Richard J. Crisp Ph.D.

Living in a Box

Diversity: Why it’s good for us (Part I)

Nurturing our multifaceted identities may be the key to social harmony

Posted Apr 23, 2010

Pick up any newspaper and look at the major issues of the day. It's apparent that we are compelled to classify, and appear resolute in defining our world in its most simplistic form - the basic division into "us" and "them". We could be talking about the Northern Ireland peace process, conflict in the Middle East, gender discrimination, or institutional racism; immigration or asylum seekers. A singular social basis for distinguishing one group of people from another dominates all of these issues.

Psychologically speaking, this enduring use of classification is consistent with what we know about mental functioning in more general terms. According to social cognitive theory we like things to make sense, to be coherent, to be predictable (see my earlier blogs). Thinking about someone in terms of their gender, race or religion helps us to organize and make sense of our worlds. Categories tell us who we are in relation to others. They define us, they provide us with a sense of who we are; they are the essence of our existence.

The problem is that while categories define us, they also provide the bedrock -- the defining feature -- of prejudice. Racism, sexism, ageism, these are social problems characterized by our tendency to categorize. How then can we address these social problems when they are predicated on the same organizing principle that helps us make sense of the world? Perhaps the solution is not to try to ignore categories but to embrace them. If we have to use them, let's do so in a way that emphasizes diversity.

The point is that we are not only defined by our religion, or race, or gender, but by all of these things, and many more besides. In an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious world the reality is that there are now multiple ways in which we can be the same as, or different from, other people. Really appreciating this diversity may be the key to reducing prejudice and discrimination.

I have argued that to combat social exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, to help create dialogue in contexts of conflict, and to develop systems and expectations to do so, then we must focus not on single divisive criteria -- the "us" versus "them" mentality -- but instead encourage an appreciation of the multifaceted nature of identity.

Social psychological research has supported this basic idea. Laboratory studies have found that prejudicial attitudes are challenged by encouraging people to use many different ways of thinking about others, rather than categorizing in terms of just one criterion, be that race, religion, gender or age. This works because rather than applying a negative stereotype to someone just because they are a member of a stigmatized group, people come to realize that identities can be flexible, dynamic, and complex, and that there are many different (and positive) ways in which anyone can be described. It shows us that we all have a lot in common, but that we are also distinct from one another, and we can all bring something unique to the societies in which we live.

From racial prejudice to gender discrimination, from efforts to promote closer integration of European member states to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, from ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia to the genocide in Rwanda, social categories define intergroup relations, and they define prejudice, discrimination and intergroup conflict. Our social world is increasingly characterized by multiple affiliations, differentiation and diversity. Thinking about others in a more multifaceted way may ultimately provide an invaluable contribution to the promotion of social inclusion and the establishment of social harmony.

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