Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2002

OCLC FAST subject heading

Civil rights


During the latter part of the twentieth century, progressive scholars in various fields of study have developed a large body of works analyzing identity politics. Within legal scholarship, critical race, feminist, anti-heterosexist, and other progressive theorists have demonstrated how legal doctrines and policies perpetuate social hierarchy and reinforce the domination of oppressed classes. The efforts of progressive scholars (and activists) to launch a unified critique of injustice, however, has proved difficult - due in part to the variety of theoretical and doctrinal options available to counter subordination and also to the intractable nature of institutionalized oppression. Yet, progressive scholars have also encountered mounting and sustained “internal criticism” around questions of their own exclusion, dominance, and privilege. Specifically, many progressive scholars have offered leftist critiques of progressive social movements, arguing that these movements themselves reinforce social hierarchy and privilege. Initially, these internal critics seemed to follow a strict “antiessentialism” model: they criticized progressive movements for failing to recognize the complexity of group experience. “Women of color” experiences, for example, were seen as differing in kind from the experiences of white women and men of color; because antiracist and feminist legal theorists neglected to analyze questions of “intersectional” oppression, they obscured the distinct positionalities across the population of persons of color and women. Critical race feminists, especially Angela Harris, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, and Mari Matsuda (and bell hooks in the humanities) demonstrated in painstaking detail the sins of “essentialism.” The pioneering works of critical race feminists have made the “intersectionality” model an established jurisprudential method among antidiscrimination and identity theorists. Equality scholars have illuminated the inadequacies of essentialism in a host of doctrinal and political contexts by employing intersectionality. But the intersectionality critique extends beyond antiessentialism. Intersectionality theorists have also demonstrated the complexity and multiplicity of identity and oppression and the need for a more comprehensive analysis of subordination that resists the traditional temptation to analyze systems of subordination as unrelated and nonconverging phenomena.

After a decade or more of intersectional theorizing, a recent wave of literature has sought to push this literature into different conceptual and substantive locations. Several progressive scholars have isolated perceived limitations of the intersectionality model - while adhering to and praising its strengths. Law reviews are beginning to sponsor symposia on so-called “post-intersectionality” theories - what this Article refers to as “new complexity theories” or “multidimensionality” theories. Nancy Ehrenreich's contribution to this Symposium has added tremendously to this scholarship. The attention paid to these developing models speaks to the many important insights that intersectionality has brought to progressive legal theory.

This Article examines the work of the new complexity or multidimensionality scholars. Most of these scholars are “race-sexuality-gender-class” critics - or scholars whose research introduces sexuality and “queer” theories to the race, gender, and class project initiated by intersectional scholars. This Article seeks to identify concrete points of intervention for multidimensional theorizing. Part II offers an “intellectual history” of the new complexity theories. This section explores the distinctions and similarities among intersectionality literature and the recent contributions of authors in the multidimensionality school. Parts III considers some of the doctrinal implications of new complexity theory and concludes that this work is of great importance for refining and augmenting equality doctrines and for developing more responsive antisubordination theories. The goal of this Article is not to “trash,” marginalize or even necessarily displace intersectionality. Instead, it seeks to demonstrate why the compelling project started by intersectionality - to expound the complexity of identity and subordination - requires more elaboration and development, and why the limitations of intersectional analysis render it inadequate in certain contexts. In so doing, critiques of multidimensionality's shortcomings are both invited and welcomed.