Diversity can be defined as variances in one’s personal development, based on the concepts of human and social capital, and in comparison to others. Consequently, excluding categorizations in terms of an assumed identity based on one’s ethnicity, gender, race, or functional ability. Which, in turn, contrasts the Merriam-Webster lexicon definition that reads diversity is, ‘the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization’.
I would like to assert that society uses such classification systems in order to comprehend a continuously more globalized and, as a result, increasingly complex world. Human kind tends to create stereotypical reflections of socially created groups, i.e. attaches socially and culturally ‘appropriate’ behavior patterns.
Unfortunately, and very commonly, stigmas might be attached to members of a specific group. Particularly, whilst such an approach fuels the emerging issue of ‘-isms’ which can derive from attributing stereotypes (e.g., racism, sexism, (dis)ableism).
In conclusion, I would like to suggest defining diversity as a function of an individual’s level of acquired social and learned human capital, which directly stems from one’s background, values, and experiences.
Social capital applied – a question of impact and adaptability
Social capital refers to the number and qualitative value of social ties, i.e. relationships with peers, friends and/or family at different levels. Sociologists deem those networks to be not only very important for one’s character development and professional accomplishments, but also a necessity in one’s pursuit of happiness.
As with financial assets, social capital may be long- or short-term, and can differ in quality. It could be argued that quality is a direct function of how great of an impact social ties have on one’s value system, both positively as well as negatively.
I have had the chance to work, study, and interact with people from various backgrounds and countries, all of them encompassing a diverse set of beliefs. In particular, the interaction with different cultures has helped me to re-evaluate their own attitudes, opening up to a globalized community, becoming understanding of cultural differences, and in the end realizing that these differences become united in a universal concept: we are all human beings.
Having seen that different is still normal and the positive impact on one’s personal development by being exposed to a diverse set of people, I have come to believe that interdependences create the kind of social capital that is highest in quality. This means that physically, emotionally, and intellectually, the WE – i.e. working together in diverse groups towards mutually accepted and consequently beneficial ends – will create the greatest outcome.
The paradoxical convolution of clashing societal and cultural norms
During my workshops, I suggest and attempt to facilitate overcoming our very own restrictions that are based on societal and/or cultural norms, which might not be applicable whilst we emerge in different environments. I do admit, however, that challenging one’s personal value system is difficult and a slow process of behavioral change. It also shall be appropriate and considered, though contemplating might actually hinder one in taking a “risk” to try something new or different.
In societies certain behaviors are sanctioned, while others are punished. For example, a paternalistic approach towards people with disabilities and the belief that a functional impairment has to be ‘cured’ is an acceptable norm whereas accepting it as a normality is feared and likely even to be castigated.
Culture, as another possible limiting variable, describes who we are, how we behave, and what we think about certain situations, groups, and circumstances. Culture is, however, not necessarily permanent: it changes over time and depends on the place. Such concept is further intertwined in a network of societal norms and influenced by external forces such as mass media.
Our individual beliefs are, therefore, formed by both society and culture, which tend to create a paradoxical set of attitudes. In our globalized world culture and society may clash. The ‘socially accepted’ way out of this dilemma is to institutionalize our strongest beliefs by categorizing groups. For instance, into different races, ethnicity, sexual orientations, the disabled and the able-bodied, etc.
This means, we create different sets of people by marking ‘them’ abnormal and ‘us’ normal. The latter, much too often, refers to white middle-class men, carrying the assumption to be superior to the ‘others’. A very common phenomenon apparent in the Global North and affecting all kinds of minority groups that have led to the creation of so called ‘-isms’. But who has the right to decide what is ‘normal’? And can we categorize human beings in terms of their race, sex, or functional abilities?
Classifications tend to reflect an anxiety of visual or perceived differences which are in fact marginal. But, admitting that we are all equal would threaten the power of dominant social groups. Overcoming those stereotypical assumptions, starting to understand one’s set of norms even if they appear paradoxical, accepting differences as being the norm and establishing an attitude that no one is inferior, is, however, only possible through self-reflection and exposure.
One needs to understand and begin to appreciate the positive value of being open-minded towards other cultures, beliefs, and attitudes. Even if this means that individual values may have to be adapted, changed, or actually given up.
Utilizing one’s human capital towards mutual beneficial ends
Further above I raised the question about the apparent socially accepted legitimization of some social groups to define what is ‘normal’ and what is not. To support this claim, we shall in the following define the second variable that I believe defines diversity – human capital and the ways how we may use it.
I would like to begin by referring to French philosopher Michel Foucault, who described human capital in 1976 as the ‘power of knowledge’. He believed that it is the ability of one social group to have command of knowledge and the consequent authority over it. In Western societies, for example, the medical profession holds the power to label someone ‘disabled’ and the right to ‘cure’ this ‘illness’.
Further. political and social theorist Steven Michael Lukes presented a three-dimensional model of power in 1974. The example given above would constitute his first dimension: power being an active concept. The second level, which is the result of the first stage, creates an environment of suppression where the decision maker gains autonomy. For instance, labeling somebody ‘disabled’ and giving them financial benefits is cheaper than admitting that it might actually be the environment which should be adjusted to circumvent a disability becoming a handicap. Finally, the authoritarian group becomes hegemonic, given their ability to shape people’s perceptions and cognition, using their superior knowledge over their discourse – the third layer of Lukes’ model.
So why is this important? I believe in education and asserts that knowledge can empower all of us. However, authority is far too often misused, mainly by exploiting minorities, i.e. the ones who are not able to shape people’s beliefs and attitudes. Subordinating others and creating a sense of superiority remains a strong predictor of human behavior, resulting in corruption, bribery, and misuse of other tools to legitimize one’s social status (e.g., wealth). But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Superior human capital can be used for personal gain and selfish endeavors, indeed. However, and what I trust in, utilization of human capital, the power of knowledge, is a direct result of the diversity of one’s social capital. We can all learn that empowering others by sharing what you believe, value, and know will result in the highest returns – a mutual quest for excellence.
Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (2004), contrasts between a personality as well as a character ethic. The former can be understood as a method to generate social capital with somewhat manipulative tools, i.e. the ability to utilize one’s acquired human capital to get what s/he wants. The latter emphasizes the power and ability to create an environment of mutual understanding and respect, and to generate more qualitative social ties.
This requires, however, the capacity to be self-critical and unafraid to open up to a diverse set of experiences, even if those may shake one’s existing attitudes. Only when we understand ourselves will we be able to understand others; to open our hearts, to listen, and to be open to new experiences while realizing that giving back is the true way to happiness.
In sum, I am convinced and will keep trying to establish an understanding that diversity is the number and variance of qualitative social bonds that exceed social and cultural expectations. We intent to create a situation, pre-design the tools needed to acclaim such: personal self-reflection and exposure to those that are assumed to be different.
Whilst aiming towards a concept of interdependence, utilizing one’s human capital, adapting a character ethic, and realizing that sharing and towards mutually beneficial ends (i.e. interdependence) makes diversity the most valuable tool to find answers in our more and more complex, yet dynamic, world.