Untangling inequalities: why power and intersectionality are essential concepts

January 12, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Fenella Porter, Oxfam’s Gender Policy Advisor

In the small and rather quirky Chapel of the House of St. Barnabas in Soho, a group of UK civil society representatives gathered together to have a conversation about inequality. After having been in many discussions recently which have struggled to extend the understanding of inequality beyond wealth, what was interesting in this forum was that wealth inequality was understood more as an underlying context. We were talking about inequalities (and there were many of them) in the context of austerity and increasing wealth inequalities in our society.

Essentially we were talking about intersectionality, which is a long word; and power, which is a big idea. If we are to understand inequality in the context of increasing wealth inequalities, then using an intersectional lens helps to explain how people experience inequality according to different – intersecting – aspects of their identity. No one, for example, is just poor, or just working class, or just a woman or just a disabled person. There is also no hierarchy of inequality, where some forms of inequality ‘trump’ others. Each person experiences a combination of inequalities differently, and these will shape how each person responds in different situations.

Whilst the focus was on austerity in the UK, there are important lessons for thinking about the intersection of different inequalities in every country and region. When we consider for example how important it is to campaign for publicly funded mental health services for young people, many in the room might consider this to be unproblematic. But using an intersectional analysis makes clear that peoples’ experiences of mental health services have been very different, for different communities. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK, for example, have experienced mental health services as sites of discrimination and crisis. Migrant communities also have a different experience of public institutions such as health services, with immigration status a crucial factor in peoples’ health-seeking behaviour. The gendered nature of access to public institutions such as health services is also hugely important, as women’s access will depend not just on the presence of these services, but also on the quality of care they get, and the ‘informal’ power that might be exerted by being asked to communicate in an unfamiliar language, for example. In campaigning for public funds, in order not to increase the sense of discrimination some have felt in these ‘public institutions’, those of us advocating for continued public funding must also understand the experience of different communities and actively bring them into the conversation about what a publicly funded health service looks like and feels like for different communities.

And this brings us to the notion of power in civil society. The Civil Society Futures conversation recognised that civil society itself is not a level playing field. Different communities and their organisations can exert and maintain power in their relationships with others, based on established ideas of privilege. Oxfam, for example, occupies a position of considerable power in the landscape of civil society, as a large, relatively well-funded organisation, with very high ‘brand value’. This power does not just manifest itself in financial terms. It is also a question of how knowledge and ‘expertise’ is attributed and claimed.  There is real knowledge and understanding generated by small, community-based organisations, or perhaps organisations representing communities shaped by multiple inequalities, but this knowledge can often be overlooked or smothered in a relationship with larger organisations. It is crucial that we all understand that working in civil society partnership involves recognising and addressing the unequal power relationships between different civil society organisations, as well as in communities, and the broader context in which they are struggling to bring about change.

This is an aspect of the development landscape that concerns many smaller women’s rights organisations, for whom the funding landscape is becoming increasingly narrowly defined, and dependent on consortia relationships with much larger organisations who often do not have the same focus on how women might experience inequality differently. And so complexities like the different experiences of public institutions are rarely at the centre of the work of larger, more powerful, organisations. We do not (yet) actively seek that focus and that knowledge.

Civil society in the UK, and in other contexts, will in the future need to create a much better understanding of people, communities and the organisations which represent them – and how this understanding can help to change the way we work, and the way we represent the interests of poor and vulnerable communities. It will be particularly important to sharpen the focus on intersectionality when understanding how different aspects of inequality might shape the experience of public institutions, and civil society space. This conversation needs to continue to be central to our work as civil society organisations of whatever size and whatever power. It will be interesting to see what emerges.

January 12, 2018
Duncan Green