Not additive, not defined: mutual constitution in feminist intersectional studies

Feminist Theory 22 (4):575-604 (2021)
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The term ‘mutual constitution’ appears with regularity in scholarship on intersectionality, but what does it mean? We could not easily answer this question in the usual way – by reading books and articles about it – because the term has not received direct, widespread or sustained engagement in feminist theory. This led us to analyse a wide range of feminist scholarship – the entire set of 379 articles in women’s studies journals that consider both intersectionality and mutual constitution – to determine whether there are patterns and commonalities in the ways this important theoretical term is used. Our analysis reveals that while there is widespread agreement that mutual constitution does not allow for an additive or binary approach, this is the only major point of shared understanding of this term. Scholars disagree over whether mutual constitution is, in fact, the same thing as intersectionality, and in practice, clusters of disciplines use the term with different norms and levels of precision. Because of the explanatory potential of this term in intersectional theory, we recommend on the basis of our analysis that social scientists reconsider the convention of asserting that entities such as race, class and gender are mutually constituted and borrow the methodological tools from feminist historians, literary critics and other humanists that would allow for a genuine determination and demonstration of when entities are mutually constituted.



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