Intersectionality, in under 200 words

If we try to eliminate pay gaps by monitoring only single characteristics like gender or ethnicity, we can still end up with pay gaps between combinations of characteristics. One way to do this would be to appoint white women and Black men to senior management positions, but not appoint any Black women.

The idea of an intersection comes from set theory and describes where two sets overlap. For instance, the intersection of the set of Black people and the set of women is the set of Black women.

Intersectionality is a broad framework that promotes the study and elimination of oppression and exploitation of people in terms of combinations of characteristics.

Is intersectionality a theory, explaining why this form of discrimination occurs? Here’s Patricia Hill Collins (2019, p.51), a leading scholar in this area:

“Every time I encounter an article that identifies intersectionality as a social theory, I wonder what conception of social theory the author has in mind. I don’t assume that intersectionality is already a social theory. Instead, I think a case can be made that intersectionality is a social theory in the making.”


Collins, P. H. (2019).  Intersectionality As Critical Social Theory. Duke University Press.

Being realistic about “realist” evaluation

Realist evaluation (formerly known as realistic evaluation; Pawson & Tilley, 2004, p. 3) is an approach to Theory-Based Evaluation that treats, e.g., burglars and prisons as real as opposed to narrative constructs; follows “a realist methodology” that aims for scientific “detachment” and “objectivity”; and also strives to be realistic about the scope of evaluation (Pawson & Tilley, 1997, pp. xii-xiv).

“Realist(ic)” evaluation proposes something apparently new and distinctive. How does it look in practice? What’s new about it? Let’s have a read of Pawson and Tilley’s (1997) classic to try to find out.

Déjà vu

Open any text on social science methodology, and it will say something like the following about the process of carrying out research:

  1. Review what is known about your topic area, including theories which attempt to explain and bring order to the various disparate findings.
  2. Use prior theory, supplemented with your own thinking, to formulate research questions or hypotheses.
  3. Choose methods that will enable you to answer those questions or test the hypotheses.
  4. Gather and analyse data.
  5. Interpret the analysis in relation to the theories introduced at the outset. What have you learned? Do the theories need to be tweaked? For qualitative research, this interpretation and analysis are often interwoven.
  6. Acknowledge limitations of your study. This will likely include reflection about whether your method or the theory are to blame for any mismatch between theory and findings.
  7. Add your findings to the pool of knowledge (after a gauntlet of peer review).
  8. Loop back to 1.

Realist evaluation has similar:

Figure 4.1 and 4.2 from Pawson and Tilley (1997), glued together for ease of comparison. The left loop is taken from a 1970s text on sociological method and the right loop is the authors’ revision for “realist” evaluation.

It is scientific method as usual with constraints on what the various stages should include for a study to be certified genuinely “realist”. For instance, the theories should be framed in terms of contexts, mechanisms, and outcomes (more on which in a moment); hypotheses emphasise the “for whom” and circumstances of an evaluation; and instead of “empirical generalisation” there is a “program specification”.

The method of data collection and analysis can be anything that satisfies this broad research loop (p. 85):

“… we cast ourselves as solid members of the modern, vociferous majority […], for we are whole-heartedly pluralists when it comes to the choice of method. Thus, as we shall attempt to illustrate in the examples to follow, it is quite possible to carry out realistic evaluation using: strategies, quantitative and qualitative; timescales, contemporaneous or historical; viewpoints, cross-sectional or longitudinal; samples, large or small; goals, action-oriented or audit-centred; and so on and so forth. [… T]he choice of method has to be carefully tailored to the exact form of hypotheses developed earlier in the cycle.”

This is reassuringly similar to the standard textbook story. However, like the standard story, in practice there are ethical and financial constraints on method. Indeed the UK government’s evaluation bible, the Magenta Book (HM Treasury, 2020), recommends using Theory-Based approaches like “realist” evaluation when experimental and quasi-experimental approaches are not feasible. (See also, What is Theory-Based Evaluation, really?)

More than a moment’s thought about theory

Pawson and Tilley (1997) emphasise the importance of thinking about why social interventions may lead to change and not only looking at outcomes, which they illustrate with the example of CCTV:

“CCTV certainly does not create a physical barrier making cars impenetrable. A moment’s thought has us realize, therefore, that the cameras must work by instigating a chain of reasoning and reaction. Realist evaluation is all about turning this moment’s thought into a comprehensive theory of the mechanisms through which CCTV may enter the potential criminal’s mind, and the contexts needed if these powers are to be realized.” (p. 78)

They then list a range of potential mechanisms. CCTV might make it more likely that thieves are caught in the act. Or maybe the presence of CCTV make car parks feel safer, which means they are used by more people whose presence and watchful eyes prevent theft. So other people provide the surveillance rather than the camera bolted to the wall.

