XXVI.2 March - April 2019
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Intersectional computing

Neha Kumar, Naveena Karusala

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Intersectionality is increasingly finding its way into conversations around equity, diversity, and social justice within human-computer interaction (HCI), where we recognize that it is a relatively new concept in these conversations [1] and that more and novel methods for engaging with intersectionally diverse groups are needed [2]. HCI research has also discussed how one might engage in design with intersectional awareness [3]. A panel at CHI 2018 took these conversations beyond HCI research as well, to discuss whether SIGCHI as an organization might benefit from fostering intersectional awareness and how [4]. This unfolding discourse around intersectionality within HCI, however, has largely been focused on populations marginalized in a few explicit ways, mainly around the constructs of race, gender, and class. There are also less explicit marginalized aspects of identity that a deeper engagement with the lens of intersectionality might surface, such as nationality, domain of work, and linguistic ability, among others. All of these intersections are important to recognize, and not only when they overtly impact the lives of HCI's targeted user groups. Intersections influence the lives of many more in the world of computing, such as the researchers, designers, and practitioners responsible for advancing the discipline overall, and the active and passive users whose lives are shaped by these advancements. In this article, we discuss ways in which members of the HCI community might deepen their engagement with intersectionality, how they might benefit from engaging thus, and how this might enrich computing as a discipline outside of HCI alone. We propose intersectional computing as a path forward to this end.


back to top  A Brief History of Intersectionality

Before we continue, a brief history of intersectionality is in order, at least in its relevance to HCI. Legal scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, naming what she and other writers and thinkers (such as bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde) noted as the particular experiences that arise from multiple, co-occurring facets of marginalization. Over the years, scholars have theorized about how to understand intersections. One strand of thought suggests studying the categories that people might identify with, like one's race, ability, or sexuality, and how these affect lived experiences of oppression. Another suggests viewing intersectionality from the perspectives of individuals—how they themselves define their identity and experiences with multiple forms of marginalization. There are also approaches that present a combined focus on categories and individuals, questioning how categories like race are constructed in the first place, and how people of different identities respond daily to the creation of these categories.

back to top  Insights


Such ideas are slowly but steadily finding their way to the world of computing through workshops and published research that we reference here, but remain largely focused on the confines of research and design in HCI. For example, Schlesinger et al. pointed out that very little prior work published at the CHI conference had engaged with intersectionality in a meaningful way (or at all) [1]. They proposed concrete measures, such as researchers including statements of self-disclosure in their scholarship, that HCI researchers might undertake toward an intersectional HCI. Wong-Villacres et al. extended this perspective to the analysis of empirical research, using intersectionality to derive insights from data collected via a multi-sited design ethnography, proposing situated comparisons as a methodology for designing for diverse intersections [3]. In alignment with this push for greater intersectional awareness throughout HCI, and aiming for impact beyond HCI and across computing, we suggest that the discipline begin to engage more actively with the construct of intersectionality and its frameworks—not only at research sites, but also in classrooms, conferences, and labs.

back to top  Intersectional Computing

We propose intersectional computing as a mindset to shift the conversation from how might we better acknowledge and design for intersections? to how might we approach computing in a way that honors intersections more broadly? To this end, we first highlight that there are many more intersections than the ones identified and deconstructed in HCI work thus far. We add that these intersections are visible across multiple levels, whether among members of the SIGCHI research community, active and passive consumers of social computing technologies, students engaging in computing for social impact, or others. We then emphasize that the bridging of intersections is critical and necessary, additionally suggesting that HCI is well positioned to lead this charge for the discipline of computing. Our aim is not to suggest fragmentation of the HCI (or computing) communities, but rather to recognize that there are bridges we might build to help us see that even amid different kinds of difference, there are commonalities that might serve as productive avenues for sharing situated knowledges.

Employing care in applying intersectionality is crucial, as the wide applicability of this construct runs the risk of its being reduced to a buzzword when not used wisely or productively.

back to top  More Users, More Intersections

The audiences for computing have traditionally included those who can afford, use, and benefit from computing devices. This tends to rule out individuals who are unable to pay for devices such as expensive smartphones or computers. It also rules out those who might be excluded on account of different abilities, such as visually impaired populations. There is additionally the likelihood that technologies that are affordable and usable may not actually be designed to benefit all populations—a well-known example is Uber, which has made mobility accessible but has also been found to generate further infrastructural problems in certain contexts. Computing is not, and never has been, for all, but as it touches the lives of more users—across borders and intersections—its scope continues to widen, and more people are included into its fray.

