Intersectionality and Difference in Participation: To understand their meaning we have to be clear on what they serve for.
This paper was written for the Master course in Building and Urban Design in Development of the DPU at the University College of London. Despite the simplicity of some of the reflections contained here, we decided to publish them in order to keep trace of our learning process, which is, and will always be, an unfinished work open to critiques and further ruminations.
Operating today in an interconnected, globalized world characterized by unprecedented phenomena of migration, hybridization and territorial clustering under the shadows of neoliberal pressure, political polarization, social injustice and infrastructural urgency; we are ethically called, as urban practitioners, to enlarge our ‘disciplinary’ focus from the products the market asks us to design for, to the justice of the processes through which these ones are produced, re-produced and, hopefully, co-produced.
This disciplinary overturn requires to embrace a profound dialectical approach in which communities and citizens are not only systematically recognized as skilled design agents, but also ontologically questioned in their transformative and diverse nature and meaning by the former ‘expert’, who needs to embrace specific and critical positionalities and postures together with the attitude of a procedural reflexivity in hir own practice.
Drawing on this, two main related concepts, such as the ones of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘difference’ prove to be at the core of a conscious discourse on participation and should be daily considered and questioned by urban practitioners dealing with inclusive processes at any scale. Starting from a theoretical introduction of these notions I will outline here my personal understanding on their meaning and examine the dilemmas faced by designers engaged in situated research and participatory processes. This will be done with the convinction that to understand the nature of these terms, we have to previously declare at which geographical and social scales they must operate, in the contemporary context of urban struggles.
Difference has always been the ontological rationale of urban spaces, as it has been used and reproduced to structure the ‘general intellectual’ (and mostly western) project of urbanity to the point that cities were somehow defined “human settlements in which strangers are likely to meet”, as done by Sennett (Sennett, 1978: 39).
However, defining ‘difference’ and how it is built, appears to be more effective if approached from a relational standpoint rather than considering it as a pure, stand-alone concept. Drawing on this, we acknowledge that, rather than being natural products, both identities and the traits defining them, have often been political infrastructures aimed to serve the entrenching of dominant powers and the accumulation of capital in the hands of few, well defined subjects (white, young, christian, middle-class males) as opposed to very broader and vague social categories (blacks, women, migrants, natives, …). Expanding on Sara Ahmed, one of the authors I liked the most, I would say that it is actually this very precise vagueness that, once associated with the political act of ‘othering’, allows dominant classes to extend their reach towards marginalised ones (for more: Ahmed, 2006).
Now, to better consolidate the theoretical kinships between ‘difference’ and ‘intersectionality’ we need two more inputs, respectively from Foucault and Deleuze; in which the first casts the light upon the cumulative constitutions of identities based on internal differences; while the other stresses the trasformative nature of identity in the act of being processed through subjectivation.
Indeed if for the former the procedural constitution of identity “is a process that not only integrates new differences to its own initial difference, but proceeds by an increase of attributes” (Revel, 2009: 49); Deleuze reinforces an accent on identity not only as ‘dense’ but trasformative in time rather than fixed: “The struggle for a modern subjectivity passes through the resistance to the forms of subjection that fix each individual to a known and clear identity, determined once and for all. It thus manifests itself as a right to difference, variation and metamorphosis” (Deleuze, 2020: 6). A similar concept can be augmented, incidentally, by evoking the idea of ‘idensity’, - a term coined by the aforementioned practitioners of Hybrid Space Lab - which explicits the relational process of constituting identities (Hybrid Space Lab, 2021).
Hence, it appears all the more evident that the only way to politically equalize the detailed anatomy of hegemonic actors in decision making processes is to theoretically embed a renewed discourse on difference that considers the arguments traced above. This is, of course, a work still on the making, initiated by activists and theorists of black feminism in the 90s, from whom has been developed the theoretical concept of ‘intersectionality’.
One of the pioneers of the ‘Intersectional Theory’, Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes ‘intersectionality’ as “the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and they create obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking [social justice]” given that “identity is not simply a self contained unit, but a relation" (NAIS, 2018; for a deeper reading: Crenshaw, 1989, 1991).
Deepening with Hopkins, ‘intersectionality’ is about recognizing that unique oppression (racial, patriarchal, cultural, …) exists, but is “also dedicated to understanding how they change in combination” given that is “not only about multiple identities and not a simple answer about solving problems of equality and diversity” (Hopkins, 2018).
Conversely it is an analytical framework to deal with issues of power and recognition that encourages practictioners not solely to weight and calibrate their methodologies with a view of providing access to ‘diverse diversities’ in participatory processes. In my opinion, it is equally a call to recognize how not only disadvantages compound themselves but how they may be ontologically migled with priviledges, despite appearances. So then, what are some of the crucial challenges that practictioners may face in dealing with participatory processes? I will mention three of them, among the many.
