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Incorporating Intersectionality in Social Work Practice, Research, Policy, and Education

Using an interdisciplinary approach, the social work profession emphasizes a holistic view for understanding the depth and breadth of an individual, family, community, or system in the context of its biological, psychological, social, historical, political, and cultural experiences. Additionally, recognizing the significance of person-in-environment, the profession emphasizes the need for capturing the complexity that exists among the interrelatedness of social systems. Finally, recognizing the power imbalances that exist among individuals and between institutions and individuals and the resulting social inequalities and injustices, the social work profession is concerned with promoting social justice.

According to the 2005 Social Work Congress (National Association of Social Workers, 2005), one of the social work imperatives for the next decade is to address the impact of racism, other forms of oppression, social injustice, and other human right violations through social work education and practice.

Thomas (2004) states that “the social work profession has often struggled with the issue of conceptual unity in an effort to find coherence across the dimensions of theory, policy, practice, [research] and education” (p. 2). Expanding on this point, Murphy, Christy-McMullin, Stauss, and Schriver (2008) add the following:

This discussion has been accompanied by continuing debate and struggle over how to capture both the breadth and depth of the human experience beyond the assertion of a unique professional identity based on dual concern for both “person and environment.” Clearly, new approaches are necessary; especially in efforts to meet the complex needs of the minority persons and communities social workers attempt to serve. (p. 2)

To capture the depth and breadth of the human experiences necessary to meet the objectives put forth by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), social work practice, policy, research, and education must embrace a comprehensive and holistic approach to understanding human experiences and well-being. An intersectional perspective examines how two or more social constructions of oppression and/or privilege intersect to shape people’s social locations and “cumulative lived experiences” (Battle-Walters, 2004), which then lead to the discrimination and oppression of marginalized groups.

The intersectional perspective acknowledges the breadth of human experiences, instead of conceptualizing social relations and identities separately in terms of either race or class or gender or age or sexual orientation. An intersectional approach builds on theoretical contributions made by women of color to address their interactive effects. Additionally, an intersectional approach recognizes the power and complexity of socially constructed divisions. Speaking to the constitutive manner in which intersectionality frames social divisions, Yuval-Davis (2006) states,

Social divisions are about macro axes of social power but also involve actual, concrete people [micro axes]. Social divisions have organizational, intersubjective, experimental and representational forms, and this affects the ways we theorize them as well as the ways in which we theorize the connections between the different levels. In other words, they are expressed in specific institutions and organizations, such as state laws and state agencies, trade unions, voluntary organizations and the family. In addition, they involve specific power and affective relationships between actual people, acting informally and/or in their roles as agents of specific social institutions and organizations. (p. 198)

Furthermore, promoting a sense of depth, intersectionality aims “to capture both structure and dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more axes of subordination” (Crenshaw, 2000, p. 9). Additionally, functioning as a mechanism for social change, an intersectional perspective challenges the status quo by implicating social institutions and social policies that maintain traditional practices of dominance and privilege (Andersen & Collins, 2004).

The various ways in which intersectionality is positioned to meet the challenges of contemporary social work reflect a paradigm shift. Specifically, this is a shift from a linear, either/or, one-dimensional paradigm to a dynamic, contextual, multilevel, both/and approach that considers the power of socially constructed relations of oppression and inequality and acknowledges the presence of such forces in both the public and private spheres (Gubrium & Holstein, 1990; Yuval-Davis, 2006).

As Collins (2000) states, “Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice” (p. 18). Consequently, a paradigm shift that embraces intersectionality in the most comprehensive manner is both appropriate and necessary to capturing the depth and breadth of human experiences within the complex social contexts that social workers encounter while working in increasingly diverse and global communities.

To promote a paradigm shift in social work, we consider intersectionality and its applications with regard to social work practice, social policy, social work research, and social work education. We begin the book by discussing intersectionality as a conceptual framework. Specifically, in chapter 1, we outline the main epistemological and theoretical assumptions underlying this perspective and discuss the main intersectional concepts. In this context, we emphasize the meaning of intersectionality as a mechanism for social change. In chapter 2, we provide an overview of the historical roots and trajectory of the intersectional perspective. In chapter 3, we summarize the main developments characterizing the history of social work’s relationships with marginalized populations, including the feminist critiques of social work. Throughout, we point to the fact that although the social work profession has made great strides to include diversity in its knowledge base and practice, the intersectionality perspective has the potential to further advance the profession of social work. We conclude the first section of the book by discussing the relevance and the challenges of integrating intersectionality in social work practice, research, policy, and education.

The second section of the book consists of four chapters, each discussing the implication of intersectionality to a specific dimension of the social work profession. Thus, in chapter 4, we provide case examples and consider how an intersectional perspective can shape and better inform the assessment and intervention processes at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. We discuss the strengths of an intersectional perspective in relation to generalist social work practice and address challenges related to its applicability to advanced social work practice. In chapter 5, we address the applicability of the intersectional perspective to social work research. Here, we provide an overview of how intersectional scholars can manage the complexity of intersectional research, present the main rules of intersectional studies, and provide some practical ideas that can help researchers conceptualize and evaluate their research with regard to its intersectional nature. In chapter 6, we review the literature on intersectionality and social policies and use a case example to demonstrate how intersectionality can inform the policy process. In this context, we discuss the ways that intersectionality informs different stages of the policy process and provide social work scholars and professionals with tools necessary to assess extant policies and develop new policies using an intersectional approach. We conclude the second section of the book by focusing on social work education. Specifically, in chapter 7 we emphasize the importance of including intersectionality in social work education. Toward this end, we provide a practical example of how the principles of intersectionality can be used to achieve this goal via the creation of intersectional research teams within social work education. We conclude the book by addressing the benefits, challenges, and implications of intersectionality to social work practice, research, policy, and education. We emphasize the need for an intersectional paradigm shift and its importance for social work.


Andersen, M. L., & Collins, P. H. (2004). Race, class, and gender: An anthology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Battle-Walters, K. (2004). Sheila’s shop: Working-class African American women talk about life, love, race, and hair. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2000). Background paper for the expert group meeting on the gender-related aspects of race discrimination. Retrieved November 7, 2008, from

Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. A. (1990). What is family? Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Murphy, Y., Christy-McMullin, K., Stauss, K., & Schriver, J. (2008). Multi-systems life course: A practice perspective with abused women of color. Unpublished manuscript, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

National Association of Social Workers. (2005). Social work imperatives for the next decade. Retrieved August 13, 2008, from

Thomas, P. (2004). Toward the development of an integral approach to social work. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 9(3), 1–20.

Yuval-Davis, N. (2006). Intersectionality and feminist politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3), 193–209.