Interrogating politics of mobility from an intersectional perspective
Concepts such as “power”, “feminism”, “space”, to name just a few, have been addressed assuming their intrinsic complexity and disputed meanings. We might have no consensus around their definition, but they are still operative in terms of how we think about the world around us. The same goes for “intersectionality”. There is a quasi-consensus around the definition of intersectionality, understood as the co-constitution of different power regimes such as gender, sexuality, class, race/ethnicity, age and life course, disability, creed, etc. –in short, intersectionality contends “that major systems of oppression are interlocking”. Yet, since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined this revolutionary term in 1989, the theoretical, methodological and ethical approaches to this concept have proven to be multiple. One of the main concerns is the apparent “neutralization” of the concept due to the neoliberal attempt of co-optation of the term (e.g. mainstream advertising campaigns from multinational textile industries depicting female diversity without changing their abusive practices of production in countries of the Global South where the workforce is highly feminized) and the lack of correspondence between theory and political praxis (i.e. in terms of academic feminism being detached from popular feminism, detrimental effects on the understanding of other social struggles when assuming an exclusive link of intersectionality with feminism, or “whitened” hegemonic discourses, etc.).
Nevertheless: does the critique concerning the drifts and flaws of intersectionality necessarily imply that it has lost its potential to point out power asymmetries and explain the different and multiple ways of being and becoming-in-the-world? I do not think so. Drawing on my PhD dissertation in Political Geography, “Power, Space and Mobility: Trajectories of Afrodescendant Women from the Colombian Pacific Region”, I will briefly summarize how intersectionality guided my entire research i) theoretically, ii) methodologically and iii) analytically, thereby demonstrating the extensive potential of the approach.
The thesis outlined the multi-scalar trajectories of mobility, migratory and non-migratory, experienced by “ordinary” and “anonymous” afrodescendant women within and from the Colombian Pacific region. Bringing together the “spatial turn” and the “mobility turn”, the research work did not only address migratory mobility (i.e. mobile processes involving the crossing of some sort of instituted boundary) but also non-migratory forms of mobility and immobility (i.e. housing, commuting, de/re-occupation of public spaces, etc.). The research focused on the Colombian Pacific region because it is in this racialized and peripheralized region where a plethora of migratory and non-migratory forms of mobility and immobility converge (e.g. internal displacement, exile and day-to-day spatial segregation), paralleling the “continuum of violence” produced by the long-standing “internal” armed conflict – between State forces, paramilitary, guerrillas, drug-trafficking groups and criminal gangs –, processes of economic and demographic restructuring linked to racial capitalism and coloniality, the racist biopolitics of the Colombian State, and the socio-environmental conflicts derived from the unresolved question of land tenure. Additionally, the study went beyond the so often taken for granted centrality of the masculine mobile subject (i.e. the dichotomous socio-spatial representation of men as mobile and women as rooted to place) to focus on how afrodescendant women embodied these kinds of mobilities differently.
i) The theoretical framework of the thesis interrogated the concept of “power” in order to get a better understanding of the agency of people on the move – afrodescendant women, in this case – and how they were defying different regimes of power (including technologies of control of mobility such as borders and internal displacement-related policies, as well as regulatory regimes of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, class, etc.). In this sense, the thesis proposed an “intersectional ontology of the social (world)” which means that intersectionality was thought of as inseparable from the spatialities and temporalities of social power. Thus, the research drew on this intersectional ontology to address: a) the entanglement of different power regimes (e.g. sex/gender and race-related regulatory hegemonies cannot be separated from how boundaries are produced and experienced); b) the situated character of each mobile experience (i.e. the difference between each of them); and c) the contested “politics of mobility” (i.e. the interplay between the agency of people on the move and the mobility regimes and bordering practices trying to control and fetter their movement through space).
ii) As the ontological-theoretical framework was kind of abstract, the thesis brought up many methodological and ethical questions: ‘how can intersectionality be translated into research practice?’, ‘which method or technique can address how intersections produce different mobile experiences?’, ‘how to do fieldwork in conflict environments?’, ‘how to approach hard-to-reach anonymous subjects as, in Colombia, the combination of violence and impunity has resulted in experiences and memories remaining hidden?’, ‘how to negotiate the different positionalities of researcher and participants?’. Considering these challenges, a qualitative feminist methodology was adopted, combining different research methods informed by intersectionality: observation, snow-ball sampling, structured and in-depth interviews, narrative production. The motivation of this approach was to stress the dialogical character of “the field” and, above all, the centrality of the situated knowledge of narrators – as the women taking part in the research were the ones reconstructing their own experiences and trajectories.
