Q - Why should policy makers take intersectionality into account when designing social and public policies?
Public policy administrators often deal with balancing the mandate of solving policy issues and making these policies come to life amidst the contextual complexities of the constituencies where they are to implement them (Meek & Newell,2005).i While social realities are complex territories to implement policies (which will be discussed in more detail shortly), the issues also arise due to public policies' engagement with 'wicked problems' (Head, 2008), which means that these policies try to tackle issues that do not have predictable, terminable, value-laden, or clear solutionsii. Additionally, as the world sees a rise in Populist governments riding on the political currency of charming voters through promises of 'delivering the goods' in their short termsiii, the push on solving these 'wicked problems' has never been so visible.
Public policy administration is facilitated by the research conducted in this field that attempts to answer the question as succinctly phrased by (Manuel, 2006): how do we organize a set of political institutions and appropriate rules of governance that permit our citizens to pursue ends that maximize their individual and collective well-being?iv
In the pursuit of such a broad-ended goal, there is another relatively overlooked issue embedded in the design of social and public policies that hinders their effectiveness: which is the concept of the 'Intersectionality theory' as put forth by Black Feminist Kimberle Crenshaw in her 1989 seminal paper on the topic. The concept of Intersectionality is understood to be a 'framing tool for mapping social locations of an individual as categories such as, class, gender, race/ ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other markers of identity and difference, which act in tandem as intersectional and interlocking phenomena as opposed to independent factors' (Crenshaw, 1995). This approach allows for a more comprehensive understanding of social problems as not arising out of one mechanism, but as we see in the lived realities of everyday life, as a product of multiple intersectional social locations.
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Elucidating the theory in her most recent TED talk, Crenshaw said that by seeing social categories (such as gender and class) as independent of each other, we are taking "a trickle-down approach to social justice. Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation."v It would be interesting to note here that while Crenshaw is not the first to discuss the notions of politics of difference and identity politics, her work is seminal in the light of how it allows us to look at these 'wicked problems' more comprehensively, as 'intersections' of mutually-dependent issues.
Needless to say, by acknowledging the intersections of social locations allows policymakers to figure out why the citizens as benefactors of these policies are at varying levels of reception (i.e. the existence of inequality), why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work, and finally, how could the accommodation of an intersectionality approach improve the effectiveness of policies by being more purposefully targeted at the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Further, (Manuel, 2006) proposes that the intersectional theory is especially pertinent to two key areas of Public Policy Research:
(1) analyses of how public policies affect individual behavior (that is, how people make life choices as a result of changes in public policy), and
(2) analyses of the political leadership dynamics of women of color (particularly conditions under which these leaders emerge, function, and subsequently impact policy development) (Manuel, 2006).
Another key note here is that identity markers as tools for social mapping aren't just about the identification of vulnerability, but also allow for decoding of social positions, both vulnerable and privileged. This means that while an individual could be vulnerable in one social category, they could still have other identities that are relatively more resourceful. Such analytical contextual unpacking of 'the architecture of exclusion' without value-judgments (such as what charities do), make the intersectionality approach to policy administration much more comprehensible and accessible. It might be interesting to see what implications if any, this approach would have on public debates surrounding progressive taxation, affirmative action programs, attitudes towards generous welfare schemes, Universal Basic Income, etc.
To elucidate these arguments better, it might be useful to look at some examples to illustrate the claim of the importance of the intersectionality approach to Social and Public policy.
Case 1: MSM and HIV prevention programs in Vietnam
Fundamentally, research in the field claims that HIV is an 'epidemic of intersectional inequality formed by race, gender, class, and sexual inequalities at various levels' (Watkins-Hayes, 2014)vi. An underexplored barrier in tackling the disproportionate rates of HIV faced by MSM in Vietnam relates to the failure of existing public health programs to recognize and account for diversity among MSM and surrounding social stigma as a deterrent to access to health care services (Philbin et al, 2018)vii.