Nothing new here – social science is awash with theory (Pawson and Tilley cite Durkheim’s 1950s work on suicide as an example). Psychological therapies are some of the most evaluated of social interventions and the field is particularly productive when it comes to theory; see, e.g., Whittle (1999, p. 240) on psychoanalysis, a predecessor of modern therapies:

“Psychoanalysis is full of theory. It has to be, because it is so distrustful of the surface. It could still choose to use the minimum necessary, but it does the opposite. It effervesces with theory…”

Power (2010) argues that most effects in modern therapies can be explained by transference (exploring and using how the relationship between therapist and client mirrors relationships outside therapy), graded exposure to situations which provoke anxiety, and challenging dysfunctional assumptions – for each of which there are detailed theories of change.

However, perhaps evaluations of social programme – therapies included – have concentrated too much on tracking outcomes and neglected getting to grips with potential mechanisms of change, so “realist” evaluation is potentially a helpful intervention. The specific example of CCTV is a joy to read and is a great way to bring the sometimes abstract notion of  social mechanism alive.

The structure of explanations in “realist” evaluation

Context-mechanism-regularity (or outcome) – the organisation of explanation in “realist” evaluations

The context-mechanism-outcome triad is a salient feature of the approach. Rather than define each of these (see the original text), here are four examples from Pawson and Tilley (1997) to illustrate what they are. The middle column (New mechanism) describes the putative mechanism that may be “triggered” by a social programme that has been introduced.

Context New mechanism Outcome
Poor-quality, hard-to-let housing; traditional housing department; lack of tenant involvement in estate management Improved housing and increased involvement in management create increased commitment to the estate, more stability, and opportunities and motivation for social control and collective responsibility Reduced burglary
Three tower blocks, occupied mainly by the elderly; traditional housing department; lack of tenant involvement in estate management Concentration of elderly tenants into smaller blocks and natural wastage creates vacancies taken up by young, formerly homeless single people inexperienced in independent living. They become the dominant group. They have little capacity or inclination for informal social control, and are attracted to a hospitable estate subterranean subculture Increased burglary prevalence concentrated amongst the more
vulnerable; high levels of vandalism and incivility
Prisoners with little or no previous education with a growing string of convictions – representing a ‘disadvantaged’ background Modest levels of engagement and success with the program trigger ‘habilitation’ process in which the inmate experiences self-realization and social acceptability (for the first time) Lowest levels of reconviction as compared with statistical norm for such inmates
High numbers of prepayment meters, with a high proportion of burglaries involving cash from meters Removal of cash meters reduces incentive to burgle by decreasing actual or perceived rewards Reduction in percentage of burglaries involving meter breakage; reduced risk of burglary at dwellings where meters are removed; reduced burglary rate overall

This seems a helpful way to organise thinking about the context-mechanism-outcome triad, irrespective of whether the approach is labelled “realist”. Those who are into logframe matricies (logframes) might want to add a column for the “outputs” of a programme.

The authors emphasise that the underlying causal model is “generative” in the sense that causation is seen as

“acting internally as well as externally. Cause describes the transformative potential of phenomena. One happening may well trigger another but only if it is in the right condition in the right circumstances. Unless explanation penetrates to these real underlying levels, it is deemed to be incomplete.” (p. 34)

The “internal” here appears to refer to looking inside the “black box” of a social programme to see how it operates, rather than merely treating it as something that is present in some places and absent in others. Later, there is further elaboration of what “generative” might mean:

“To ‘generate’ is to ‘make up’, to ‘manufacture’, to ‘produce’, to ‘form’, to ‘constitute’. Thus when we explain a regularity generatively, we are not coming up with variables or correlates which associate one with the other; rather we are trying to explain how the association itself comes about. The generative mechanisms thus actually constitute the regularity; they are the regularity. The generative mechanisms thus actually constitute the regularity; they are the regularity.” (p. 67)

We also learn that an action is causal only if its outcome is triggered by a mechanism in a context (p. 58). Okay, but how do we find out if an action’s outcome is triggered in this manner? “Realist” evaluation does not, in my view, provide an adequate analysis of what a causal effect is. Understandable, perhaps, given its pluralist approach to method. So, understandings of causation must come from elsewhere.

Mechanisms can be seen as “entities and activities organized in such a way that they are responsible for the phenomenon” (Illari & Williamson, 2011, p. 120). In “realist” evaluation, entities and their activities in the context would be included in this organisation too – the context supplies the mechanism on which a programme intervenes. So, let’s take one of the example mechanisms from the table above:

“Improved housing and increased involvement in management create increased commitment to the estate, more stability, and opportunities and motivation for social control and collective responsibility.”

To make sense of this, we need a theory of what improved housing looks like, what involvement in management and commitment to the estate, etc., means. To “create commitment” seems like a psychological, motivational process. The entities are the housing, management structures, people living in the estate, etc. To evidence the mechanism, I think it does help to think of variables to operationalise what might be going on and to use comparison groups to avoid mistaking, e.g., regression to the mean or friendlier neighbours for change due to improved housing. And indeed, Pawson and Tilley use quantitative data in one of the “realist” evaluations they discuss (next section). Such operationalisation does not reduce a mechanism to a set of variables; it is merely a way to analyse a mechanism.

