The (Desperate) Need for Economists to Consider “Intersectionality” and Our “Multiple Identities” in Our Work

This fascinating article by Duke psychology professor Sarah Gaither in the July 2019 issue of the American Psychological Association came across my radar because it was featured in the Behavioral Science & Policy Association e-newsletter I subscribe to.  As Sarah introduces her work:

“We all have multiple identities — race, gender, age, sexual orientation, occupation — the list goes on and on. However, psychology research has traditionally focused on the effects stemming from one identity (i.e., race OR gender), rather than trying to measure how belonging to multiple groups may actually shift our behavior or even perhaps change our results. The question I asked — does thinking about one’s self from a multifaceted angle shift your flexible thinking?”

Apparently being aware of one’s multiple identities (as opposed to where you might peg into a mono-dimensional category) makes a person more flexible and creative in one’s thinking.  As Sarah explains, it also reminds a person—even a child—that there a “more social categories in their world beyond just race and gender” and encourages the person “to move beyond their default thinking of either/or categories.”

This got me to thinking about one of my complaints about the economics discipline, that we economists are too often focused on “social well-being” as an aggregate concept (as if it could be representative of the well-being of any single one of us), or on the “distributional effects” of economic policies as a mere divvying up of the aggregate economic pie.  In economic analyses, even when we try to look more deeply at how a trend or a policy may affect some people differently from other people, we almost always only consider one dimension/attribute at a time—e.g., the distribution of the income tax burden by categories of household income levels (rich vs. poor), how government deficits and debt affect older people vs. younger people, how trade wars affect one country’s GDP or well-being over another country’s, how immigration policy affects immigrant vs. native-born employment and wages, how labor-market discrimination manifests itself in a gender pay gap (as in, only by gender and only according to pay).  Too often these analyses will only fuel a taking-sides phenomenon as soon as we are led to put ourselves into the “us” or the “them” category in the “us vs. them” dichotomy.  And we’re off to the partisan, polarized, combative, competitive races, where protecting one’s own interests means squashing someone else’s—or at least covering your ears or turning a blind eye to them.

What if economists could help people understand that in our society—and even in our dollar-measured economy—we each hold multiple roles and identities?  I am an Asian (Korean and Chinese) American, a professional economist, a volunteer English teacher, an adjunct professor, a part-time yoga teacher, a taxpayer, a mother of four 20-somethings, a daughter of immigrants, a (newly-remarried) wife, a middle-aged “baby boomer,” a northern Virginian, a native of Michigan, a consumer, a homeowner, a dog owner/lover.  I think about the economy and public policy—and lots of other things that affect my life—from all those perspectives, even more than based on where I got my Ph.D. or what political party I tend to vote for.  Expressing the full intersection of my perspectives, the full complement of identities in me, with the standard economist’s toolkit has always been challenging, and I find myself turning increasingly to qualitative descriptions expressed in words (which might make other economists view me as not as “technical” or “rigorous” as I was in my younger years when I built beautifully mathematical economic models).  Yet people of all types seem to be more likely to listen to and engage with my stories which highlight that I have an identity (or several identities) that maybe they have, too than to pay attention to any quantitative analysis of mine that shows precise debt-to-GDP ratios with calculated effects on aggregate GDP or even the economic income or “well-being” of one’s particular age cohort or income category. Being a mom has always been a more persuasive and compelling identity of mine than being an economist. (As the Wall Street Journal put it 10 years ago in featuring my blog: “How can you quibble with EconomistMom? What would your mother say?”)

Could economic analysis become more “relatable”—more often?  Could we do better at highlighting (and even measuring/quantifying) the commonalities, synergies, and interdependencies among and across people’s many and intersecting identities, so that we could become more likely as a society to pursue economic policies that are truly in our greatest individual and mutual interests?  Could we stop wasting resources and pursuing counter-productive policies with all our rhetoric and YELLING?

There’s plenty of evidence that people are more likely to be prejudiced, discriminatory, or outright hostile and hateful to “other” groups of people the less experience they have interacting with these “other” types of people.  (See factor #9 in this article, for example.)  But that “otherness” is often just the most superficial, obvious characteristic that makes someone appear very different from you (their race, their age, their gender, their social-media-posted politics).  People of different superficial categories can have many common identities as parents, community members, workers in a particular industry or occupation, etc., so maybe it’s not so much that we need more interactions with “other” people (“them”) but that we need to recognize that in the grand scheme of life, those “others” are us–and we are “them.” We are all in this together.

Sarah Gaither concludes her article, pitched mainly to her own psychology discipline, with this (my emphasis added):

“With rises in immigration, increases in interracial marriage, and shifts in language surrounding biracial and transgender populations, it is essential for research to acknowledge that we are all lots of things at the same time. Therefore, my work has both theoretical and practical relevance in highlighting that belonging to multiple groups — and acknowledgement of that membership — not only impacts our behavior and perceptions of others, but it also suggests that that variability that exists both between and within groups may have been overshadowed in research. By considering our multiplicity of belonging that has always existed we can push our fixed thinking about social groups to be more reflective of the flexibility that we all possess. Thus, I argue that as we continue to study behavior within this evolving cultural landscape, we must be aware of how multiple identity mindsets may impact our findings.”

Yes, it’s a far bigger reach to push this perspective of flexibility, intersectionality, and multiple identities onto economists, but it’s something I’d like to try.