Abstract: The Use of Intersectionality in Social Work Research: A Systematic Review (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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The Use of Intersectionality in Social Work Research: A Systematic Review

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Sara Matsuzaka, PhD, Doctoral Candidate, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, New York, NY
Kimberly Hudson, PhD, Assistant Professor, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, New York, NY
Abigail Ross, PhD, MPH, MSW, Assistant Professor, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, New York, NY
Background and Purpose: Since its introduction into academic discourse by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality has become a critical lens for understanding the varied experiences of how people with multiple social identities are impacted by interlocking axes of domination (Crenshaw, 1991; Davis, 2008). As the concept grows in popularity in the social sciences, numerous scholars have raised concerns that incomplete or misguided applications of intersectionality place it “in danger of being co-opted, depoliticized, and diluted, serving only as shorthand for ‘multiple identities’ or ‘within group diversity’” (see Moradi & Grzanka, 2017, p. 501). Given that intersectionality is highly relevant to social work scholarship and practice, this systematic review reports the extent to which intersectionality is used in social work research, the approaches used to conceptualize intersectionality, and the degree to which social work researchers use intersectionality responsibly.

Methods: Investigators reviewed 22 databases to identify research studies using the keywords ["social work" OR “social services”] AND ["intersectionality" OR “intersectionality”]. Cochrane systematic review standards were applied, and search parameters were limited to English language articles published from 2009-2019. Using two established frameworks developed to specifically categorize, implement, or evaluate intersectional research (McCall, 2005; Moradi & Grzanka, 2017), investigators classified each study’s conceptualization of intersectionality as intracategorical or intercategorical and assessed the degree to which each study adhered to seven responsible use guidelines.

Results: Of the 153 articles identified, 33 (21.7%) were included in the final sample. Results showed that the majority of studies were conducted in the United States within the past five years and used qualitative methods to explore identity-based experiences of specific populations. Overall, most studies used an intracategorical approach to conceptualize intersectionality (N=24; 72.3%), while 7 (21.2%) used intercategorical approaches. Two studies (6.1%) employed both intra- and intercategorical typologies. On average, the articles in this sample met approximately half of the seven guidelines (M=3.5; SD=1.6; range: 1-6). The guideline to which studies most frequently adhered was to “recommend ways to promote positive social transformation and justice through research, teaching, and practice.” Conversely, only 3 (9.1%) of studies adhered to guideline of “credits Black Feminist activist roots of intersectionality.”

Conclusions and Implications: Findings elucidate the potential for greater innovation in intersectional research methods, while honoring intersectionality’s historical commitment to illuminating intersectional experiences and challenging interlocking systems of oppression. Responsible stewardship of intersectionality in research involves properly crediting its Black feminist roots, making explicit assumptions about knowledge production, using self-reflexivity, and activating the potential for social justice at each phase of research. A failure to do so might reproduce discursive processes through which knowledge becomes a mechanism of domination, rendering invisible the contributions of women of color scholars and Black feminist scholars, specifically.