Commentary: Got diversity? | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Got diversity?

Aug 17, 2008

This article fist appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 17, 2008 - How do you measure diversity? Some would quickly say it's a numbers game. But is that the whole story? If we had the "ideal" mix of people, but those people just coexisted in the same space, would that be diversity?

OK, enough with the questions. I want to suggest that we consider multiple aspects of "diversity." Social psychologist Patricia Gurin and colleagues have differentiated between structural, classroom and interactional diversity.

  • Structural diversity refers to the numerical representation of diversity and is necessary, but insufficient, to guarantee that people will have meaningful cross-racial interactions.
  • Classroom diversity refers to knowledge of diverse people.
  • Informal interactional diversity involves the frequency and quality of intergroup interactions.

Of these types of diversity, interactional seems to come closest to reaching the ideals espoused in so-called vision statements. In part, these statements are put forth because diversity has become a sought-after attribute of many institutions - colleges and universities in particular. Higher education wants to prepare students for a diverse and democratic society, and that cannot happen by osmosis. It takes more than diverse groups co-existing. It takes intergroup contact, relationships and engagement.

Along the way, knowledge is gathered and perspective-taking skills increase. But classroom diversity has its limits, since book knowledge lacks the dynamics of real-life interaction.

Although this theory is rooted in college, it goes beyond campus. Society needs structural, informational (classroom) and interactional diversity. Of these, interactional has the power to transform, because a person who engages across lines of difference most likely also seeks knowledge about other groups and supports structural diversity.

Going back to my initial question, we need to examine our social circles, neighborhoods, workplaces and communities. It should not be expected that people have diversity in all of these domains given the segregation that remains in the United States. However, it's worth the reflection.

We can look at the make-up of our social circle, neighborhood, schools, boards and city officials to examine structural diversity. Then, we can reflect personally and as a community about our knowledge of people who are different from us.

Do we harbor misperceptions about our neighbors who have different traditions? Do we accurately portray various groups in the media? To examine interactional diversity, we can think about who we have invited to our home over the past year or which neighbors we associate with. These are all just suggestions to get you started on your own self-reflection.

Why? Well, research has found that there are benefits to diversity. Basically, we all experience cognitive gains from enriched environments and encountering new stimuli.

We know that a diverse educational environment has positive impacts on student learning, critical thinking, interpersonal competence, self confidence and civic engagement. Although the research has not been replicated beyond college, it might not be too far of a leap to suggest that some of these benefits could also occur in a diverse community, workplace or social network.

So, it seems a question worth asking: Got diversity?

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.