Intersectionality, Intra-actions and Interactionism

by Aline Groh

We are living in a dilemma. To focus any study, any analyses, any thought only on nature or culture or humans or animals or gender or race, is always abridging. If we aim to make an impact in the world, if we aim to address practical problems and to solve or at least to alleviate them, we cannot afford to abridge. We need to see the whole problem including all its roots and consequences. I feel that sounds logical.

But if we try that out, we will realize very soon, that we will be getting nowhere with this approach. Where to start and where to end? The world we are living in is too complex as that we could grasp or even see all roots and possible consequences.

So what can we do? One reaction is to give up, to resign. But there are other, more optimistic, more positive answers which maybe can be found in the concepts of “intra-action” (Godfrey/Torres forthcoming 2016, citing Barad 2007), “intersectionality” (Godfrey/Torres forthcoming 2016) and “interactionism” (Tuana 2009) (and others).

Things and subjects intra-act, they exist by being entangled, intertwined. There are no clear boundaries, no clear separations. Everything is in a constant process, a becoming. Based on this acknowledging of intra-action, Godfrey and Torres understand intersectionality as “the holographic process” (22), because holograms  are “snapshots in time and place” (22) where the information of the whole can be found even though only a small piece is actually available. Intersectionality is a concept and tool to grasp this messy world, to find a (preliminary) entrance point for one’s analyses, a way to cope with the dilemma.

Interactionism, the concept applied by Tuana, “acknowledges both the agency of materiality and the porosity of entities.” (191) However, she also recognizes that “adequate distinctions can be made, even distinctions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’”(192) and in order to get an entrance point they have to be made, “but they are made for a particular purpose and a particular time” (ibid.) which has to be stated clearly: It is absolutely necessary to be “attentive to how the distinctions we embrace, in part, construct our experiences, as well as how these distinctions are enacted in social practices, how they enable as well as limit possibilities and for whom, what they conceal as well as what they reveal, and so on.” (192) It has to be kept in mind that the distinctions we make could be done differently. When we make decisions about which distinctions to make, we might think of several possibilities, but there are most probably even more options. Whatever distinction we choose, it influences how we perceive the world around us and how we act in it – and, moreover, these influences are not the same for everyone, and not everyone has the same chances to make distinctions. This is a lot be aware of, and “it is easier to posit an ontology than to practice it” (209), but it is worth it, because it is the only chance to get at least for a short moment out of the dilemma, to gain at least a glimpse of an insight.


Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007.

Phoebe C. Godfrey and Denise Torres. “Introduction.” In: Systemic Crises of Global Climate Change: Intersections of Race, Class and Gender, eds. Phoebe C. Godfrey and Denise Torres. New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2016.

Nancy Tuana, “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina.” In: Material Feminisms, eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Photo by Justin Makii

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