Numbers alone make a strong case for intersectionality. In addition to the growing populations at intersections thus far acknowledged, there is work to be done on uncovering more intersections. As the graphic in Erete et al.'s article highlights [2], some kinds of oppression have been studied far less than others, such as language bias, colorism, ageism, or Eurocentrism. To recognize these understudied margins is also to recognize that intersections with such oppressive forces may be more pervasive than we think. Not only are the spaces of privilege small and confined, but also the walls of privilege are thin and porous, vulnerable to the penalties that come with oppressive forces. As we uncover new intersections and more deeply investigate others, we can see that the framing of intersectionality can help in better understanding the active and passive users of computing. We next discuss the levels across which intersectionality carries relevance, beyond use alone.

back to top  Levels of Intersectionality

The populations implicated in computing exist at multiple levels, with different stakes, calling for the application of intersectionality beyond research and design, and beyond HCI as well. At the individual level, as unpacked above, it is not only (HCI) research subjects who have intersectionally diverse realities; so do those who are affected by computing more broadly, such as the active consumers using technology or the passive recipients of unintended or hidden impacts of computing. From here, we can progressively zoom out to consider the intersections among those who work on and are responsible for carrying the discipline of computing forward. Starting from within HCI, we might pay greater attention to the intersectional identities of members (and potential/future members) of the growing HCI community, and to where they are situated. A growing community must also consider the knowledge we pass on to students, bringing up questions of how we might take an intersectional approach to HCI and design education and how we might teach about intersectional approaches to HCI. We might attend to analogous concerns within other domains of computing and, going up another level, recognize and cultivate shared goals between HCI and these disparate domains (such as explainable AI, sustainable computing, and others).

Intersectionality is relevant across each of these levels, which are connected in significant ways. Faculty members' approaches to computing research, design, and development shape the perspectives and priorities of their students. These students become part of the computing workforce that designs technologies for populations of its choosing. The circle of life continues. We also cannot overlook the theoretical diversity that informs applications of intersectionality. As touched upon above, there are diverse theories of intersectionality, and if we are to apply this lens to our computing practice, we must invest in learning how to use these diverse conceptualizations appropriately. Employing care in applying intersectionality is crucial, as the wide applicability of this construct runs the risk of its being reduced to a buzzword [5] when not used wisely or productively.


back to top  Bridging Intersections

By deconstructing intersectional diversity at every level, we can determine how similar and different disparate intersectional contexts are, possibly leading to greater unification of otherwise fragmented work. For example, as researchers of human-centered computing and global development, commonly labeled HCI4D, we are especially sensitive to intersections, owing to the fact that the contexts within which we conduct our research are frequently intersectional. Our target populations are almost always socioeconomically disadvantaged, possibly marginalized on account of their low literacy, frequently powerless before patriarchal norms or stigmatized health conditions, and typically residents of the Global South. However, some of these intersections may confront research in the Global North as well; a challenge we commonly face is of doing the work to translate across communities (of those working in computing or those affected by it) to show that despite surface-level differences, there are shared goals—or even if there aren't, that it may be worthwhile to create them. As HCI4D researchers, we repeatedly discover that the problems we study are also relevant to people and places not viewed as being in need of "development" in traditional terms. Likewise, texts such as Virginia Eubanks's Automating Inequality remind us that poverty and oppression also exist in the "developed" world. Eubanks's work also highlights the synergy shared across HCI4D and research leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) for social good, as it uncovers how data-driven tools targeting social services and poverty alleviation may also exacerbate living conditions for the poor. There are many such boundaries, beyond the geographic and the disciplinary, that shape the world of computing and the ideas and work it produces. And while work at/on the intersections is growing no doubt, building partnerships to diffuse boundary lines and generate avenues for co-learning is also of critical importance.

back to top  Why HCI?

Today HCI is uniquely positioned to use intersectionality as a lens to initiate such partnerships compared to other focus areas within computing. Certainly, it is the subfield of computing that engages most directly with human interactions with technology, by definition, and has already made numerous efforts to recognize and foster diversity and inclusion within its circle of influence. These include the Diversity and Inclusion Lunch at CSCW 2018 that recognized papers aiming to study various challenging intersectional contexts. Such events have been taking place at CHI for at least the past seven years. CHI has also made room for the HCI across Borders (HCIxB) symposia to be held for several consecutive years, as an explicit attempt to welcome researchers from less-developed parts of the world to participate at CHI. Further, the ACM Future of Computing Academy (FCA)—a computing-wide body committed to large-scale, real-world impact in the discipline—currently has highest representation from HCI professionals and is committed to enriching diversity and inclusion across multiple criteria in its future recruits. There are also thriving efforts focusing on marginal populations that beg for connections to be drawn among them. As mentioned, the domain of HCI4D examines those on the margins of socioeconomic privilege. Meanwhile, there are efforts to understand social media engagement to address mental health concerns—another set of margins. There are educational technology researchers who investigate the digital behaviors of marginal Latino immigrant communities or rural midwestern groups in the U.S., for example. And then there are civic engagement researchers who work in infrastructurally constrained contexts in the Global North.

