How Can Intersectionality Advance Developmental Science?

As the population of young people in the U.S. has become increasingly culturally diverse, the need for an interdisciplinary and contextualized approach to understanding the complexity of their lives is a critical next step. An intersectionality framework offers a promising starting point (e.g., Crenshaw, 1995; Grzanka, 2014; Lewis & Grzanka, 2016).

Intersectionality, a framework that helps to expose how broader systems of power, privilege, and oppression interlock to give meaning to social group memberships, such as race/ethnicity, gender, immigrant status and sexuality, has slowly gained traction in developmental science. Arguably, a primary site of uptake of this framework has been in the areas of identity development and intergroup relations among young people (Ghavami, Katsiaficas & Rogers, 2016; Mays & Ghavami, 2018; Katsiaficas, Volpe, Raza & Garcia, 2017; Rogers, Scott & Way, 2015). For identity scholars, intersectionality moves us away from narrowly focusing on one social category – race/ethnicity – and toward engaging multiple social positions simultaneously, for example, gender, sexuality and immigrant status in combination with race/ethnicity. Importantly, intersectionality encourages developmental scientists to conceptualize identities not only as individual-level variables (e.g., gender), but as also as constructs situated within social systems (e.g., heteropatriarchy) that shape experiences and developmental trajectories.

To demonstrate the value of an intersectional approach in developmental science, we select from existing theory and research, including our own work, to highlight what we know and where we need to go to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse youth.

Contribution of Intersectionality to Developmental Science Theory

Theory is central in guiding research – it shapes which questions are asked, from what perspective the questions are asked, how constructs are conceptualized and for whom the results are relevant (e.g., Mays & Ghavami, 2018). Existing developmental theories of social identities are primarily designed around and in relation to individual categories of identity such as race (e.g., Sellers et al., 1989) or gender (e.g., Martin & Ruble, 2010). Similarly, theories on the consequences of interpersonal and structural oppressions, such as the Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children (García-Coll, et al., 1996), generally take into account the role of multiple identities, though the empirical studies using these theories rarely focus on how identities come together across different contexts to influence outcomes.

The use of an intersectionality framework can push researchers to concretely identify and theorize how context affects the ways social categories work together to produce unique experiences in which a young person may be “advantaged” in one domain but “disadvantaged” in another. As a case in point, Ghavami and Peplau (2017) examined how gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation of peers work together to affect urban, ethnically diverse adolescents’ stereotypes across three different domains: gender atypicality, intelligence, and aggression. Findings revealed differential impact of the peers’ identities on the nature of stereotypes across domains. Irrespective of ethnicity of the peers, LGB students were viewed as more gender atypical than heterosexual students. Additionally, regardless of the peers’ sexual orientation, Asian students were viewed as significantly more smart than students from any other ethnic group. Finally, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation combined to uniquely affect stereotypes of aggression – a set of findings that we would have missed had we focused on a single identity category and without attention to context

Contribution of Intersectionality to Developmental Methods

Currently, there is no guiding consensus about how to conduct empirical research employing intersectionality in developmental science (e.g., Syed & McLean, 2016). Nevertheless, researchers are increasingly employing mixed methods—an explicit combination of both quantitative and qualitative approaches—to assess intersectional phenomena in ways that are flexible, context specific, and accountable to participants. The study of Hyphenated Selves (Fine & Sirin, 2007)is one example. In these studies, researchers investigate the meaning and significance of social identities in context by using methods such as identity mapping, focus groups, interviews, and surveys (e.g., Katsiaficas, Futch, Fine & Sirin, 2011). By gathering up narratives the researchers captured the complexity of individuals’ intersectional identities and the ways in which historically marginalized and invisible groups of youth—such as immigrant youth of color or religious minorities—shift the meaning of their identities and negotiate its significance in the context of the U.S. social and political climate. We call on researchers to give serious thought to how their analytic strategies match their conceptual framework.

Developmental Science’s Contribution in Advancing Intersectionality

To date, much of the discussion surrounding developmental science and intersectionality has focused on the contribution of intersectionality to developmental science – how it can transform theory and methods, and by extension, the way we conceptualize and understand development (e.g., Ghavami, et al., 2016; Rogers, Niwa & Way, 2017). Less explicit are the ways in developmental science can contribute to the evolution and advancement of intersectionality.

Taking a developmental perspective and asking when and what individuals learn about social groups (e.g., Galliher, McLean & Syed, 2017; Ghavami, et al., 2016) can shed light on the process of by which intersectional identities and social locations affect young people. For example, while intersectionality scholars fiercely debate over the definition and scope of intersectionality (Nash, 2015;Collins & Bilge, 2016), discussions of whether and how definitions of intersectionality might differ across development is largely absent. The absence of an explicit articulation of what intersectionality “looks like” across development limits the depth and quality of intersectionality research. These theoretical limitations can have significant downstream consequences for practice, such as designing prevention and intervention programs that acknowledges differences in the experiences of diverse youth.

Developmental methods can also augment methodology in intersectionality. To assess intersectionality in the everyday lives of youth, we will likely need a range of methods, including experimental and naturalistic studies that are conducted not only at one point in time (i.e., cross-sectional) but also across time (i.e., longitudinal) to see potential shifts in those identities. Given what we know about development—social, cognitive, and behavioral—we need to triangulate a variety of methods that are age-appropriate and sensitive to the context of the research. In sum, we must allow our methods to be open enough to understand how youth are constructing their sense of self as members of various groups across situations and contexts.

In conclusion, employing an intersectionality lens allows us to focus not only on the ways in which multiple social categories combine to affect experiences and outcomes of young people but also on the context of particular structures of power, privilege, and disadvantage that shape them in the first place.


Negin Ghavami is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Loyola Marymount University. Her current research centers on social processes that produce social inequity or promote social justice. In particular, Dr. Ghavami focuses on how sexual orientation combines with ethnicity and gender to shape stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, and in turn, affect well-being, health and educational outcomes among adolescents. She is a member of the SRA the Intersectionality in the Developmental Sciences working group.

Dalal Katsiaficas is an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her current research focuses on exploring the social development of immigrant-origin youth, with regards to the development of multiple identities and social and academic engagement. She is a member of the SRA the Intersectionality in the Developmental Sciences working group.


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