Is diversity good or bad?

By Tibor Hartel

Most ecologists agree that diversity is a good thing. From an ecosystem perspective, diversity promotes ecosystem functioning and services. From a population perspective, genetic diversity enhances viability and adaptability in changing environments.

Today’s question is: if applied to social systems, is ethnic / cultural diversity an advantage or disadvantage?

The question is deliberately so simplistic. ‘Black and white’ answers as well as ‘shades of grey’ (i.e. more balanced) types of answers are welcome. The topic was studied in great detail (especially in North America) but I would be interested in personal perceptions about this subject.



13 thoughts on “Is diversity good or bad?

  1. Interesting question — could it depend on the context? Having lived in Australia and Germany, for example, I’d say Australia is very capable of using its cultural diversity as a strength; but Germany is far less capable of doing so at this stage. This might be because Germany has evolved as a non-mixed culture, whereas Australia has been multicultural since its (modern day, non-indigenous) beginning. So, if diversity is part of a society’s identity, it is probably good. But if society doesn’t know how to handle a particular kind of (new?) diversity, then there may be difficulties turning diversity into a strength, to start with, anyway. …

  2. I very much agree with my previous writer. The perception of whether social diversity is a good or a bad thing, is probably developing as a society evolves – and is therefore highly dependent on its history.
    Besides that, from a strategic point of view, I find it interesting what the concept of resilience can tell us about social diversity: that places with higher levels of social diversity have a more complex response diversity by which they are more capable of adapting to change and (socio-economic, environmental, and whatever kind of) disturbance. So, in case of those disturbances, socially diverse nations/regions/cities are generally more likely to be capable of retaining social services and cultural activities that make them a nice and attractive place to live and work.
    Similarly, the concept of permaculture also holds some interesting views on (social) diversity. Based on the assumption that places where different systems meet are areas of high production and manifold and useful connections between the elements of an ecosystem – or, more generally the density of metabolism – (don’t know whether this is scientifically proven btw), permaculture design aims to “use edges and value the marginal”, that is, to create as many of these edge effects as possible. Applied to social issues, this would mean to foster the creation of places where different milieus can meet and communicate with each other (edges). The more of those edges you have in a society, the more socially productive processes you will find in a society.
    Ok, admittedly, sounds nice in theory. Whether it really works in practice probably depends again on the context and a society’s capability of making use of these edges… (After all, the can also serve as places of conflicts between different parts of society)

  3. Thanks for your answers! I also agree with both of you and highlight the importance of historical context and – linked to this – the (socio)political context. I live in Transylvania – say, Eastern Europe. Interesting place, where borders of countries were moved here and there, from office (see the Treaty of Trianon – it is very controversial, some people see in it good thing, while others a tragedy: The consequences of these decisions are still present, even is in very latent way. Extremist national parties and groups seem to have good grounds to survive (i dont know about research to compare the intensity / number of extremist parties and their maniphestations, memberships in eastern europe versus versterns but clearly there are here, and in RO in one year one of them was close to be…elected!). And if this happen – certainly, ethnic diversity wil be always a source of conflictual situations. The ball should be on the hand of majority, in my view, – whatever that means. If the majority can truly make from ethnic diversity a resource or not. RO fail to make this – in my perception.

  4. Short anwer: applied to social systems, ethnic / cultural diversity is an advantage and a great source of creation and development (see America`s example) all those until politicians interfere and all of a sudden nobody knows where “nationalism” ends and “etremism” begins.
    Do you admit the fact that if a minority population (doesn`t matter which and where) carry on it`s culture and identity is seen as a natural and positive behaviour, and the similar atitude of the majority population is easily catalogated as nationalism and sometimes extremism? This happens because the human tendency to protect the smaller exemplar against the bigger one it has benn and it is highly speculated by politicians.

  5. Indeed – people and nations judge their rights and maniphestations based on their own realitites. If there is no ‘reality overlap’ then the troubles may appear…Good leadership may make the difference, I think.

  6. “If applied to social systems, is ethnic / cultural diversity an advantage or disadvantage?”