First. One of the challenges to deal with, regards the capability of keeping a critical view that does not consider ‘communities’ as static homogeneous entities bearing shared values, agendas, agencies or worldviews, as outlined by Rios (Rios, 208: 215). Thus, a critical positionality for practictioners in situated research takes into account the importance of not leveraging but questioning the nature of the relationships livening the community and the process, considering that “to leave unexamined the power relations and conflicts in the community and in participatory processes [...] tends to benefit communities’ elites and their few already privileged, more vocal members” (Miraftab, 2004: 242). This, incidentally, comes with the acknowledgment that the way with which disadvantages may compound themselves in the life experience of a person, does not differ much from the one with which equally disadvantages and priviledges, oppression and marginalisation agencies can do the same. Think for example at the case of political experiences encroaching feminism with racism or xenophobya.
Second. Once given for granted the importance of a critical and deep approach to difference we should equally consider its methodological implications, one of which is for Watson: “that it renders highly problematic a faith in the role of consensus-seeking processes as a central decision-making tool in planning, both to achieve a common view and to arrive at justifiable outcomes” (Watson, 2006: 32).
Hence, it becomes clear that urban practictioners have equally to deal with the management of these differences in the form of disagreement which, far from be an aim in itself, is about defusing “hostility between different groups”, as outlined by Mouffe (Mouffe, 2005) and methodologically framed by Rios (Rios, 2008). This, rather than being easy, can be get even more complex at institutional levels, where participatory methods are used “as a form of placation and performance to manufacture consensus rather than a means to enter into meaningful dialogue and decision making about conflicts and differences among participants, professionals, politicians, and other stakeholders” (Hajer, 2005).
Third. Starting from acknowledging the increasingly mainstream adoption of participatory processes and the way with which the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is being included in the institutional glossaries; we would better not to ignore the possible consequences following the inflation of the latter in legal terms. After all, we all know as it would not be the first case in which powerful terms have been exhausted and politically reduced by their institutional use. Suffice it here to mention the ones of ‘subsidiarity’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’, above others.
In this case, as urban practictioners, we have to remind that adopting an intersectional mindset is neither about adding selection criteria for situated research nor about widening its mesh only; but it is actually performed in the relational quality that mediators have the task to consider during the process itself and in their capability of keeping the latter permanently unsatured, chemically speaking. It is here that participatory contexts could be compared to spaces of care. Sometimes however relational quality can be hard to be monitored. For this reason I think that a good way for keeping clear in mind the meaning of an intersectional mindset should be the one of understanding which trajectories the term itself has been constructed to run across.
Once aware that ‘difference’ is the only ontological equivalent of society and that it becomes qualified according to the political purposes which is aimed to serve (oppressive or liberative), we finally have to understand how ‘intersectionality’ should be equally framed by practitioners dealing with participatory processes in a broader context of recognition struggles.
This finally informs us on the fact that in order to structurally challenge the status quo, every participatory project with the aim of being politically incisive has to keep a trans-national, ‘trans-identitarian’, trans-scalar posture by embedding this relationality from the very begininning and not as a result of scaling local struggles to global ones, as captured by the activists of the Transnational Social Strike Platform: “there is no local way out to [exploitation]: only a political movement that builds connections across borders, intended in their broader meaning, can overturn this state of affairs and accumulate a common strength” (TSS, 2021, coursive by the author).
In the end, this is what ‘intersectionality’ serves for, and what defines it better: that is, to me, a theoretical device capable to materially articulate in bodies and spaces the logic of what has been theorized as the ‘convergence of struggles’ by the marxist and post-marxist (Marx, Lefebvre, Deleuze, Foucault, Guattari, …), the decolonial and feminist theory (Davies, Crenshaw, …) and particularly encroached (maybe more as a moral call than as a struggle) by Iris Marion Young with the concept of “social connection model of responsibility” (Young, 2006).
To conclude, speaking about these issues from the given position of a young, middle-class, white, able-bodied and heterosexual, north-based, educated male with the good fortune of studying at one of the most progressive colleges in the world is not that easy. I acknowledge that the fate put me in a position hard to be defended since the world has been undoubtedly disposed to voice me, but I am equally enthusiastic about living in a social era in which my priviledges are no more prevented from being turned into obstacles. Actually it is a great window for hope. At the same time I encourage myself to consider those segments of my own identity that may be associated with exploitation and injustice.
Operating as a young designer in development studies in such a catholic and exploiting context as my national one, which often pairs ‘development’ with ‘volunteering’ and intellectual work with low salaries; I finally acknowledge that I am also reduced in the possibilities I have of turning my life and professional expectations into reality.
Now the remaining questions are: “How can I stratecize my own little skirmishes within a broader and converging context of social progress?” and “How can I ethically and dialectically approach oppressed communities in participatory research and processes by being aware of my own priviledges and disadvantages?”.
I still have not all the answers to these questions, but I am increasingly aware that fighting for ‘structural justice’ cannot be framed as a complete renounce to our on own priviledges, but conversely fostered by the momentum they provide to accelerate the liberation of myself and of others, which then results in being impossible if we ignore the deep and political meaning of co-production and participation.
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