Source: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

As a female thinktanker with India’s Public Affairs Centre (PAC), I am interested in taking forward the discussion on gender in all aspects of our work, therefore I have been studying the manner in which various identities intersect with gender to deepen power imbalances and heighten inequalities. In this blog post, I reflect on discussions I had on intersectionality with funders and think tanks in the Think Tank Initiative.

[Varsha Pillai is a Programme Manager, with Public Affairs Centre in India, a not-for-profit think tank committed to good governance.]

The term ‘intersectionality’ is typically used to capture the idea that, beyond gender, individual experiences are also defined by factors such as race, class, caste, and sexual orientation, which are themselves determined and shaped by social systems of power. Understanding intersectionality is essential to working towards Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, which calls for continued action to reduce gender inequality and empower women. Viewed as an emerging concept, intersectionality does not see identities as being independent of each other, rather as identities that are interconnected. Different social, economic and political outcomes arise through the interaction of these identities both at an individual level as well as on a systematic level. In order to address and effectively tackle the interrelatedness of development issues, it is imperative for think tanks to apply an intersectional lens to the work they do and how they do it.  

Intersectionality matters because it takes into account the diverse ways that power plays out through identity, the different ways oppression arises, and the forms it takes. For think tanks that are sincere in encouraging diversity of staff, ideas and opinions within their organisation, understanding these intersections is critical. Think tanks cannot escape power structures and other complexities (i.e. race, class, caste, and sexual orientation) within their own organizations and the public policy space – indeed they must negotiate their way through these complexities – if they are to achieve transformation through the domains of their research and their organizational processes.

Within the Indian context what does intersectionality mean? Does it help in understanding the fractured nature of our identities or does it make research more complex than it needs to be? Caste identities and gender play a crucial role within the development praxis in the Indian context. Power structures (and therefore marginalisation) reflect these social categories, closely followed by class hierarchies and access to due processes. Research would be simpler without factoring in these dimensions but without their inclusion, research would remain largely unidimensional and unreflective of the realities it seeks to understand.

As organizations who are trying to transform systems and social structures they are embedded within, think tanks need to grapple with issues regarding intersectionality both as a topic of research and through their own practices.

My discussions within the think tank community on this topic brought forth interesting insights, some of which I list down below:

  • Intersectionality can capture the lived realities and structural nature of inequalities: In the development discourse that is currently evolving, concepts like intersectionality have a clear focus on people. Even the SDG agenda and the commitment to “leave no one behind” acknowledges this point, even if it doesn’t mention the word “intersectionality”.
  • Intersectionality effectively encapsulates diversity and marginalization: Think Tanks need to capture the diversity of lived experiences that are closely impacted by oppression and marginalization, especially the different dimensions of identity that play out, since these concepts closely interplay with real world power
  • Intersectionality makes a clear stance on inclusion and equity: Intersectionality can no longer be ignored if think tanks are looking at the development praxis from the lens of inclusion and equity. Patterns of exclusion and inequality and how it plays out can be better understood if one looks at systems and social structures from all angles as topics of research as well as within internal systems and practices of think tanks.

For a variety of reasons, it would be prudent for think tanks to take an intersectional approach to their work, be it through research, advocacy or public engagement, to stay relevant and truly effective.

(The author would like to thank the following for their insights into the subject of intersectionality: Dr Seema Bhathia-Panthaki (IDRC), Dr Shannon Sutton (IDRC) and Gurucharan Gollerkeri (PAC), which helped frame the article)