Kinds of evidence

Chapter 4 gives a range of examples of the evidence that has been used in early “realist” evaluations. In summary, and confirming the pluralist stance mentioned above, it seems that all methods are relevant to realist evaluation. Two examples:

  1. Interviews with practitioners to try to understand what it is about a programme that might effect change: “These inquiries released a flood of anecdotes, and the tales from the classroom are remarkable not only for their insight but in terms of the explanatory form which is employed. These ‘folk’ theories turn out to be ‘realist’ theories and invariably identify those contexts and mechanisms which are conducive to the outcome of rehabilitation.” (pp. 107-108)
  2. Identifying variables in an information management system to “operationalize these hunches and hypotheses in order to identify, with more precision, those combinations of types of offender and types of course involvement which mark the best chances of rehabilitation. Over 50 variables were created…” (p. 108)

Some researchers have made a case for and carried out what they term realist randomised controlled trials (Bonell et al., 2012; which seems eminently sensible to me). The literature subsequently exploded in response. Here’s an illustrative excerpt of the criticisms (Marchal et al., 2013, p. 125):

“Experimental designs, especially RCTs, consider human desires, motives and behaviour as things that need to be controlled for (Fulop et al., 2001, Pawson, 2006). Furthermore, its analytical techniques, like linear regression, typically attempt to isolate the effect of each variable on the outcome. To do this, linear regression holds all other variables constant “instead of showing how the variables combine to create outcomes” (Fiss, 2007, p. 1182). Such designs “purport to control an infinite number of rival hypotheses without specifying what any of them are” by rendering them implausible through statistics (Campbell, 2009), and do not provide a means to examine causal mechanisms (Mingers, 2000).”

Well. What to make of this. Yes, RCTs control for stuff that’s not measured and maybe even unmeasurable. But you can also measure stuff you know about and see if that moderates or mediates the outcome (see, e.g., Windgassen et al., 2016). You might also use the numbers to select people for qualitative interview to try to learn more about what is going on. The comment on linear regression reveals surprising ignorance of how non-linear transformations of and interactions between predictors can be added to models. It is also trivial to calculate marginal outcome predictions for combinations of predictors together, rather than merely identifying which predictors are likely non-zero when holding others fixed. See Bonell et al. (2016) for a very patient reply.


The plea for evaluators to spend more time developing theory is welcome – especially in policy areas where “key performance indicators” and little else are the norm (see also Carter, 1989, on KPIs as dials versus tin openers opening a can of worms). It is a laudable aim to help “develop the theories of practitioners, participants and policy makers” of why a programme might work (Pawson & Tilley, 1997, p. 214). The separation of context, mechanism, and outcome, also helps structure thinking about social programmes (though there is widespread confusion about what a mechanism is in the “realist” literature; Lemire et al., 2020). But “realist” evaluation is arguably better seen as an exposition of a particular reading of ye olde scientific method applied to evaluation, with a call for pluralist methods. I am unconvinced that it is a novel form of evaluation.


Bonell, C., Fletcher, A., Morton, M., Lorenc, T., & Moore, L. (2012). Realist randomised controlled trials: a new approach to evaluating complex public health interventions. Social Science & Medicine, 75(12), 2299–2306.

Bonell, C., Warren, E., Fletcher, A., & Viner, R. (2016). Realist trials and the testing of context-mechanism-outcome configurations: A response to Van Belle et al. Trials, 17(1), 478.

Carter, N. (1989). Performance indicators: “backseat driving” or “hands off” control? Policy & Politics, 17, 131–138.

HM Treasury (2020). Magenta Book.

Illari, P. M., & Williamson, J. (2011). What is a mechanism? Thinking about mechanisms across the sciencesEuropean Journal for Philosophy of Science2(1), 119–135.

Lemire, S., Kwako, A., Nielsen, S. B., Christie, C. A., Donaldson, S. I., & Leeuw, F. L. (2020). What Is This Thing Called a Mechanism? Findings From a Review of Realist Evaluations. New Directions for Evaluation, 167, 73–86.

Marchal, B., Westhorp, G., Wong, G., Van Belle, S., Greenhalgh, T., Kegels, G., & Pawson, R. (2013). Realist RCTs of complex interventions – an oxymoron. Social Science & Medicine, 94, 124–128.

Pawson, R., & Tilley, N. (1997). Realistic Evaluation. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Pawson, R., & Tilley, N. (2004). Realist evaluation. Unpublished.

Power, M. (2010). Emotion-focused cognitive therapy. London: Wiley.

Whittle, P. (1999). Experimental Psychology and Psychoanalysis: What We Can Learn from a Century of Misunderstanding. Neuropsychoanalysis1, 233-245.

Windgassen, S., Goldsmith, K., Moss-Morris, R., & Chalder, T. (2016). Establishing how psychological therapies work: the importance of mediation analysis. Journal of Mental Health, 25, 93–99.

So, you have pledged allegiance to critical realism – what next?