    I think it’s useful to view this at least partially through a “rights” framework. That is, taking existing ethnic/cultural diversity as a given, deciding whether or not it has an advantage or disadvantage is either terribly fraught or somewhat academic–the implications of either possibility (even in a context-dependent manner) are policies that encourage or discourage ethnic/cultural diversity. We know that policies to discourage such diversity have often been quite disastrous for affected groups. The reviews on policies to encourage diversity are decidedly mixed.

    I guess I would see this deliberately simple question as insufficient in the context of actual social change. The question to me is “Given existing diversity, what measures can best support collective and individual well-being?” Of course, I agree that the answer to either question is very context-dependent, in both time and space. I guess my concern is just that human rights, autonomy, and well-being should always be a prominent part of the formulation or answer of questions like this.

    (On a purely academic level, though, I would suspect that it’s an “advantage” similar to genetic variation, in that there is more variety to select on and therefore it’s usually more likely a successful configuration will occur. This would be true at large time scales, but the advantages or disadvantages would be far more variable in medium- to short-term.)

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  9. “Any serious text on world history” will not point purely to ethnic difference as the reason for genocide (nor will they blithely dismiss works that argue for more nuance). I suppose you don’t consider any, not just the later elements, of Eric Hobsbawm’s works to be “serious”, nor Karl Polanyi’s, or Mike Davis, or indeed… any text that disagrees with you to be “serious”. You can tell they’re wrong because they have the wrong political beliefs.

    “We cannot communicate because I do not trust the entire scientific literature to be unbiased.”

    It sounds like you’re saying you can identify the scientific literature not to trust by whether or not it agrees with your current conclusion. If you’d like to make evidence-based critiques, or even cite specific “serious texts”, you might have a point. Guilt by association (associations I’m proud of) is about as far from a scientific argument as you can get…

    The nice thing about science is that we can evaluate for ourselves whether the evidence supports the conclusion you started with. You can take a skeptical eye to the claims of any Marxist, capitalist, libertarian, socialist, atheist, Christian, Jew, Buddhist or Muslim. I don’t disbelieve Francis Collins because he has Christian beliefs (and believes they can be made compatible with the cutting edge molecular biology he oversees), disbelieve the works of JBS Haldane or Arthur Tansley because they were socialists, disbelieve Darwin because he sought to use his work to show the moral bankruptcy of slavery, or refuse to believe algebra because al-Khwārizmī was a Muslim (or perhaps a Zoroastrian). Quoting Dick Levins and Dick Lewontin (who are both highly cited and whose work has been highly influential, in biology, genetics, mathematics, and social philosophy), you seem to be trying to dismiss them because they are avowed Marxists. Would you dismiss them equally if they said they tried to bring a Neoliberal (or Neoclassical) economic framework to bear within all of their research?

    Your point seems to be that they are so self-apparently biased that they (and by association I) should not be listened to. But again, the nice bit about science is testing ideas out. Many of their ideas have stood the test of time (so far). Many have not.

    Oddly enough, you and they would agree–they do not think it is correct to view the scientific literature to be unbiased. You apparently think it is biased against the truth/your point of view. We’ll see what stands the test of time.

  10. Sigh… Of course, part of the problem, Layup, is that any time “diversity” is the source of the problem, it seems like getting rid of someone is inevitably proposed as the solution. So, one ends up with: conflict again. I suppose you perhaps advocate a policy of gentle homogenization for the human race… not sure what you’ll resort to when people refuse to go along with that plan and stubbornly stay different in some ways.

    And in any case, the more important citations I made, from the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, come from prodigious research on the part of her and her colleagues over the span of decades. I do not know if she was Marxist (I rather suspect she wasn’t); I don’t subscribe to your implicit assertion that Marxist = automatically incorrect and unscientific; and I *do* trust careful empirical study. Your assertions (not evidence or study) in re: identity politics and the like are, indeed, part of the “not simple” things in this world. No matter how much you assert it to be so. Your assertions without evidence (and disparaging any evidence as automatically biased) should be taken more seriously than other people’s viewpoints and evidence because…? It’s not clear what one is to rely on to evaluate your claims, besides your claims themselves, given that all of academia has (apparently) conspired to misinterpret all existing evidence ever just to contradict you.

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