Intersectionality and superdiversity: What’s the difference?

Report on the first roundtable of the IRiS Key Concepts series by Rachel Humphris, IRiS Associate Researcher

The IRiS Key Concepts Roundtable series brings scholars together to discuss and interrogate the theoretical and analytical contours of superdiversity through its relationships to other germane concepts.

Building on insights from the 2014 IRiS International Conference and a previous roundtable that addressed the future of diversity research, the Key Concepts series aims to begin a conversation regarding the ways different concepts offer vantage points and heuristic lenses to illuminate society and understand societal change.

Intersectionality and its relationship with superdiversity were the theme of the first roundtable that was held on 30th April 2015. IRiS invited Professor Elenore Kofman (Middlesex University), Professor Ann Phoenix (UCL) and Dr Caroline Oliver (University of Oxford) to address this question: Intersectionality and superdiversity: What’s the difference?

Superdiversity in light of intersectionality

Professor Ann Phoenix, Dr Caroline Oliver and Professor Eleonore Kofman at the IRiS Key Concepts Roundtable on intersectionality and superdiversityEleonore Kofman opened the discussion identifying the ways superdiversity has been used to describe increasing diversification across a number of different variables. she posited that one of the defining characteristics of superdiversity is its close connection to migration studies (see also Meissner 2015) and stemming primarily from Vertovec’s critique of the ‘ethnic lens’ in migration studies (2007), which gained particular salience when examining the complexity of post-colonial migration to London. The aim of the approach, she argued, was to take variables such as types of flows, entitlements, migration trajectories and social variables such as gender and age into account within analysis of social processes. For Caroline Oliver, superdiversity has gained popularity because it named evident processes within global cities. She illustrated the utility of the concept through discussion of new practices of urban diversity in Elephant and Castle (Berg et al. 2014).

Superdiversity’s propensity to be utilised in urban contexts, and in particular, in global metropolises was also highlighted as a defining feature of the term by professor Ann Pheonix, Institute of Education, University College London. Advantages of this perspective were reviewed, as well as some of the limitations. For example, Pheonix argued that superdiversity’s focus on cities links the term with dynamism and social change. She went on to outline the ways in which focusing on cities is important particularly in light of urbanisation – according to the UN, sixty-six per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 (UN 2014). However, this urban focus begs the question, identified by all the speakers at the roundtable: what is ‘outside’ the global city? Pheonix suggested attention should also be paid to the dying city or rural areas. Kofman developed this point further to question what superdiversity would look like outside global metropolises and whether this is a relevant subject of enquiry for superdiversity research.

However, the focus on cities has enabled superdiversity to advance theorising in certain areas. For example, Pheonix discussed the multiplication of different variables posited by Vertovec in his original article in 2007, which, she argued, significantly developed debate regarding how and where people live. For Pheonix, superdiversity is about movement and place and therefore it implies the need for contextualisation, not only of change but also of time and space. Pheonix also discussed how superdiversity holds the possibility of debate regarding aspirational shared futures. She argued that through engaging with change and flux researchers are able to think about dynamic and open futures and, importantly, keep re-theorising them. Oliver also discussed the ‘explosion in the research agenda’ when rich histories of migration and religion are brought into the analysis of particular localities. Oliver noted that superdiversity allows the capture of affinities as well as differences.  By looking at cross cutting categories, interesting constellations of practice emerge for example when looking at ethnicity and age. Oliver illustrated this with an example of a Day Care Centre in Elephant and Castle where the experience of having a visual impairment was more important than ethnicity. Ageing and experience of bodily change became a category of affinity between members of the group.

Intersectionality in light of superdiversity

Professor Ann Phoenix, Dr Caroline Oliver and Professor Eleonore Kofman at the IRiS Key Concepts Roundtable on intersectionality and superdiversityIn comparison to superdiversity, intersectionality has a much longer history. The term has moved in many different theoretical, analytical and empirical directions. Intersectionality has been taken up as a framework for studies of social positioning, as a theoretical and methodological paradigm, and as a lens for political interventions (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). The concept has been hailed as ‘the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies… has made so far’ (McCall 2005, 1771) and is seen by many as a conceptual nodal point for feminist scholarship and feminisms major contribution to current social theory (Lykke 2011). The concept began and was enriched by the writings of black feminists in the 1980s before Crenshaw coined the term in a socio-legal sense (Crenshaw 1989). Pheonix pointed out that in naming it, the term gained popularity and a greater amount of scholarly attention. Kofman and Pheonix agreed that the historical development of the term placed marginalised subjectivities and identities at the heart of the analysis.