Despite an acknowledged focus on diversity and inclusion as values to be espoused by us as a subfield of computing, there is work to be done. First, unpacking and complicating "diversity and inclusion" and articulating the margins of inquiry are important. This motivation underlies the genesis of intersectionality to begin with. Certain sources of marginalization, such as race or gender, frequently receive greater attention than others, such as age or ability. To take on the lens of intersectionality, we might therefore invest effort in more deeply attuning ourselves to the dimensions along which marginalization occurs. Second, taking a broader purview to acknowledge the presence of intersections where they have previously been overlooked is also important. If we inspect the figure in Erete et al.'s article [2] that maps out many different forms of privilege that individuals possess (and certainly there are more), we might be hard-pressed to find HCI researchers who can assuredly claim that they operate only in the top half of this figure—that is, only with populations who have privilege. Margins are numerous (and numerously experienced) and privilege is relative, making intersections more ubiquitous than we realize. By beginning to look at different intersections simultaneously, we might find compelling ways to deeply investigate and learn from where privileges and margins overlap. What more would this require of the HCI community, however? Perhaps, at a minimum, a greater investment in shared vocabularies, methodologies that could effectively cross boundaries, an openness to learning across margins, and a commitment to teach new HCI students where to look.

back to top  Paving the Path Forward

The HCI community is growing rapidly, and given its fundamental commitment to investigating and enriching human interactions with increasingly ubiquitous computing technologies, is well positioned to have widespread impact on human lives. Working with humans requires us to be able to recognize and respond to difference, as well as to different kinds of difference. This is where intersectionality is valuable—as a lens that might allow us to work with difference across multiple levels and in multiple contexts. However, it can have this impact only if we—in HCI and committed to the advancement of computing—are simultaneously motivated to deepen our individual and collective understanding of intersectionality, engage with it in our research, teach it in the classroom, acknowledge it among colleagues, and communicate its relevance to the world of computing as a whole. We conclude by outlining considerations for paving the path forward.


First, in recognizing that there are multiple forces of marginalization at play, we also need to attune ourselves to the need for recognizing which ones to notice, honor, and address. In looking for difference, we may find many kinds, but not all may be agreed on, viewed as problematic, or necessarily need addressing. Recognizing that the differences we see and prioritize stem from our own positionality means that we must reflect on our positionality, as Schlesinger et al. and Erete et al. emphasize [1,2].

Second, if we do aspire to address the impact of intersecting forces of marginalization, then we must also take responsibility for our involvement in the process. As Wong-Villacres et al. highlight [3], it is not only marginalization (or penalties) that we must examine, but also assets (or privileges) that present opportunities for appropriate design as well. Leveraging or enhancing privileges is just as essential as focusing on the penalties if we are to avoid rejecting or overlooking what individuals and communities consider important and relevant. This may also require rethinking what counts as privilege, in our own lives as well as the lives we work with and for, and recognizing that some privilege might need to be shared for others to gain more of it.

And finally, we might take these considerations beyond the present to understand how our attention to intersectionality (or lack thereof) could impact futures. For example, computing researchers are recognizing that a sole focus on improving algorithms is not cloistered from the impacts those algorithms have in user-facing systems down the road—Amazon's controversial facial recognition software is one of many recent examples. Also, a student might progress from learning or researching to eventually teaching or engaging with practice, requiring awareness of intersectionality across more levels as time goes on. Aiming for greater self-reflexivity and keeping an eye to the future along these dimensions can help further a discipline of computing that is respectful and responsive toward intersections.

back to top  References

1. Schlesinger, A., Edwards, W.K., and Grinter, R.E. Intersectional HCI: Engaging identity through gender, race, and class. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2017.

2. Erete, S., Israni, A., and Dillahunt, T. An intersectional approach to designing in the margins. Interactions 25, 3 (Mar.–Apr. 2018), 66–69.

3. Wong-Villacres, M. et al. Designing for intersections. Proc. of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, 2018.

4. Wisniewski, Pamela J., et al. Intersectionality as a Lens to Promote Equity and Inclusivity within SIGCHI. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2018.

5. Davis, K. Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful. Feminist Theory 9, 1 (Apr. 2008), 67–85.

back to top  Authors

Neha Kumar is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, conducting research in human-centered computing and global development. She got her Ph.D. in 2013 from the UC Berkeley School of Information. Her research is currently focused on feminist and intersectional perspectives in HCI, drawing on assets-based approaches for community-driven social change. neha.kumar@gatech.edu

Naveena Karusala is a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Washington. She graduated from Georgia Tech in 2016. She conducts research on human-centered computing and global development in domains including health, gender, language, usability, and human-centered AI tools. She strives to take feminist approaches to this work. naveenak@cs.uw.edu

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