Biography of Patricia Hill Collins

Her Life and Intellectual Contributions

Patricia Hill Collins, noted black feminist sociologist, speaks at an event.
A recent photo of Patricia Hill Collins.

Patricia Hill Collins is an active American sociologist known for her research and theory that sits at the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality. She served in 2009 as the 100th president of the American Sociological Association (ASA)—the first African American woman elected to this position. Collins is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Jessie Bernard Award, given by the ASA for her first and groundbreaking book, published in 1990, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Power of Empowermentthe C. Wright Mills Award given by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, also for her first book; and, was lauded with the Distinguished Publication Award of the ASA in 2007 for another widely read and taught, theoretically innovative book, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism.

Currently Distinguished University Professor in Sociology at University of Maryland and Charles Phelps Taft Emeritus Professor of Sociology in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati, Collins has had a prolific career as a sociologist, and is the author of several books and numerous journal articles.

The Early Life of Patricia Hill Collins

Patricia Hill was born in Philadelphia in 1948 to Eunice Randolph Hill, a secretary, and Albert Hill, a factory worker and veteran of World War II. She grew up an only child in a working-class family and was educated in the public school system. As a smart child, she often found herself in the uncomfortable position of the de-segretator and reflected in her first book, Black Feminist Thought, how she was frequently marginalized and discriminated against on the basis of her raceclass, and gender. Of this, she wrote:

Beginning in adolescence, I was increasingly the "first," "one of the few," or the "only" African American and/or woman and/or working class person in my schools, communities, and work settings. I saw nothing wrong with being who I was, but apparently many others did. My world grew larger, but I felt I was growing smaller. I tried to disappear into myself in order to deflect the painful, daily assaults designed to teach me that being an African American, working-class woman made me lesser than those who were not. And as I felt smaller, I become quieter and eventually was virtually silenced.

Though she faced many struggles as a working class woman of color in white dominant institutions, Collins persisted and created a vibrant and important academic career.

Intellectual and Career Development

Collins left Philadelphia in 1965 to attend college at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

There, she majored in sociology, enjoyed intellectual freedom, and reclaimed her voice, thanks to the focus in her department on the sociology of knowledge. This subfield of sociology, which focuses on understanding how knowledge takes shape, who and what influences it, and how knowledge intersects systems of power, proved formative in shaping Collins’ intellectual development and her career as a sociologist. While in college she devoted time to fostering progressive educational models in the schools of Boston’s black community, which laid the foundation for a career that has always been a mixture of academic and community work.

Collins completed her Bachelor of Arts in 1969, then completed a Masters in Teaching in Social Science Education at Harvard University the following year. After completing her Masters degree, she taught and participated in curriculum development at St. Joseph’s School and a few other schools in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood in Boston. Then, in 1976, she transitioned back into the realm of higher education and served as Director of the African American Center at Tufts University in Medford, also outside Boston. While at Tufts she met Roger Collins, whom she married in 1977.

Collins gave birth to their daughter, Valerie, in 1979. She then began her doctoral studies in sociology at Brandeis in 1980, where she was supported by an ASA Minority Fellowship, and received a Sydney Spivack Dissertation Support Award. Collins earned her Ph.D. in 1984.

While working on her dissertation, she and her family moved to Cincinnati in 1982, where Collins joined the Department of African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. She forged here career there, working for twenty-three years and serving as Chair from 1999-2002. During this time she was also affiliated with the departments of Women’s Studies and Sociology.

Collins has recalled that she appreciated working in the interdisciplinary African American Studies department because doing so freed her thought from disciplinary frames.

Her passion for transgressing academic and intellectual boundaries shines through in all of her scholarship, which merges seamlessly and in important, innovative ways, the epistemologies of sociology, women and feminist studies, and black studies.

The Major Works of Patricia Hill Collins

In 1986, Collins published her groundbreaking article, “Learning from the Outsider Within,” in Social Problems. In this essay she drew from the sociology of knowledge to critique the hierarchies of race, gender, and class that cast her, an African American woman from a working-class background, as an outsider within the academy. She presented in this work the invaluable feminist concept of standpoint epistemology, which recognizes that all knowledge is created and proffered from the particular social locations that each of us, as individuals, inhabits. While now a relatively mainstream concept within social sciences and humanities, at the time that Collins wrote this piece, the knowledge created by and legitimated by such disciplines was still largely limited to the white, wealthy, heterosexual male viewpoint. Reflecting feminist concerns about how social problems and their solutions are framed, and which are even recognized and studied when the production of scholarship is limited to such a small sector of the population, Collins offered a scathing critique of the experiences of women of color in academia.