Here, it's important to note that groups such as MSM are not a 'natural community', but a policy category. Does this mean that by basing the access to relevant healthcare resources on this one artificial identity, is it counter intuitively being made even more inaccessible to the target group? Also, is the focus on their 'MSM' identity at the cost of their social exclusion due to issues such as stigma? These questions pose valid intersectional issues for the healthcare and HIV prevention policies for this social group.
Case 2: Temple sex-slaves as beneficiaries of state welfare programs in Southern India
Another policy and intersectional identity crossroad is the issue of the Temple Slave workers or 'Joginis' as they are referred to in the rural recesses of the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. These women could be considered the 'ultimate victims' as their identities of being women, lower-caste, physically challenged, formally uneducated, unemployed, residing in remote healthcare-inaccessible areas are further societally legitimized through the ascription of religiosity to their status as 'temple slaves' (Tejpal, 2018) viii.
While Joginis are 'in principle' married to a local deity, effectively they become sex workers of the village, with no promise of patronage or alternatives of sustenance. Thus, while they are considered as 'married' in their local cultural spaces, they cannot claim state welfare schemes for married women, such as the 'Prerna
Scheme'. Despite a legal ban on the institution and rehabilitation of the victims, the religiosity combined with an interplay of gender roles has rendered the cycle of inequality untouched. Social stigma and other forms of disempowerment render them helpless against a system that seems to be structurally pitted against them.
Now, as seen in the above two examples, an intersectional analysis was crucial in these contexts to identify the pitfalls in the effectiveness of social and public policies. However, it is important to note here that the Intersectional approach is not being argued for as a panacea for policymaking shortfalls. With the increase in the use of the intersectionality lens, the inherent issues of the same are also surfacing. A fundamental one being, 'how much difference in mapping intersections is too much or too little?'. Minow's research on the politics of difference claims that "both focusing on and ignoring difference risk recreating it. This is the dilemma of difference." (Minow, 1985)ix
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The other major concern with the use of the intersectional theory in the field of public policy is with its Methodological implications in policy research (Hankivsky, O., & Cormier, R. (2011)x. At the moment, it is mostly utilized in large-scale quantitative studies to merely account for 'statistical control'xi (Hum and Simpson 2003, 4). Researchers are finding ways to fill the gap between the theoretical and practical application of the Intersectionality approach to the fields of policy studies and administration.
Nevertheless, Social and Public Policies are not neutral and are not experienced the same way by all populations, given their inherent complexities. Thus, important intersectional social locations differences need to be taken into account while designing, implementing, and evaluating policy to ensure maximum inclusion and effectiveness.
i Meek, J. W., & Newell, W. H. (2005). Complexity, interdisciplinarity and public administration: Implications for integrating communities. Public Administration Quarterly, 321-349.
ii Head, B. W. (2008). Wicked problems in public policy. Public policy, 3(2), 101.
iv Manuel, T. (2007). Envisioning the possibilities for a good life: Exploring the public policy implications of intersectionality theory. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 28(3-4), 173-203.
vi Watkins-Hayes, C. (2014). Intersectionality and the sociology of HIV/AIDS: Past, present, and future research directions. Annual Review of Sociology, 40, 431-457.
vii Philbin, M. M., Hirsch, J. S., Wilson, P. A., Ly, A. T., Giang, L. M., & Parker, R. G. (2018). Structural barriers to HIV prevention among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Vietnam: Diversity, stigma, and healthcare access. PloS one, 13(4), e0195000. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0195000
viii Tejpal, M. (2018). Sexual Slavery: A Case Study of Joginis in South India. ANTYAJAA: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change, 3(2), 181-193.
ix Minow, M. (1985). Learning to live with the dilemma of difference: Bilingual and special education. Law and Contemporary Problems, 48(2), 157-211.
x Hankivsky, O., & Cormier, R. (2011). Intersectionality and public policy: Some lessons from existing models. Political Research Quarterly, 64(1), 217-229.
xi Hum, D., & Simpson, W. (2003). Labour Market Training of New Canadians and Limitations to the Intersectionality Framework. Canadian ethnic studies, 35(3).
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