Kofman also differentiated between superdiversity and intersectionality through the latter’s concern with the ‘holy trinity’ of gender, race/ethnicity and class although she also acknowledged that class is often ignored (see Skeggs 2008 who implies that the intersectional way of thinking about gender, race and class does not necessarily produce critical analysis). Importantly, Kofman argued, the main question of intersectionality concerned identifying the ways these categories are co-constituted and interact with each other.  Both Kofman and Phoenix referred to the debate between intersectionality scholars regarding whether these categorisations are autonomous; only interact in specific circumstances; or are intrinsically co-constituted. Reference was made to Yuval-Davis (2006) who argues that social divisions need to be studied at different analytical levels and that their ontological base and their relations to each other differ.

Pheonix argued that co-constitution is inherent to both concepts and that both pay close attention to how social variables interact with each other to create certain outcomes that are different to analysing categories in isolation. However, a defining feature of intersectional is the focus on social inequality and questions regarding political and legal struggles. In addition, scholars of intersectionality would argue that these categories can’t be analysed without also acknowledging that representations are interlocked.

The role of categorisations

Stimulated by Kofman’s interest not only in diversification as a process but also how academics use categorisations, the roundtable turned to discuss the way in which academics use group classifications. She argued that one of the major criticisms of superdiversity is that it ultimately flatten difference. For Kofman, this leads to difficulties when comparing one very complex category to another and to account for the various positions and hierarchies within, betwixt and between categories. This was also taken up by Ann Pheonix, who stated that all categories are socially constructed and change them over time. She identified that there are no categories that have been more dynamic than those around ethnicisation in the last fifty years. She posited that superdiversity is less ‘geared up’ to look at internal differences between categories when compared to intersectionality. Intersectionality was argued to be more sensitive to internal heterogeneity because it is always looking at the ways categories are ‘decentred’ and ‘reconstituted’ by their intersections. Therefore, within an intersectional approach, an ethnic category is always decentred by its particularities through gender and class and never taken as a given.

Oliver highlighted that intersectionality seems more theoretically geared up to provide the tools to look through multiple lenses at the same time. Intersections of categories are not considered as collisions that happen in a moment, but as a process. However, Oliver also highlighted the ‘disruptive power’ of superdiversity due to its focus on change, transformation and flux and that this was inherently political due to the implied questioning of categories.

The discussion then turned towards issues of hierarchy and social position. Kofman highlighted that difference should be considered as the starting point which leads to the analysis of how and why differences assume varying positions with regards to exclusion and inclusion. This lead Kofman to discuss a further critique of superdiversity namely that issues of power and politics are largely absent from analysis (see also Meissner and Vertovec 2015). Kofman questioned how superdiversity could apply an emphasis on power and position both methodologically and in analysis. She argued that this is very difficult when there is a ‘flat’ or ‘horizontal’ type of differentiation of diversity.

The focus on categories provoked discussion regarding methodology and the problems of analysing diverse samples within research. Kofman argued that too much diversity within a sample causes inherent difficulties when analysing hierarchies and stratifications. She found in a recent research project, it was impossible to grasp the difference diversity made as there was too much complexity within the data.

All speakers acknowledged the problem of holding many different categories within one analytical frame. Pheonix quoted Yuval-Davis’ discussion of Judith Butler (2006), regarding the ‘exhaustion of the et cetera’. She proposed one way to think through this problem is to always be alert in new times to the differences that make a difference, ‘there are things that might be surprising and elements that are making a difference that we may think wouldn’t. We must be open to these elements and not take these things for granted’. Importantly, she argued that not everything is always and equally playing a part. Nor can researchers always see all the categories that make a difference at any one time.

All speakers expressed awareness that both concepts are not new. For example, Kofman argued that there have been those working on gender and race, and how to analyse the complexity and diversity between these categories for decades (Anthias and Yuval-Davis, 1992). Kofman quoted Sylvia Walby’s perspective on intersectionality as she believed it resonated with superdiversity: ‘intersectionality is a relatively new term to describe an old question in theorisation of the relationships between different forms of social inequality’ (2007:450). She argued that the diversity literature identifies a wide range of variables and processes that do go beyond ethnicity but the social inequalities are still largely missing; whereas in intersectionality inequalities are pivotal.