This piece set the stage for her first book, and the rest of her career. In the award-winning Black Feminist Thought, published in 1990, Collins offered her theory of the intersectionality of forms of oppressions—race, class, gender, and sexuality—and argued that they are simultaneously occurring, mutually constitutive forces that compose an overarching system of power. She argued that black women are uniquely positioned, due to their race and gender, to understand the importance of self-definition within the context of a social system that defines oneself in oppressive ways, and that they are also uniquely positioned, because of their experiences within the social system, to engage in social justice work.

Collins suggested that though her work focused on the black feminist thought of intellectuals and activists like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde, among others, that the experiences and perspectives of black women serve as a crucial lens for understanding systems of oppression generally. In more recent editions of this text, Collins has expanded her theory and research to include issues of globalization and nationality.

In 1998, Collins published her second book, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. In this work she expanded on the concept of “outsider within” presented in her 1986 essay to discuss the tactics black women use to combat injustice and oppression, and how they go about resisting the oppressive perspective of the majority, while simultaneously creating new knowledge of injustice. In this book she furthered her critical discussion of the sociology of knowledge, advocating for the importance of acknowledging and taking seriously the knowledge and perspectives of oppressed groups, and recognizing it as oppositional social theory.

Collins’ other award-winning book, Black Sexual Politics, was published in 2004. In this work she once again expands her theory of intersectionality by focusing on the intersections of racism and heterosexism, often using pop culture figures and events to frame her argument. She contends in this book that society will not be able to move beyond inequality and oppression until we stop oppressing each other on the basis of race, sexuality, and class, and that one form of oppression cannot and does not trump any others. Thus, social justice work and community building work must recognize the system of oppression as just that—a coherent, interlocking system—and combat it from a unified front. Collins presents a moving plea in this book for people to search for their commonalities and forge solidarity, rather than allowing oppression to divide us along lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Key Intellectual Contributions of Collins

Throughout her career, Collins’ work has been framed by a sociology of knowledge approach that recognizes that the creation of knowledge is a social process, framed and validated by social institutions. The intersection of power with knowledge, and how oppression is connected to the marginalization and invalidation of the knowledge of the many by the power of the few, are central principles of her scholarship. Collins has thus been a vocal critic of the claim by scholars that they are neutral, detached observers who have scientific, objective authority to speak as experts about the world and all of its people. Instead, she advocates for scholars to engage in critical self-reflection about their own processes of knowledge formation, what they consider valid or invalid knowledge, and to make their own positionality clear in their scholarship.

Collins’ fame and acclaim as a sociologist is largely due to her development of the concept of intersectionality, which refers to the interlocking nature of forms of oppression on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, and the simultaneity of their occurrence. Though initially articulated by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a legal scholar who critiqued the racism of the legal system, it is Collins who fully theorized and analyzed it. Today's sociologists, thanks to Collins, take for granted that one cannot understand or address forms of oppression without tackling the entire system of oppression.

Marrying the sociology of knowledge with her concept of intersectionality, Collins is also well known for asserting the importance of marginalized forms of knowledge, and counter-narratives that challenge mainstream ideological framing of people on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Her work thus celebrates the perspectives of black women—mostly written out of Western history—and is centered on the feminist principle of trusting people to be experts on their own experience. Her scholarship has thus been influential as a tool for validating the perspectives of women, the poor, people of color, and other marginalized groups, and has served as a call to action for oppressed communities to unite their efforts to achieve social change.

Throughout her career Collins has advocated for the power of people, the importance of community building, and the necessity of collective efforts to achieving change. An activist-scholar, she has invested in community work wherever she has lived, at all stages of her career. As the 100th President of the ASA, she cast the theme of the organization's annual meeting as “The New Politics of Community.” Her Presidential Address, delivered at the meeting, discussed communities as sites of political engagement and contestation, and reaffirmed the importance of sociologists investing in the communities they study, and of working along side them in the pursuit of equality and justice.

Patricia Hill Collins Today

In 2005 Collins joined the University of Maryland’s department of sociology as a Distinguished University Professor, where she works with graduate students on issues of race, feminist thought, and social theory. She maintains an active research agenda and continues to write books and articles. Her current work has transcended the borders of the United States, in keeping with the recognition within sociology that we now live in a globalized social system. Collins is focused on understanding, in her own words, "how African American male and female youth's experiences with social issues of education, unemployment, popular culture and political activism articulate with global phenomena, specifically, complex social inequalities, global capitalist development, transnationalism, and political activism."

Selected Bibliography

  • "Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought," Social Problems, 33:6, 1986.
  • Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 1990
  • Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, edited with Margaret Anderson, 1992
  • Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice, 1998
  • From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism, 2005
  • Another Kind of Public Education: Race, Schools, the Media and Democratic Possibilities, 2009
  • “The New Politics of Community,” American Sociological Review, 75:1, 2010
  • On Intellectual Activism , 2012
  • “Just Another American Story? The First Black First Family,” Qualitative Sociology, 35:2, 2012
  • "Social Inequality, Power and Politics: Intersectionality and American Pragmatism in Dialogue," Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 26:2, 2012