Why is Interdisciplinary Research on Race and Racism So Important?

Compiling two lists highlighting anti-racist research in the social sciences, one discipline-agnostic and one categorized by discipline, left me wondering: Where do Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Gender Studies (GS) belong in the landscape of anti-racist research in the social sciences?

While CRT and GS are certainly not social science disciplines in the traditional sense, one can obtain higher education degrees in either. This unique insider-outsider position reflects that these disciplines belong to larger social movements that are often critical of the existing ways we understand and organize our social worlds. These disciplines work within and without academia, which means they will often be talking back to the very spaces they are writing from. And because of their subject matter, CRT and GS are necessarily concerned with all research that relates to people and societies. Recently, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of seeing our biggest social problems through the lens of overlapping identities and constituted social worlds, which makes racial and gender awareness an integral part of studying the social sciences.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

Some of the most notable CRT and GS scholars come from a wide array of disciplines. Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw for example, who coined the term ‘intersectionality’ and is one of the founders of the CRT movement, sits squarely in both those fields. Although these ideas arose from an exploration of legal systems and originated as a subfield of critical legal studies, I believe we are more likely to find her work on the reading lists of gender and critical race theory degrees than any other discipline (this is a purely observational claim, but I would love to see research that explores this). In Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking Back To Move Forward, Crenshaw explores the trajectory of CRT across disciplines, arguing “today, CRT can claim a presence in education, psychology, cultural studies, political science, and even philosophy” (Crenshaw, 2011, p. 1256). And that, “gender awareness has become integral to disciplinary fields as diverse as history, literature, science, sociology and economics, as well as emerging as a field of studies, which goes much further than the mainstreaming of gender.” (Woodward & Woodward, 2015)

Both intellectual projects arose from a gap in the literature and the discourse. Crenshaw contextualizes this in the longer tradition of race scholars who “have contested the terms by which the academy has disciplined knowledge about race” (Crenshaw, 2011, p. 1257) by critiquing the epistemic, political and social foundations of racism that many social science disciplines helped create. Similarly, Gender Studies critically engage with the social sciences by exposing their inherent patriarchal and heteronormative foundations that either omit or actively veer away from a queer and feminist analysis of social, psychological, political, criminal, and economic systems.

Despite their names, neither CRT or GS are exclusively focused on race or gender, as Crenshaw’s work and career demonstrate. They are dynamic fields that are constantly responding to and speaking to the academy by also engaging with activists, social movements and marginalised communities. As a result, there is an important lesson to be learnt from CRT and GS; one that requires an understanding of their larger social context, and their ongoing friction with the more established social sciences. They provide a gateway to understanding how academic research cannot and should not be limited to existing epistemologies and that this wider view could give rise to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of social inequality. It is an approach that questions legal systems, explores the coloniality of our contemporary moment and what we mean by things such as “modernity” and “development.” They explore networks of power and power relations in ways that help us move beyond limited views of discrimination and bias as individual problems or social anomalies.

These views will never allow us to think about sexism without racism, racism without sexism, and how these inequalities are rooted in hierarchies that are instrumental to our understanding of issues such as the climate crisis, neoliberalism, migration and all the other problems the social sciences are trying to address. Intersectional problems require interdisciplinary thinking. So when we think about race and racism, it might be worth asking – what are we not seeing by limiting ourselves to a single discipline?

Here are some examples of interdisciplinary scholarship that doesn’t easily fit into one social science discipline but offers vitals contributions to anti-racist research:

Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas (Eds) – Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic – Critical Race Theory: An Introduction

Audre Lorde – Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Angela Davis – Women, Race & Class

bell hooks – Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism

Paul Gilroy – The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness

Cedric J. Robinson – Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

Robin D.G. Kelley – Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

Katherine McKittrick – Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis

Saidiya V. Hartman – Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America

Edward Said – Orientalism

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Lina Ashour

Lina Ashour is an Egyptian writer, poet and community organiser. Her studies have included political science, journalism and mass communication, and gender studies.

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