So, you have pledged allegiance to the big four critical realist axioms (Archer, et al., 2016) – what next?

Here are some ideas.

1. Ontological realism

What is it? There is a social and material world existing independently of people’s speech acts. “Reality is real.” One way to think about this slogan in relation to social kinds like laws and identities is they have a causal impact on our lives (Dembroff, 2018). Saying that reality is real does not mean that reality is fixed. For example, we can eat chocolate (which changes it and us) and change laws.

What to do? Throw radical social constructionism in the bin. Start with a theory that applies to your particular topic and provides ideas for entities and activities to use and possibly challenge in your own theorising.

Those “entities” (what a cold word) may be people with desires, beliefs, and opportunities (or lack thereof) who do things in the world like going for walks, shopping, cleaning, working, and talking to each other (Hedström, 2005). The entities may be psychological “constructs” like kinds of memory and cognitive control and activities like updating and inhibiting prepotent responses. The entities might be laws and activities carried out by the criminal justice system and campaigners. However you decide to theorise reality, you need something.

How an intervention may influence someone’s actions by influencing their desires, beliefs, and/or opportunities (Hedström, 2005, p. 44)

2. Epistemic relativity

What is it? The underdetermination of theories means that two theorists can make a compelling case for two different accounts of the same evidence. Their (e.g., political, moral) standpoint and various biases will influence what they can theorise. Quantitative researchers are appealing to epistemic relativity when they cite George Box’s “All models are wrong” and note the variety of models that can be fit to a dataset.

What to do? Throw radical positivism in the bin – even if you are running RCTs. Ensure that you foreground your values whether through statements of conflicts of interest or more reflexive articulations of likely bias and prejudice. Preregistering study plans also seems relevant here.

There may be limits to the extent to which an individual researcher can articulate their biases, so help out your colleagues and competitors.

3. Judgemental/judgmental rationality

What is it? Even though theories are underdetermined by evidence, there often are reasons to prefer one theory over another.

What to do? If predictive accuracy does not help choose a theory, you could also compare them in terms of how consistent they are with themselves and other relevant theories; how broad in scope they are; whether they actually bring some semblance of order to the phenomena being theorised; and whether they make novel predictions beyond current observations (Kuhn, 1977).

You might consider the aims of critical theory which proposes judging theories in terms of how well they help eliminate injustice in the world (Fraser, 1985). But you would have to take a political stance.

4. Ethical naturalism

What is it? Although is does not imply ought, prior ought plus is does imply posterior ought.

What to do? Back to articulating your values. In medical research the following argument form is common (if often implicit): We should prevent people from dying; a systematic review has shown that this treatment prevents people from dying; therefore we should roll out this treatment. We could say something similar for social research that is anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQI+, intersections thereof, and other research. But if your research makes a recommendation for political change, it must also foreground the prior values that enabled that recommendation to inferred.

In summary

The big four critical realist axioms provide a handy but broad metaphysical and moral framework for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing to do social research. Now we are presented with further challenges that depend on grappling with substantive theory and specific political and moral values. Good luck.


Archer, M., Decoteau, C., Gorski, P. S., Little, D., Porpora, D., Rutzou, T., Smith, C., Steinmetz, G., & Vandenberghe, F. (2016). What is Critical Realism? Perspectives: Newsletter of the American Sociological Association Theory Section, 38(2), 4–9.

Dembroff, R. (2018). Real talk on the metaphysics of gender. Philosophical Topics, 46(2), 21–50.

Fraser, N. (1985). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique35, 97-131.

Kuhn, T. S. (1977). Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice. In The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (pp. 320–339). The University of Chicago Press.

Hedström, P. (2005). Dissecting the social: on the principles of analytic sociology. Cambridge University Press.

Social Sciences under Attack in the UK (1981-1983)

Interesting paper by Michael Posner, who was chair of the UK Social Science Research Council (SSRC) when it was under attack by the Conservative Thatcher government in the early 1980s.

Secretary of State Sir Keith Joseph considered dismantling SSRC and asked for an independent review into its utility by an established biologist.

SSRC survived, though one notable change was made…

“Joseph opted for a public, but very light punishment: a change of name. I told him that I could persuade scores of academics to accept a name change if he would promise, on the record, the continuing independence of the SSRC. He agreed, and the SSRC was duly renamed the « Economic and Social Research Council » (ESRC). The significance of this change was the omission of the word « science », which Joseph had insisted upon and which many of us at the council and in academia found it difficult to accept.”

Read more over here.

A more daring approach to writing theory

“What if we took a more daring, modernist, defamiliarizing approach to writing theory? What if we asked of theory as a genre that it be as interesting, as strange, as poetically or narratively rich as we ask our other kinds of literature to be? What if we treated it not as high theory, with pretentions to legislate or interpret other genres, but as low theory, as something vulgar, common, even a bit rude—having no greater or lesser claim to speak of the world than any other? It might be more fun to read. It might tell us something strange about the world. It might, just might, enable us to act in the world otherwise. A world in which the old faith in History is no more, but where there are histories that still might be made—in a pinch.”

