“Diversity” has emerged as a pivotal concept in debates over the role and meaning of plurality and marginality, be they political, academic or pedagogical. Given that I often work with this term, it seems worth clarifying what I understand it to mean:
The concept of diversity acknowledges that there are multidimensional differences between people structured by social categories, such as ‘race’/’ethnicity’1, citizenship, migration status, religion, gender (including gender identity), age, class, (dis)ability and health status, sexual orientation, family/relationship status, etc. Individuals are positioned at the intersections of multiple social categories, as members of social groups created by and within them. Which categories are relevant, the meaning they are accorded and their impact depends on the given society, time and context as well as their specific intersectionality.
“Diversity” is both a descriptive and programmatic term – it advocates for diversity as a positive aspect of society that should be acknowledged, welcomed and fostered so that all people are able to fully participate. It also acknowledges that these social categories are constructs that are deeply entwined with complex, intersecting societal and organisational power relations. The resulting inequality means that members of some social groups face barriers to accessing societal resources (including education, social status) and may even directly experience violence and/or the threat of violence related to their membership of that group. They are thus not able to participate as fully and actively in society as more privileged groups.
Inherent in the concept of diversity are thus equity, belonging, inclusion and antidiscrimination – all of which require the active reduction of barriers to equitable participation at both an individual level and a systemic level (organisational and institutional).
The underlying interests of a diversity approach are sociopolitical. I see the ultimate aim as being social justice.2
Diversity is a fundamentally horizontal and intersectional approach that strives to take all social categories and how they relate to interlocking forms of discrimination into account. In contrast, a vertical approach focuses on just one category or social group.
Using specific groups or categories as the point of reference in an additive way, as though they are quite separate (e.g. policies targeting women, policies targeting people of colour), reduces people to just one part of their complex identity and experiences. It risks reproducing stereotypes and power imbalances.3 So I strive to focus on the overarching practices and structures of inclusion and exclusion rather than identities (e.g. policies to reduce bias in recruitment). At the same time, not naming marginalised groups can make them and their needs invisible, and invisibility contributes to exclusion. Reflecting on a discriminated aspect of ones identity is an important part of empowerment (e.g. women of colour articulating their shared experiences, collective analysis and demands). Targeted approaches that focus on one or two categories or social groups are thus sometimes required in order to amplify otherwise marginalised voices and to identify and target specific needs. Working in the field of diversity requires critical (self-)reflection of this and numerous other dilemmas.
1 “Race” and “ethnicity”, like other social categories, are social constructs. The terms refer to racialised identities and/or ideas of shared cultural, biological and historical identity and/or skin colour and other physical traits. There is no scientific basis for defining groups of people in terms of race or ethnicity beyond the social practice in which the groups are constructed. At the same time, these categories structure society (hierarchically) and, in terms of their impact, exist as real-world phenomena
2 This is sometimes referred to as a “critical diversity” approach. Others sometimes define the interests underlying diversity in utilitarian terms, e.g. “Diversity Management” approaches that aim to maximise the success (profitability) of an organisation by, for example, enabling the organisation to hire the ‘best’ employees across all social groups and enabling all employees to reach their full potential in pursuit of the organisation’s goals. This is not necessarily a contradiction to social justice goals, but it can be.
3 I wrote about this in Gender Mainstreaming: für wen? (2002) And of course I have tried to articulate my understanding of diversity, intersectionality, empowerment, power sharing and various other concepts in other publications.
last modified, December 2018