Friday 2 July 2021

Intersectionality: buzzword or key to tackling health inequalities?

Posted by Dr Daniel Holman, Professor Sarah Salway, Dr Andrew Bell, University of Sheffield

Intersectionality – the idea that multiple axes of inequality overlap and interact – arguably holds great potential to understand and tackle health inequalities. But what do researchers and those working in policy and practice in this area actually think about the approach? What do they see as the key challenges and opportunities? We held a professional stakeholder workshop and consultation survey to find out. Our findings indicated a ‘cautiously optimistic’ view of an intersectional health perspective.

A growing interest in intersectionality and health

Intersectionality is currently something of a buzzword. A search of the scientific literature reveals an explosion in interest, with an eight-fold increase in papers mentioning the term in the last ten years, and a twenty-fold increase for those mentioning both ‘intersectionality’ and ‘health’:

Figure 1 - SCOPUS documents mentioning both 'intersectionality' and 'health' in title, abstract or keywords

The interest in applying intersectionality to health research, and specifically health inequalities research, has now also been fuelled by the pandemic. Ethnicity, deprivation, and age strongly influence Covid-19 outcomes. Calls for intersectional analysis of Covid-19 have now been published in BMJ Global Health and The Lancet.

Yet recent events have indicated significant political barriers. The Sewell Report essentially explained away ethnic health inequalities with reference to socioeconomic factors – anathema to intersectionality – and last year the UK Government declared itself ‘unequivocally against’ Critical Race Theory (within which intersectionality is rooted).

Further, policy-making is a process of dialogue, negotiation and ‘knowledge interaction’, with power relationships, varied sources of ‘evidence’ and competing drivers clearly at play. So, we should not expect the concept to straightforwardly impact how health inequalities are understood and addressed.

Theory vs. practice

In theory, intersectionality offers a critical, innovative approach for understanding and tackling diverse health inequalities. It essentially concerns the power structures and processes that drive these inequalities, and seeks to highlight how unjust systems of discrimination such as racism, sexism and classism operate in tandem to result in unequal, unfair life chances. The animation video below gives an overview of the approach:


Putting intersectionality to work entails a number of practical challenges. Many of our participants thought the term sounded like just another buzzword, questioning what it adds. Concerns were raised about the complexity of intersectionality both as a conceptual and methodological framework. For resource-strapped public health teams this was felt to be a particular barrier. Complexity can sometimes inhibit action because policy making processes support simplicity and certainty.

Methodologically, intersectionality includes a danger of over-disaggregation. Working with finer and finer categories to produce a granular picture of inequalities risks losing sight of the processes of disadvantage that impact across groups of people. Questions were also raised over how we can reveal mechanisms including discrimination, use mixed methods and participatory approaches, include marginalised populations, and access large, high quality datasets that intersectional analyses might require.

How might intersectionality actually be implemented? We asked respondents to consider two suggestions

First was the idea of using intersectionality to target and tailor interventions and policies. This raised numerous concerns that it potentially takes focus away from structural changes; assumes that all those in a particular intersection are the same; excludes those who do not fall into the targeted category, and; reinforces deficit and stigmatising narratives. Nonetheless, respondents thought that targeting could have value if marginalised groups were included in the process. They also suggested that geography should be considered when targeting as it is a key aspect of social context.

Second was the idea of monitoring and evaluating the impact of policies and programmes on different sub-groups. This approach was more popular, with participants keen to be able to demonstrate differential and unanticipated outcomes of initiatives. Again, the importance of meaningful engagement of marginalised groups and careful attention to understanding mechanisms, were highlighted.

What is the way forward? Our participants emphasised some key principles and points of action:
  • Ensure a clear focus on systems of social discrimination and how they structure access to power, resources and life chances, especially via social institutions (such as schools).
  • Wherever appropriate, participatory and co-productive approaches - entailing more equitable knowledge-production – should be used.
  • Carefully consider complexity; arguably intersectionality’s biggest asset and challenge. What constitutes the right level of complexity and in which context? Trade-offs are inevitable.
  • Develop clear methodological guidelines, possibly in the form of a toolkit, to help with implementing intersectionality, especially for non-academics with limited research resources.
  • Big datasets with well measured social variables are essential.
Intersectionality holds much promise. It has the potential to help ensure that those experiencing multiple discrimination are not further disadvantaged by the Covid recovery phase. Acknowledging and addressing potential pitfalls and limitations of the approach is therefore crucial. Marginalised populations, researchers, policy and practice professionals all need to be part of the conversation.

To read more about the project from which this research originated, please take a look at the project website:

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