—McKenzie Wark (2019). Capital is dead.

Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

We can safely assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves and try to work out our own gender.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It is not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

(For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).)

Now we can make sense of what it means to be assigned female or male at birth. What is assigned is a sex category. This is not arbitrary, but based on socially agreed and – for cisgender people – reliable biological criteria. However, those criteria could have been otherwise, for instance using a broader range of biological features and more than two categories. Also the supposedly biological male/female sex category quickly takes on a social role that is independent of genitals and operates even when they are hidden.

Understanding trans nonbinary gender

CW: medical examinations, surgery, bullying, transphobia.

I started pondering gender on a school playground when I was five. One break time I realised that I wasn’t like the boys; I hated how they were continually physically pushing each other around and so I decided to hang out with girls. I didn’t think I was a girl; I just—in a moment, without a fuss—didn’t feel like one of the boys. I have many fragments of memories like this, who knows how reliable.

There are reliable digital traces of my more recent ruminations (thank you Gmail search). For instance, in 2014 I wrote an email to my then-partner in which I identified in passing as genderqueer. It’s strikingly throwaway. I’m not certain how I arrived at that identity, but I was reading Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things shortly before, which discusses genderqueer people, and I tweeted their article on genderqueer feminism a year later, so their writing surely helped me along.

A gradual process of reading, discussing, oscillating between outing and closeting my gender on social media and dating apps in various cryptic ways culminated on 10 August 2019 (philosopher Jean-François Lyotard‘s birthday) with me changing my first name by deed poll to the gender neutral Andi (witnesses and I scrawling signatures on the paperwork in a warehouse rave in North London, on the floor in a corner). I usually went by Andy so it was a trivial edit, but it significantly marked the occasion of affirming that I am trans nonbinary. I am now classified as nonbinary on work’s HR system, have changed my name with my bank and on my passport, received updated degree certificates, and am slowly working through every other system and record I encounter.

Now that I write this in 2019, after many years of thinking, it’s obvious and anticlimactic that I am nonbinary—I feel a relieved kind of oh, is that it? It feels like a conclusion but also the beginning of a different kind of struggle to work through contradictions and tensions which I am beginning to notice. This blog post is an attempt to write something about where I’ve got to.

What does it mean for me to be trans nonbinary?

The most obvious part of my affirmed gender took the longest to recognise: trans. This just means that my gender is not the same as my sex assigned at birth. I used to think that trans people all had hormone therapy or surgery. Eventually I noticed that I was wrong; there is social as well as medical transition. Stonewall’s glossary entry for transitioning explains:

“The steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which they identify. Each person’s transition will involve different things. For some this involves medical intervention, such as hormone therapy and surgeries, but not all trans people want or are able to have this.

“Transitioning also might involve things such as telling friends and family, dressing differently and changing official documents.”

(See also Julia Serano‘s glossary.) UK-wide research by Scottish Trans in 2015 found that 65% of non-binary people considered themselves to be trans, 20% were unsure, and 15% did not see themselves as trans.

Nonbinary is defined in opposition to binary gender. Binary means 1 or 0, yes or no—formally, a discrete variable with two levels. Christina Richards, Walter Pierre Bouman, and Meg-John Barker (2017, p. 5) define nonbinary people as

“simply people who are not male or female; but as ever things are more complex than that. In general, non-binary or genderqueer refers to people’s identity, rather than physicality at birth; but it does not exclude people who are intersex or have a diversity/disorder of sexual development who also identify in this way. Whatever their birth physicality, there are non-binary people who identify as a single fixed gender position other than male or female. There are those who have a fluid gender. There are those who have no gender. And there are those who disagree with the very idea of gender.”

The nonbinary pride flag, designed by Kye Rowan (February 2014). Each colour represents a different facet of nonbinary gender.

Explaining sex and gender

You are assigned a sex at birth based on the genitals you possess. The result you get is statistically though imperfectly associated with whether you have XX or XY chromosomes; however, your chromosomes usually aren’t tested at birth. Sex sounds solid, factual, and many societies across the globe like the UK and USA are organised by the female/male binary. A sprinkling of philosophy of science can helpfully disturb this, not by rejecting facts but by complicating what makes facts about sex and gender true and how stable those truths are.

We can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or intersections thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

I only recently realised that the philosophy of science applies also to theorising about myself. So we can engage in critical self-reflection using ontological realism, epistemic relativity, aligning with a particular social struggle, etc., to help us navigate. A salient feature of theorising selves is that the underlying reality changes as we understand more—we change. We are treated differently as we change how we identify and express our gender, i.e., gender is an example of a social kind which has a looping effect.

