There are numerous critical theories addressing specific manifestations of privilege and oppression, such as racism with critical race theory and the heteropatriarchy with queer theory. Developing understandings of combined critical theories, intersectionality facilitates explorations of multifaceted identities within dominant social systems. This study focuses on intersectionality due to its potential for addressing interrelated social issues, seeking to answer the following: How has intersectionality theory been engaged in US social work research since the 1990s? How has it been defined? What fields of practice are addressed? What levels of social work are engaged? What practice recommendations are developed?
Methods: This study is a scoping review. Articles were limited to those explicitly engaging intersectionality theory and social work in the US. Only studies conducted within the field of social work (i.e., published in a journal specific to and/or by authors directly in the field) were included. As too few results were generated with Social Work Abstracts, Social Services Abstracts, PsycINFO, and ERIC, search was expanded to all databases in EBSCOhost and ProQuest, accessed with credentials from author’s institution on 11-7-2018 and using the following criteria: Keywords: ab(“social work” OR “social welfare”) AND a(“intersection* theory”); Dates: 1-1-1990 to 10-31-2018; Type: Scholarly/Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles. Results were reviewed to determine if intersectionality and social work were both explicitly primary topics, and the focus was on direct practice in the US. If yes, article was included (n = 113). Hierarchical scheme of deductive and inductive codes was developed. MAXQDA was used to apply codes through close readings and facilitate analysis (e.g., using code matrix).
Findings: Authors used varied language around intersectionality (e.g., intersectionality theory, idea of intersectionality). Definitions and uses were categorized as intersectionality-like, limited intersectionality, and inclusive intersectionality. Within these categories, the following are discussed: (1) authors touched on various practice areas, including gerontology, advocacy, policy development, medical social work, and school social work; (2) discussions occurred at different levels of practice, including micro, mezzo, and macro, and (3) practice recommendations included single-issue and multi-issue foci.
Conclusion and Implications: Findings highlight the powerful lens of intersectionality theory in addressing social issues. Practice researchers can build upon existing intersectional research in order to contribute to more holistic understandings and interventions. Future studies may build on these findings to compare areas and levels of practice researched, along with resulting recommendations, between studies that do and do not engage intersectionality to better determine intersectionality’s usefulness to the field.