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strategic essentialism

A Dictionary of Critical Theory

Ian Buchanan

strategic essentialism 

The political practice of overlooking the fact that from a post-structuralist perspective essences (in a philosophical sense) are difficult to sustain both ontologically and epistemologically. For example, few feminist theorists would agree that there is a set of definable attributes essential to the idea, the concept, or the actuality of woman. Yet the more one pushes this deconstructive line of thinking, the harder it becomes to establish common ground, or more especially common cause, sufficient to the needs of political action. If all women are irreducibly different, then why should they act together? The same problem besets all political groups defined by their identity (e.g. race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation). For that reason, US-based Indian critic Gayatri Spivak proposes the notion of a strategic essentialism which simultaneously recognizes the impossibility of any essentialism and the necessity of some kind of essentialism for the sake of political action. French feminist critic Luce Irigaray has taken up this term in her work for precisely the same reason.