Biological facets of my gender

The female/male binary is challenged by being intersex—what medics pathologise as disorders of sex development (DSDs). You might have XX chromosomes but male genitalia; XY chromosomes but female genitalia; one ovary and one testicle; sperm-producing testicles which are in your abdomen rather than scrotum; and a range of other departures from the binary male/female dogma. The biology of sex and gender is fabulously nonbinary and continuous, even if dominant folk conceptualisations are binary. Anne Fausto-Sterling reviews a number of theories of sex and gender; here is a diagram of one:

I was born with undescended testicles but was assigned male at birth (AMAB) due to the presence of a penis. My testes were left inside my abdomen, contrary to current clinical guidelines (I’m unsure what the guidelines were in the early 1980s), and their location noted in my medical record. Some years later when I was about nine years old, one testicle ventured into my scrotum of its own accord. Suddenly I realised what classmates were referring to when they said the word “balls”. When I reached about 11, a GP visiting school had apparently noticed the official record of my genital geography and, without explaining, asked to examine me. I guessed what she expected. I felt like I’d been found out and hesitated to agree. A month or two later I had surgery and a pair.

When I say I am nonbinary, I am not making a disembodied hyper-voluntarist claim (Judith Butler explains why I couldn’t). There is a biological facet to my gender as part of a biopsychosocial triad. I conjecture that my hormone levels affected how my body developed, including my brain, and how I feel and experience the world. This led both to my aversion to hanging out with boys and my testicles’ aversion to hanging outside me. I don’t know what biopsychosocial processes, probably part-inherited involving hundreds or thousands of genes (polygenic) and part-experiential, led to my hormones and other aspects of my biology being as they are. I was socialised as a boy, though, and there’s a 99.99% chance I have XY chromosomes. The biological, psychological, and social are interwoven in complex ways.

Nonbinary expression

The degree of match between our gender identity, expression, and stereotypes of that gender’s expression part determines how people treat us. I currently express as some genre of man (stubble, relatively deep voice, flat chest, male-fitting t-shirts, etc.). Maybe a nerdy effeminate man (my narrow shoulders, hairless chest, patchiness of stubble, and gestures are a giveaway). A nancy boy. A post-twink (on good days). I’m not the only one theorising my gender; people do it in the blink of an eye when they call me “sir” or utter a “fuck’s sake” under their breath when I ask not to be misgendered. (Often I feel that people gender me as middle class lefty snowflake with a dick.)

Trans nonbinary femme philosopher Rachel Anne Williams argues that

“… there is no single way for nonbinary people to look […]. There is so much diversity in the community and we do ourselves a disservice by focusing only on androgyny and neutrality as the ideals of being nonbinary. There is room for the full spectrum of expression within the nonbinary label.”

This sounds wonderful in trans-friendly queer spaces. “I’m Andi; pronouns them/them” does suffice there. Unfortunately, much of my life is outside those spaces. “How can I help you sir ?” grates. I guess I am aiming for an expression such that people can’t decide whether to address me “sir” or “madam”. A moment’s hesitation will suffice; an instance of the gender panic described by Robin Dembroff when an airport security officer struggled to categorise them pink or blue as demanded by body scanner protocol.

I don’t particularly want to draw too much attention to myself out in cis-land, though, given the prevalence of transphobic harassment and violence. However, maybe how successful I am in transitioning will be indexed by the quantity of harassment I receive. I have had a glimpse of that abuse when I was a teen and most of my classmates subjected me to homophobic bullying for a year—what I now read as at least part-transphobic since it reflected my gender expression. I was failing to pass as a cisgender young man which (with a few decades’ distance) is almost as good as successfully passing nonbinary. It sounds weird to feel that I need to open myself to more harassment to be me, but that is how I feel. Lisa Millbank expresses a similar paradoxical thought as a trans woman:

“Not receiving misogyny is nice, because misogyny is not nice, but it’s also a sign of not being considered a normal woman—i.e., it is a sign of being transgendered as a ‘freak’.”

Attempting to define gender

So far I have avoided saying exactly how I currently understand the concept of gender. I believe that gender is context dependent; as Robin Dembroff articulates:

“gender structures and practices vary across place and time, and are constructed in tandem with race, religion, class, ability, and other social identities.”

For example, being a postgraduate student in Edinburgh for four years meant I met people who were researching gender theory and I had amazing conversations about trans rights a decade before I had an inkling this might be relevant to me. Most importantly, I met trans (binary and nonbinary) people in contexts in which they felt safe and accepted and where being trans was just one facet of their life. Different concepts of gender currently operate in dominant society than do in trans-friendly communities and I have been exposed to both. I’m white, middle class, and have lived in Ireland, the UK, Austria, and Sweden and been exposed to a wide variety of ideas and opportunities relevant to gender. This all influenced how I conceptualise gender and how I identify.

I am drawn to theories which acknowledge that there are many conceptualisations of gender, many of which may be indistinguishable empirically (but recall the comment about critical theory above); that the conceptualisations could have been otherwise (the dominant binary in particular is not a universal fact), and that they will probably change over time (we are seeing this happen; even conservative workplaces allow people to identify as trans).

