Are We Speaking the Same Language When It Comes to Diversity?
You do not have to be a political scientist to sense the increasing animosity and viewpoint divide between liberals and conservatives in the United States. Anyone who has a Facebook or Twitter page, or has discussed politics with family around the dinner table, has either witnessed, or participated in, a heated political disagreement. Research has confirmed that these political disagreements may be increasing in number and intensity.
Diversity Is Increasingly Central In Debates
Diversity has become increasingly central to the public and political eye. Steadily increasing racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity in the United States, coupled with movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), have emphasized the need to create new social policies to accommodate the evolving nature and demands of society.
However, much like other social issues, political disagreement stands in the way of quick reform. A comparative viewing of Fox News and CNN quickly reveals that liberals and conservatives do not agree on the best way to navigate diversity-related issues. One reason for this disagreement could be simply attitudinal: liberals inherently like diversity, and conservatives do not.
But, an alternative reason may have to do with the actual meaning of the word itself. Diversity may take on different meanings for different people. Liberals and conservatives may possess different prototypical understandings of the word diversity. If liberals and conservatives don’t agree upon the meaning of the term, how can we expect them to cooperate on future diversity-related policy?
Prototypes of Diversity
A prototype represents the most ideal, or stereotypical, object for a category. It is what comes to mind first. For example, a robin, rather than an ostrich, would likely be the most prototypical bird for a person living in the U.S. A person’s knowledge, culture, and life experiences determine how prototypes are formed. Thus, it is possible liberals and conservatives possess different prototypical understandings of diversity, and these different understandings shape attitudes and behavior.
My colleagues and I investigated this possibility. Participants were presented with a list of community features that may be relevant to diversity, such as race, gender, age, political ideology, attitudes towards global warming, music preferences, etc. Participants then rated how much diversity they would want in their ideal community for each feature. For example, when presented with the feature “ethnicity,” participants rated the extent they wanted no diversity in ethnicity (everyone the same), to complete diversity in ethnicity (everyone is different from each other).
Next, we assessed participants’ prototypical understandings of diversity. For this, participants were asked to rate the extent each community feature came to mind when they imagined a diverse community. For example, when presented with the feature “many different ethnicities,” participants rated on a scale whether ethnicity was “not at all” relevant to their thinking, or “highly relevant” to their thinking.
Indeed, we found that diversity is not understood as a single concept. People actually held at least three different notions of diversity:
- Demographic (such as race, age, gender, language),
- Viewpoint (such as political ideology, attitudes toward global warming, attitudes toward gay marriage), and
- Consumer diversity (as in stores, restaurants, music).
Ideological differences also emerged: conservatives reported more tolerance towards viewpoint diversity than liberals, and liberals were more tolerant towards demographic diversity than conservatives. Thus, conservatives may be more open to living in a community where people have many different ideological attitudes, and liberals may be more open to living in a community with many different racial and ethnic identities. These findings are somewhat surprising because previous research often concludes that liberals are more open to diversity across the board.
These differences connect to differences in understandings of what diversity is. Although both liberals and conservatives considered demographic features as part of their prototypical understanding of diversity, conservatives also perceived viewpoint features and consumer features as part of diversity. On the contrary, liberals only perceived demographic features as part of diversity. In other words, when liberals think about diversity, they are primarily thinking about people from diverse race, age, and gender backgrounds. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to also think about different political viewpoints, and different types of music, stores, and restaurants, when they think about diversity. Thus, conservatives may have a looser definition of diversity compared to liberals.
Thus, liberals and conservatives are not quite speaking the same language when they talk about diversity. One reason is that conservatives and liberals tend to expose themselves to different news and social media worlds. Sole exposure to such sources may teach people different definitions of diversity. Personal experience may also enter in. For example, living in a highly homogeneous environment may make someone’s understanding of diversity more general compared to a person who lives in a highly populated, highly diverse, area. If a person lives in a community where people are demographically the same but vary in political viewpoints, then that person may be more likely to perceive viewpoint features as relevant to diversity, as that is the only type of diversity they are exposed to.
In this research we learned that diversity itself has multiple components. By breaking the concept of diversity into smaller parts, we may be able to identify the parts on which liberals and conservatives do agree. This agreement could be one small step in the direction of reducing political polarization, and encouraging future cooperation on diversity policy.
For Further Reading
Howard, K. A., Cervone, D., & Motyl, M. (2021). On the varieties of diversity: Ideological variations in attitudes toward, and understandings of, diversity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/01461672211028141.
Danbold, F., & Unzueta, M. M. (2020). Drawing the diversity line: Numerical thresholds of diversity vary by group status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(2), 283-306. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000182.
Mason, L. (2015). “I disrespectfully agree”: The differential effects of partisan sorting on social and issue polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(1), 128-145. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12089.
Kathryn A. Howard is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she studies ideological conflict, voting behavior after political candidates transgress, and perceptions of diversity.