as such. Therefore, as part of an SRC MSc traineeship, I conducted thirteen interviews in order to gain a better understanding of how intersectionality was understood and applied at the SRC and more broadly in research on social-ecological systems and complex adaptive systems. 

The interviews were rich in content and provided insights from many different points of views, practices & disciplines. Here are some of the outcomes:

Intersectionality is relevant for social-ecological systems (SES) research

Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez’s answer to why intersectionality was relevant for SES research was straightforward: “Intersectionality in practice is needed for good sustainability science”. It is key to understand different contexts in order to develop good practices. 

Intersectionality, adds Michelle Dyer, requires specific attention to power relations. 

Nadia Sitas could not find any framework to analyse how benefit flows in ecosystem services and to understand how power plays across different systems and therefore SES research could benefit from an intersectional approach.

Intersectionality, as mentioned before, is already present in some of SRC’s projects. As a part of the GRAID programme, Nadia Sitas compared the resilience principles (Biggs et al., 2015) with intersectionality principles. The latter was particularly useful to “think about how humans operationalise resilience from a social perspective”. Understanding resilience as a combination of capacities enables us to untangle the power dynamics and to understand “how you can move resources within a system in ways that can change the status quo”.

SEQUAL, a project led by Grace Wong, has incorporated intersectionality as part of an explicitly feminist research design. The project looks at resource governance and the gender gap at multiple levels, including use of Carol Bacchi’s “What’s the problem represented to be” approach for critical analyses of how problem representations as embedded in policies and government programs can accrue power and limit what can or cannot be talked about.

However, even though intersectionality might deepen your understanding of the social part of your data, it can be hard to connect it to the ecological aspects of one’s SES study.  Liz (Elizabeth) Drury O’Neill gave me the example of her PhD, in which she outlined the social subgroups that fell under the label “fishers” but struggled to link these findings to the ecological aspects of her case study. She understood much more who was benefiting from the ecosystem services but it was challenging to connect these results to the ecological findings of the study.

So how do we move on from an awareness of intersectionality theory to a methodology that builds on intersectionality?

Rethink your categories and your methodologies

If I have convinced you so far that it is worth including intersectionality in your research, how can you apply it in practice? Intersectionality has more often been used in qualitative research than in quantitative approaches. An inductive approach has  been preferred where categories emerge during the data analysis. Some SRC researchers that are using participatory methods are finding intersectionality a useful way to reflect on their research design, with researchers reflecting on the design of focus groups to enable every voice to express themselves for instance. Amanda Jiménez Aceituno explains that interviewees and focus groups participants might have very different experiences of the same context and that this is a key point to take into account when running a workshop.

What are some tools from intersectionality that you could use in SES research? One important contribution from intersectionality is the concept of situatedness: “a process of continuous change, most apparently across class, income, or profession, across time in the age cycle, and across geographical places but also across gender, ethnicity, and sexuality” (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014), which help apprehend overlapping processes that need to be understood within a certain set of networks or dynamics. María Mancilla García mentions Haraway (1988) and says that she believes paying attention to situated knowledges is fundamental for sustainable science. As many interviewees mention, intersectionality is not about the “Oppression Olympics” (see Martinez, 1993), meaning pointing out who is the most vulnerable, but rather about identifying processes of structural power and inequity that are continuously maintained and reinforced. 

Is it possible to have an intersectional approach to quantitative research? For several interviewees, it is not intuitive given the methods they use, however there are some things that can be done. The most important one is to reflect on which categories the data collection is based. As Michelle Dyer explains, “household” is still used as a category to assess wealth in development studies, but this draws the assumption that money is equally shared within the household, which is rarely the case.

In systems thinking, David Collste recommends actively engaging with some tools such as those related to boundary critique to be more conscious about one’s own bias – and how a study object is demarcated.

In any case, it is challenging to “search for something that you are not aware of”, says Celinda Palm, which brings me to my next point: 

How to put your intersectional goggles on?

Many interviewees have become acquainted with intersectionality through personal experiences- when becoming a mother, by moving to a new country and being perceived as “other”, by becoming friends with people who had different lived realities. So, how can you become familiar with intersectionality otherwise? 

For several, the entry point was through research with a focus on gender (Amanda Aceituno Jiménez) or equity (Grace Wong), for others it was active discussions within the SRC as well as relocating to a country where conversations around race mirror much of Sweden’s conversations around gender (Johan Enqvist).

Art and stories can be a powerful way to learn about intersectionality, reflected David Collste. In fact, Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez mentioned the book Americanah, written by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, as a tipping point in her journey towards intersectionality.

