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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Interdisciplinarity I

Recently, I attended a workshop on "Intersectionality in Women's Health Research" at Simon Fraser University. It was terrifically stimulating for me, and part of that stimulation is a reframing of my entire way of being in the world.

In some ways, intersectionality is a fancy name for a simple concept. But it has important connotations and context that seem very powerful. And it seems important for me to figure out exactly what I mean by that, why it is so exciting and stimulating, and where I can go from here.

Intersectionality arose as a way of describing the experiences of black women activists, who found that their experiences and challenges were not being met within the women's movement, nor within black activist groups. They describe being dually penalized, and describe the ways in which both marginal (I use it in the statistical sense) movements (women, black) failed to include them and left them feeling that they had no political options that spoke to their needs. So, fundamentally, intersectionality has been a concept that allows people in multiply-marginalized roles to articulate their unmet needs, and to take political action to have those needs included in the wider discourse.

What was exciting for me?

  • Complexity as a legitimate topic
  • Transdisciplinarity embraced as a powerful research paradigm - a way across/outside of the research silo model of academic organization
  • A model for transdisciplinary work that is built on mutual respect and a delight in the ways in which each contributor's expertise can inform the collective understanding
  • Resonance with my mathematical modelling history, particularly an intriguing book I read while working for Carl Walters as an undergraduate student in 1985. The book was a set theoretical framework for understanding how natural systems work, and included some very interesting ideas about actors in a complex system, with ways to address features of each actor, and a relation (like a filter) that described how each actor was seen by other actors in the system. So, our observation process will recognize some (but not all) aspects of A and B, but A and B may see one another in entirely different ways. The theory was helpful to me in that it suggested ways in which apparent random processes might actually be driven by incomplete observation processes.
  • Where I then went with this is to think about identity- self-identity, identity by others, feedback from others, feedback from groups, systemic recognition (and failure to recognize) identities, and the role of activism and policy work in retuning systemic understanding of individuals to redress implicit and explicit processes by which individuals are seen and categorized.
  • Out of this has come some interesting ideas about integrity, the costs of not having integrity, and the ways in which living in a congruent environment facilitates integrity, while living in a fragmented environment makes it much harder.
  • My math-geek self was also challenged by the fact that both of the introductory speakers (Rita Dhamoon, Ange-Marie Hancock) were struggling to find a representation to visualize what they were describing.
One opening that I believe this may represent is for those of us who find our expertise is excluded from acceptable discourse because we are positioned within biomedicine. Just as class may act through gender, and gender may act through class (Gita Sen, public evening lecture), both may act through physiological mechanisms. If you understand those mechanisms, you can ask more interesting questions, and ask them in ways that are enriching and helpful for policy.

I would like to write more fully on many of these topics, but this is a useful start.

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