One approach to defining gender I love is Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account. Their overarching aims were to develop an account that is non-circular, respects first-person authority, and can help progress the aims of the trans rights movement, e.g., by being persuasive to people who don’t currently understand or agree with trans rights. It’s a critical theory.

Jenkins’ idea is that we all carry around an embodied and often tacit map of the gender norms which apply to us in particular situations. That map may include how we should walk, talk, what we should wear, whether we should shave our legs, what toilets we are allowed to use. We don’t have to agree with those norms; rather the idea is that we perceive norms of a particular gender (in a particular society, at a particular time) as relevant to us. Jenkins offers the following formal definition of the nonbinary gender umbrella:

“A subject S has a non-binary gender identity [if and only if] S’s internal ‘map’ is neither formed so as to guide someone classed as a woman through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of women as a class, nor formed to guide someone classed as a man through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of men as a class.”

This definition works well in some important contexts, e.g., for understanding the toilets people feel they should use: neither male nor female toilets feel right for someone nonbinary—for some they can feel very unsafe spaces and all-gender toilets are preferred. However, the definition can be read as meaning that no female norms and no male norms apply to nonbinary people, which doesn’t seem to fit people’s experience (see Dembroff, p. 11). More analysis is needed to spell out the definition and I can’t wait to see how this develops.

Passing socialised privilege

It has been drummed into me from childhood that norms for men should apply to me. This socialisation is ongoing and pervasive, even including what colour umbrella I am allowed to carry now as an adult. I don’t feel like a man and I fail to be a man, though I have tried for decades to be one. The pervasive programme of socialisation, carried out by family, friends, bullies, and the media, has been massively distressing at times. However, my socialisation and assigned gender expression means I have benefited from male privilege and how it intersects with being white and middle class. In a system of binaries you are one or the other, and I usually land in the sir, gentleman, male side.

Part of my assigned privilege is what social roles I was excused from performing as a child, for example unpaid family caring roles, which gave me more time to pursue my own interests. This, in turn, led to opportunities that may have been blocked if I were a woman, such as studying computer science, which is still massively biased towards men. I rarely experience street harassment (except when dressing queer, e.g., wearing glitter); women often get harassed daily, irrespective of how they dress. Intimate partner violence is much more common against women than men.

I have biological privilege too: I can have sex with no (rather than merely low) risk of getting pregnant; I don’t have periods; and as yet there is no contraceptive pill for me to take, with all the psychological side effects they can have. But this “biological” privilege is in a social and biotechnological context. If methods for birth control and stopping periods (or stopping undesirable aspects thereof like intense pain) were 100% effective and had zero side effects, the privilege would disappear. (As an aside: I also have a biological vulnerability now my testicles are in my scrotum.)

These privileges, varying in the degree to which they are biological, always operating in the current social context, influence my gender identity and steer my onward journey. (See also Rachel Anne Williams’ article, Giving Up My Male Privilege.)

Tentative steps towards genderqueer identity

Originally I flirted with identifying as genderqueer. This proved to be too difficult for me at the time. Dominant societal structures and practices are relatively better equipped to deal with the more general ideas of trans and, to a lesser extent, nonbinary gender. They sound helpfully, relatively, boring in a way that genderqueer doesn’t. But the idea of genderqueer still resonates with me.

The genderqueer flag, designed by Marilyn Roxie (June 2011).

Robin Dembroff takes a thought-provoking personal, social, and political approach to understanding genderqueer as a kind. Firstly, they analyse the dominant UK/USA gender ideology as built upon three assumptions: someone’s gender is determined by their natal genitals (genital assumption); there are only two genders and they are mutually exclusive (binary assumption); and finally gender confers social roles (social assumption).

The next ingredient is the idea of a critical gender kind (not to be confused with “gender critical” which is a synonym of trans-exclusionary). A critical gender kind is one defined by members who collectively (not necessarily individually) resist a dominant gender ideology. There are two kinds of resistance: principled resistance, which is based on beliefs and moral values, and existential resistance, stemming from an individual’s affectively-laden lived experience of gender. Principled resistance may be carried out by allies whereas existential resistance requires you to be personally affected by the act of opposition. The genderqueer kind is defined as a critical gender kind in which there is collective existential resistance against the binary gender assumption. 

Dembroff gives some ideas for how this resistance can look (pp. 22-23):

  1. Use gender-neutral pronouns like they/them.
  2. Cultivate gender non-conforming aesthetics, for instance by taking elements from both dominant binaries.
  3. Asserting nonbinary identity: “I am nonbinary”.
  4. Queering personal relationships, e.g., by taking on both traditional female and male parenting roles and engaging in gender play in sexual relationships.
  5. Eschewing sexuality binaries, e.g., identifying as pansexual.
  6. Space switching: using both men and women’s toilets, moving between men and women friend groups.

This approach to understanding genderqueer identity leads to an anticipated worry about how political the definition is (p. 24):

“being genderqueer, on my proposal, requires that an individual must—to some extent and in some context—resist the binary assumption.”