Celinda Palm gives us another recommendation to put your intersectional goggles on: “flip the picture”. Does the person portrayed in a particular study, commercial or movie, have to belong to a certain group or could it be anyone? If not, why?

For instance, who do you imagine giving a talk at a business conference? And more importantly, who do you NOT imagine?

Once we are working our way through our own biases, how can we apply it to our research, to be better scientists?

How do we move forward- and with whom?

I ask Simon West what we can do once we have uncovered unhelpful or inequitable bias and underlying assumptions in our existing concepts and categories. He suggests three possible pathways – link existing concepts together, draw inspiration from and use concepts from other knowledge traditions and cultures (bearing in mind the ethical considerations that this approach implies), or create entirely new concepts. In addition to that, he also recommends openness to how we define things, as when going in the field, “social-ecological” is not relevant for research participants who do not mark a difference between nature and culture for instance. 

It is also good to remember that research itself is a very privileged environment. This is reflected in the SRC Master’s programme, which struggles to attract Asian and African applicants since Sweden has instigated tuition fees for applicants outside of the EU and the Nordics. I have had very compelling discussions with Miriam Huitric and Johan Enqvist, reflecting on what should be the criteria to admit students to the Master’s programme. As of now, merit is the main criteria and there are no quotas. However not all applicants have had the same opportunities, depending on their background, and that should be taken into consideration, elaborates Miriam Huitric. 

Many discussions among students in the Master’s programme this year were about the value of doing research in the Global South when one comes from the Global North. There is research to be done in the Global North and some in the class wondered if it was a form of post-colonization to do research in the Global South. I ask Johan Enqvist how he positions himself, as a researcher from the Global North working in the Global South. “I try to remain conscious of the opportunities that I’ve had, that enable me to do this research, and put in time and effort to give others similar opportunities, such as supervising local students and involving local partners in my research in ways that are more actively transdisciplinary than before.

These discussions with Miriam and Johan have taught me that research is dependent on funding, and that research is done where there is funding. I believe funders could be a potential leverage point to make academia a more inclusive environment.

So, what are the next steps to develop intersectionality at the SRC? 

Sarah Cornell gives a multi-scale recommendation:

At the individual level, one can include aspects of how to deal with intersectionality in research proposals and continuously reflect on personal bias and assumptions. 

At the community level, one can engage in SRC reading groups, which is a potent space to expose each other’s biases and prejudices to think, which “requires us to recognise that as scientists, we are also thinking, feeling beings and not just knowledge generators”. It can be an uncomfortable but enriching space.

Finally, at the institutional scale, intersectionality forces us to realise that the knowledge we communicate will be interpreted: “We cannot control the interpretation, but we can control the message” and that message can be of humbleness, as researchers are embedded in this world.

Many thanks to the interviewees for sharing your time, knowledge and life experiences with me: Amanda Aceituno Jiménez, David Collste, Sarah Cornell, Liz (Elizabeth) Drury O’Neill, Michelle Dyer, Johan Enqvist, Miriam Huitric, María Mancilla García, Celinda Palm, Nadia Sitas, Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez, Simon West & Grace Wong

Anna Garre (SRC MSc)

Literature Cited:

Adichie, C. N. (2014). Americanah. Gyldendal A/S.

Bacchi, C. (2012). Introducing the ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be?’approach. Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic interventions and exchanges, 21-24.

Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., & Schoon, M. L. (Eds.). (2015). Principles for building resilience: sustaining ecosystem services in social-ecological systems.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum1 1(8):139–167.

Davis, K. (2008). Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful. Feminist theory, 9(1), 67-85.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies14(3), 575-599.

Martinez, Elizabeth; Davis, Angela Y. (1993). “Angela Y. Davis & Elizabeth Martínez”. Center for Cultural Studies

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Intersectionality. In dictionary. Retrieved June 2, 2021, from

To go further:

Djoudi, H., Locatelli, B., Vaast, C., Asher, K., Brockhaus, M., & Sijapati, B. B. (2016). Beyond dichotomies: Gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies. Ambio45(3), 248-262.

Erwin, A., Ma, Z., Popovici, R., O’Brien, E. P. S., Zanotti, L., Zeballos, E. Z., … & Larrea, G. R. A. (2021). Intersectionality shapes adaptation to social-ecological change. World Development138, 105282.

McCall, L. (2005). The complexity of intersectionality. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society30(3), 1771-1800.

Saville, S. M. (2021). Towards humble geographies. Area53(1), 97-105.

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