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Diversity, one of the buzzwords of the early twenty-first century, has become a concept that has multiple meanings to different groups of people. Although dictionaries usually define diversity by using terms like “variety,” “difference,” or “dissimilarity,” social scientists usually talk about diversity in at least four different ways.
- Counting diversity refers to empirically enumerating differences within a given population. Using this definition, social scientists take a particular population and simply count the members according to specific criteria, often including race, gender, and ethnicity. In addition, it is possible to take a particular unit within a society like a school, workplace, or government and compare its race, ethnic, or gender distribution to that of the general population. Often, suspicious questions are raised the farther the diversity of a subunit differs from that of the larger population.
- Culture diversity refers to the importance of understanding and appreciating the cultural differences between race, ethnic, and gender groups. Since members of one culture often view others in relationship to their own standards, social scientists using the culture diversity definition would argue that it is important to show that differences do not have to be evaluated along a good-bad or moral-immoral scale. With greater tolerance and understanding, the argument goes, different cultural groups can coexist with one another in the same society.
- Good-for-business diversity refers to the belief that businesses will be more profitable and government agencies and not-for-profit corporations will be more efficient with diverse labor forces. According to this approach, members of particular cultural groups are more effective than non-group members in dealing with their own groups so it is in the interests of organizations to diversify workers and managers.
- Conflict diversity refers to understanding how different groups exist in a hierarchy of inequality in terms of power, privilege, and wealth. According to this definition, dominant groups oppress subordinate groups in many societies and it is important for social scientists to understand the nature of this oppression in order to help attain a more egalitarian society.
In the real world, these four approaches often overlap. However, people using different approaches often ask different types of questions. One can see how this works by examining a hypothetical city in the United States that is having difficulty between the local police department and the black and Hispanic population.
A social scientist with a counting diversity perspective might compare the black and Hispanic distribution in the police department with the distribution in the city. Typically, blacks and Hispanics would be underrepresented in the police department and even more highly underrepresented at the upper levels of the department.
A culture diversity scholar, on the other hand, would be more concerned with how the police understand the black and Hispanic communities since this also affects their actions. Do the predominantly white police interpret certain types of speech and clothing as threatening when it is simply part of the black and Hispanic subculture? Do they act in ways that inadvertently disrespect members of the community, thus causing even more tension? Being more sensitive to black and Hispanic cultural values might make the job of the police easier.
The good-for-business perspective would argue that the police would be more effective if they had more black and Hispanic officers who would be more likely to be familiar with the culture of those communities. In addition, members of the community might not be so hostile if the police were seen as some of their own.
Finally, culture conflict social scientists would argue that the police represent the interests of the dominant group: wealthy, white men in business and politics. The police represent the property rights of the dominant group and enforce the laws that they have enacted. Black and Hispanic police officers enforce the same unfair laws as their white colleagues, although they may do it more humanely. The goal is not just to have a more representative and culturally sensitive police force. The goal is to change the laws in order to have a more equitable society.
Concerns about diversity, however it is defined, also intersect with policies like affirmative action. Employmentbased affirmative action is based on comparing the racial distribution of employees in a given workplace with the racial distribution of the pool of workers who are qualified for a specific job. This is counting diversity. In the United States, employers with $50,000 in federal contracts and fifty or more employees are required to make a “good faith effort” to achieve a representative labor force; that is, they must try. Formal hiring quotas, where employers are legally obligated to hire a certain percentage of underrepresented workers, are more difficult to justify. In India, on the other hand, these hiring quotas are used much more extensively.
In higher education, both counting diversity and a version of culture diversity are involved. According to the 2003 Grutter and Gratz decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, affirmative action in college admissions is constitutional because it is in the educational interests of all students to be exposed to a diversity of views on campus. Racial diversity is one way to enhance the diversity of views. However, strict numerical comparisons and formulas cannot be used. Instead, “holistic” assessments of each candidate must take place in order to achieve an undefined “critical mass” of each student group. Since white and Asian students are overrepresented in American higher education, these critical mass guidelines refer mainly to underrepresented minorities like blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. A good-for-business perspective is also involved since the court noted that law schools and, to a lesser extent, all of higher education train future leaders who should be selected from all racial groups.
Neither affirmative action in employment nor in higher education reflects the conflict diversity perspective since the role and structure of higher education and the economy is not questioned. The relative power of workers and their bosses/managers is not addressed. The purpose of higher education is not addressed. All that is addressed is the racial characteristics of those who occupy various positions. When reading an article about diversity, it is critical to understand which approach the author is using.
- Anderson, Margaret L., and Patricia Hill Collins. 2007. Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Ore, Tracy E. 2006. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Pincus, Fred L. 2006. Understanding Diversity: An Introduction to Class, Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Rosenblum, Karen E., and Toni-Michelle C. Travis. 2006. The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class and Sexual Orientation. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
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