Three common problems

Kofman identified three ways in which the two terms share common problems as they have travelled in time and place across cultures. As highlighted above, a key concern developed from the roundtable regarding how social researchers analyse diverse variables in a particular place. There was debate as to whether quantitative methodology had a key role to play in the analysis of complex societal change. McCall’s approach (2005) was credited with ushering in a new phase of thinking on intersectional research. It was also noted that there is a plurality of ways that people conduct intersectional research. Pheonix identified there is no methodological dogma for research that is intersectional, nor an epistemological one, other than understanding the plurality of categorisation and intersections. The primary identifier of intersectionality is the way in which theory is created.

Secondly, Kofman identified that policy was a pivotal common concern of both intersectionality and superdiversity. Pheonix argued that subjects in her research have often ‘naturally orientated’ in narratives towards an intersectional understanding. It was acknowledged that superdiversity may be a more fruitful lens through which to engage policy makers and welfare providers. Oliver highlighted how superdiversity was very useful as a term because it was attractive to welfare providers, particularly as this is something that they relate to as problems and negotiations that take place in their everyday lives. However, as identified by Susanne Wessendorf, this should also sensitise researchers to the politics behind the terms we use and how these concepts emerge within and beyond academia.

The third common concern of both terms was a desire to link the everyday with macro global processes. It was discussed that both concepts need to theorise this in further detail. There is a need to link work undertaken so far on developing a more complex understanding of social inequalities to wider transformations in society.


The different histories, interpretations and developments of intersectionality and superdiversity emerged as key to explain their different points of entry to understanding social practice. All speakers highlighted that superdiversity was a nascent term still too closely associated to its inventor and had not yet benefitted from decades of critical debate and refinement like intersectionality.

Superdiversity was seen as a ‘theoretical hub’ (Pheonix). This is evident in many ways, most saliently it chimes with what John Urry would describe as the paradigm shift to mobilities. Mobilities are also relational, inviting exploration of what does not move and therefore inequality and hierarchy could be placed at the forefront of analysis. Superdiversity also lends a focus towards acknowledging flows. This resonates with Ash Amin’s ‘situated multiplicity and social practice’ (2008: 9) wherein flows and social practice are being brought together, not just in the movement of people but also, amongst other things, information and goods.

Pheonix described superdiversity as a reminder that we need to theorise dynamic change in place. It is compatible with intersectionality but they produce ‘different points of entry to the world.’ Intersectionality is also a heuristic device for thinking about the everyday as it captures plurality and situatedness. Both terms explore everyday lived experiences however, whereas superdiversity focuses on place, intersectionality addresses the significance of position. It is intrinsically concerned with the specificity of site, but not of space. Pheonix argued that both categories have multiple objects of enquiry.

All speakers identified that superdiversity is frequently utilised in a solely descriptive manner. Kofman stated that as intersectionality has travelled and become more popular the term is increasingly used descriptively. In contrast, superdiversity is travelling in the direction of becoming more analytically powerful. Although some are yet to be convinced that the concept has the tools to achieve this.

Policy and power were key themes that emerged in various forms throughout the presentations and discussion. In the discussion, Nando Sigona observed that power and scale are often absent from superdiversity scholarship and this can lead to some kind of acritical diversity voyeurism and to analytical confusion around the subject of research, that slips between context, community and self. ‘What or who is superdiverse? Is it a neighbourhood, a city, a region, a state, an individual, a community, or society?’ Sigona asked (for more discussion see Sigona 2013; Berg and Sigona 2013), inviting researchers to unpack and clarify their use of superdiversity.

Intersectionality and superdiversity were not seen by Pheonix as polar opposites or terms that can’t be reconciled or brought together in more fruitful ways. Oliver notes that the richness of what both concepts offer is the way that they are relevant to, and utilised within, many different disciplines.  Kofman considered superdiversity as an outcome, which occurs through processes of diversification that could be researched using intersectionality. This was echoed by Wessendorf who posited that superdiversity could be seen as a demographic reality which could be analysed using intersectionality to gain a more nuanced understanding of social practice. Oliver confirmed that when writing about research undertaken in superdiverse contexts, the language of intersectionality was most useful.

The roundtable concluded with the clear understanding that both intersectionality and superdiversity will shift and change as concepts in the future. However, it is still to be seen whether there will be more convergence between the terms and which directions are yet to be taken.


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