iii) The narratives produced by the participants revealed noticeable similarities between experiences, but also noteworthy differences between them. For instance, even if they were inhabiting the same region and had suffered similar forms of gender and racial violence related to spatial mobility, the narratives yielded different accounts of how they have lived and embodied these experiences. Thus, an intersectional and interpretive analysis was required to address the contextual and situated/partial character of each mobile trajectory. In other words, “difference” called for a “diffractive” interpretation of their experiences and discursive processes of meaning-making. Questions, such as ‘why they moved’, ‘who moved and who stayed put’, ‘if these women were the ones taking the decision to move or stay’, ‘which were their trajectories’, ‘what was the emotional signification of those processes of mobility and immobility in terms of their impact in their own lives and processes of becoming’, needed to be thoughtfully addressed in order to understand the “differential situatedness” of each experience.
In that sense, the analysis intended to unravel the entangled “constellation of forces” shaping each personal experience. Bearing in mind the intersections of gender, race, class, age and life course – and even religion and disability –, four productive “forces” were considered and looked into: a) the context in which they lived (e.g. differences between the rural-urban territorial dynamics of the armed and environmental conflicts); b) their immediate conjunctures (e.g. socio-economic factors, family structures and roles, vital events); c) the changing positionalities throughout their spatio-temporal trajectories (e.g. roles related to age and life course and the interaction of these with the different degrees of participation in the decision-making processes surrounding the mobile act); and d) the heterogeneous geographical imaginaries (e.g. different partial knowledges, projections, emotions and desires linked to space and place).
The following narrative extract, for instance, offers a few glimpses into how power – and intersecting regimes of gender and age/life course/generation – crosscut mobile experiences, and how an “external decision” impacts not only who moves, when and where, but also how the very experience of migratory mobility is represented by the narrator:
My parents wanted me to get out of my village [rural]. They were afraid of the recruitment of girls by paramilitary forces. Eventually, I left my home and I had to live with my aunt in Buenaventura. My mum and dad… they did not want to leave the countryside, their life, the one they always had had. They know nothing about the city. When I arrived Buenaventura, I started a new life. A change, I would say… radical, because I was not used to the city… I was eight years old and it was really different… Everything was different. Thus, by force, I had to adapt myself to that change […] (Karen, afrodescendant woman, 24 years old at the time of the research, migratory experiences at the ages of 8 and 17).
Yet, power was not only observed in terms of domination. Both situated and collective forms of power/agency were addressed as a distinct productive force shaping mobile trajectories. Even if unnoticed, by being present and re-appropriating certain spaces (e.g. making visible their gendered and racialized bodies and occupying public spaces in which they were not supposed to be) and weaving solidarities (e.g. taking collective action with other women that have gone through similar experiences), these women were able to challenge and resist the kind of intersecting regulatory regimes mentioned above:
I have lost the fear these days. When I can, I just go out, get to know things, wonder about my surroundings… In general, I always go with friends […] We make plans in group in order to go all together. This is how it always has been. I say ‘this is the good thing’: we all came as a group from Buenaventura, we have the same characteristics, the same interests… It is like this has helped us, because we are always together (Nataly, afrodescendant woman, 23 years old at the time of the research, migratory experience at the age of 20).
As a whole, the intersectional approach guiding the research made it possible to disclose the plethora of forms in which mobility regimes and (b)ordering/othering practices were embodied and lived, but also defied and contested, pointing to the numerous interconnections between [everyday] politics of mobility, politics of presence, politics of care and politics of belonging.
Paula Medina-García is a postdoctoral researcher (Margarita Salas) at the University Complutense of Madrid and research fellow at the CRC 1265 “Re-Figuration of Spaces”. Drawing on an intersectional perspective, her research interests revolve around power/agency, space, boundaries, borders, mobilities and migration.
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 See for example:
Agudelo, C. E. (2001). El Pacífico colombiano: de “remanso de paz” a escenario estratégico del conflicto armado. Las transformaciones de la región y algunas respuestas de sus poblaciones frente a la violencia. Cuadernos de Desarrollo Rural (46), 7-37.
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