To my mind this political dimension—how resistance is built in—is a reassuring guide to life, similar to Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy idea. A critical gender kind gives ideas for how to act and norm-relevancy provides clues for how to decode social structures and feelings. The two seem to complement each other. 

Where next…?

I am trans nonbinary. I don’t ask for much: using my name and pronouns would suffice in most settings. I want to be recognised as nonbinary in all areas of society from passport office to public toilet. I don’t want to be told to “man up”. I don’t want it to raise eyebrows if I choose to wear an item of clothing from a binary I wasn’t assigned or socialised to be. I am aware of the privilege I have of passing as male in many dominant spaces. I also feel a collective responsibility to open myself to harassment as part of an act of genderqueer resistance. It’s scary at times, but I am excited to learn more about other people’s experiences of being nonbinary (X Marks The Spot, curated by Theo Hendrie, was massively helpful) and to experiment with different ways of expressing my identity.


Thanks Galina, Katharine, Meg, and Nine for incredibly helpful discussion on these topics.

Unsticking social research through lived experience and citizen control

Having lived experience and knowing people with lived experience are really effective way of researching social conditions—unavoidably, whether or not you want to—and lead to rich theory.

Compare what activist groups do versus a model of social research in which you have a central institute, running surveys and writing supposedly “independent” reports, making policy proposals. The latter leads to flat, superficial theorising if done without lived experience.

In activist groups with rich communication (e.g., chat groups and regular meetings) the “data collection” is continuous, doesn’t feel like research, and is inseparable from day-to-day individual support and activism. But traditional reports can still be important to get media and government attention: “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This?” is a good example of research drawing on lived experience and traditional research skills.

To unstick social research requires holding onto all methodological advances whilst radically opening up research to citizen control. Sometimes getting a good estimate of the population prevalence and correlates of some form of oppression are important to highlight severity and likely causes. Advances in techniques and software for qualitative analysis can be useful too and ensure best use is made of material.

Academics without lived experience running convenience sample qualitative studies with small numbers of people and pretentious methodology are fundamentally limited in what they can discover. But the same sample from lived experience and lived theory is very different.

There are many professional researchers with lived experience (Max Weber, 1864-1920, was one, with experience of psychiatric inpatient stay). But higher education is a hostile environment now—you couldn’t design a better system to reward junk research and cause burnout if you tried. Such a system is deeply challenging for people who are oppressed.

Your various identities, privileges and oppression (due to race, man/woman/non-binary, cis/trans, wealth, monogamous/poly, how valued your labour skills are, property ownership, disabled, etc.) fundamentally constrain who will answer your calls for research participants, what social phenomena you can understand, who will listen to what you discover. They literally change what you see and hear and what you can research. (Epistemic relativism is a useful concept to make sense of this.)

Some researchers break free of these constraints thanks to contradictory locations; for instance, being articulate and well connected can be used to resist a position of oppression. Though then you can end up being attacked for having helpful privilege, even by “your own side”.

Academics with more secure positions can help, for instance:

  1. Support PhD students and colleagues who are discriminated against in various ways: grants, decent pay, and mentoring are helpful.
  2. Instead of “giving voice” to people through interview excerpts, give a platform.
  3. Cite blog posts and reports from activists with lived experience.

Mr Justice Mostyn vs. vague, rhetorical applications of theory

A court case (GM v Carmarthenshire County Council [2018] EWFC 36) has ruled that a social worker’s “generalised statements, or tropes” based on attachment theory are not admissible evidence.

The full judgement by Mr Justice Mostyn has interesting thoughts on the valid application of theory and balance between theory and observation.

“… the local authority’s evidence in opposition to the mother’s application was contained in an extremely long, 44-page, witness statement made by the social worker […]. This witness statement was very long on rhetoric and generalised criticism but very short indeed on any concrete examples of where and how the mother’s parenting had been deficient. Indeed, it was very hard to pin down within the swathes of text what exactly was being said against the mother. […] [The social worker] was asked to identify her best example of the mother failing to meet L’s emotional needs. Her response was that until prompted by the local authority mother had not spent sufficient one-to-one time with L and had failed on one occasion to take him out for an ice cream. […] A further criticism in this vein was that the mother had failed to arrange for L’s hair to be cut in the way that he liked.”

There is also a detailed section on attachment theory:

“… the theory is only a theory. It might be regarded as a statement of the obvious, namely that primate infants develop attachments to familiar caregivers as a result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behaviour would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements. Certainly, this was the view of John Bowlby, the psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst and originator of the theory in the 1960s. It might be thought to be obvious that the better the quality of the care given by the primary caregiver the better the chance of the recipient of that care forming stable relationships later in life. However, it must also be recognised that some people who have received highly abusive care in childhood have developed into completely well-adjusted adults. Further, the central premise of the theory – that quality attachments depend on quality care from a primary caregiver – begins to fall down when you consider that plenty of children are brought up collectively (whether in a boarding school, a kibbutz or a village in Africa) and yet develop into perfectly normal and well-adjusted adults.”

Much to discuss!