Paradoxes of diversity

Peter BAEHR, Daniel GORDON

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Sustainability, social justice, global citizenship: these are among the sacred terms of the Western lexicon today. Diversity is another. Its meteoric rise is unmistakable. ‘In the marketplace of political culture, few terms have amassed more influence as quickly as “diversity”', writes Randall Kennedy (2013: 100).1 Michèle Lamont's study (2009, pp. 203, 212) of peer review in a variety of academic disciplines reveals that diversity is generally ‘perceived as an intrinsic good'. For Jeffrey Alexander (2006, pp. 8, 450–7), diversity exemplifies how qualities once stigmatized, such as homosexuality, are now fit for public celebration. The American Sociological Association's 2010 Diversity Statement echoes that trend.2 And the academy is only one of many sectors in which diversity is trumpeted. When Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an American officer turned jihadist, went on a rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 that killed 13 people and wounded 29, General George Casey Jr., the Army Chief of Staff, was quick to defend a value that seemed to him more hallowed than the lives of the slain. ‘Our diversity, not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that's worse', Casey said on NBC's Meet the Press.3 Multinational Corporations, too, are diversity advocates. According to a brief filed by General Motors in a 2003 Supreme Court case concerning affirmative action in university admissions:

In General Motors’ experience, only a well-educated, diverse work force, comprising people who have learned to work productively and creatively with individuals from a multitude of races and ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds, can maintain America's competitiveness in the increasingly diverse and interconnected world economy.4

Such declarations permit capitalist enterprises to display the virtue of inclusiveness as well as articulate a strategy for economic success. In this variant of the invisible hand, businesses promote racial inclusion and cross-cultural understanding while pursuing their own profit.

Diversity appeals to a wide range of constituencies because it signifies several things at once: moral goodness, global awareness, commercial know-how. The flexible and righteous quality of certain words is a characteristic of any social order. But it also impedes investigating them lest a taboo be broken. Our intention is to apply cognitive pressure to this consecrated term. The key issue is not what is wrong with diversity but what features about its articulation generally pass unnoticed and why they do. Herbert Butterfield (1965 [1931], pp. 66–67) remarks that the historian sees ‘principles caught among chance and accident; he must watch their logic being tricked and entangled in the events of the concrete world'. This entry, drawing on history, law, and political sociology, identifies the tricks and entanglements of the diversity principle.

It should be noted at the outset that diversity tends to evoke different ideas according to the region of the world one is considering. In the United States, the quintessential policy matter through which Americans announce their commitment to diversity is affirmative action. Indeed, the term diversity gained ideological prominence through the legal wrangling over this issue. Scholars from different sides of the political spectrum concur: Affirmative action is not merely an outcome but rather the matrix of diversity as a key concept (Kennedy, 2013, pp. 94–95; Wood, 2003, p. 99). It is true that diversity now circulates widely – it is more than a legal concept. Yet, the category retains certain qualities, including a utopian flavor, imparted to it in American constitutional debate. In Europe, by contrast, diversity is a term that is more often used in regard to the subject of immigration – the integration of new arrivals into the host country. If diversity in the United States is primarily an effort to engineer a better representation of minorities within preexisting elite institutions, diversity in Europe raises fundamental questions about how to manage the composition of the nation state.

We offer an analysis of the overarching meaning of diversity as well as a comparative perspective. The next two sections of this chapter, dealing with the plausibility and paradoxes of diversity, reflect upon the general structure of diversity as an ideology. The last two sections, on affirmative action and immigration, provide a comparative viewpoint on how diversity is entangled with public policy matters in the United States and Europe.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Sage handbook of political sociology
EditorsWilliam OUTHWAITE, Stephen P. TURNER
PublisherSAGE Publications Ltd
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781526416483
ISBN (Print)9781473919464
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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