Social Science Research in Diversity

The Role of Social Science Research in Diversity

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” (Stephen R. Covey)


The term diversity means different things to different people. At its core the term simply refers to differences. How do I see diversity? How can I see differences but avoid essentialism? How does one leverage polarities? What role does social science research have in understanding and speaking for underrepresented groups? My answers to these questions represent my vision of this horizon.

How do I see diversity?

The United States Department of the Interior says, “The term diversity is used broadly to refer to many demographic variables, including, but not limited to, race, religion, color, gender, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, education, geographic origin, and skill characteristics”. In any conversation about “diversity”, it is easy and maybe even fitting that the focus turns toward political positions and legal standings. These are important. Political dialogue/debate helps clarify what ought and ought not to be. Law declares what is and is not. However, I feel the social sciences go beyond what is true in political science. What do I mean?

As a social scientist, I see diversity not so much in terms of making space between two entities that are different. It is much more than simply accommodation. I see diversity as an opportunity to bring together what is different to create a whole that is greater than the sum of component parts. It is the basis for synergy. This vision requires: proximity to others, effective communication between sender and receiver, mutual respect, creativity, ethnorelativism, adaptation, and leverage toward a common good.

How can I see differences but avoid “essentialism”?

Occasionally one will hear a de-emphasis about differences. The underlying assumptions about this de-emphasis are often unstated. What a person may mean is that essentially there may not be differences between people. Human beings are similar the world over.

But there are differences relatively. In India people in a queue do stand very close together. I am unable to understand Mandarin even though I can speak Castellano from Argentina. Some cultures relate hierarchically while others are more egalitarian.

Just because I see differences in people does not mean I stereotype groups in an unsophisticated manner. I do not see all people as being the same. I do not suppose that most people from Argentina drink matte tea. I avoid essentialism.[1]

How does one leverage polarities?

Just because one sees and respects differences does not mean one has the capability of adapting to them. Going beyond the foundations of seeing and respecting differences, one must be able to leverage polarities.

What “leveraging polarities” is not? It is not avoiding or accommodating differences. These are weak approaches to managing potential conflict. Equally detrimental is compromising, especially when and where the mindset is a zero-sum game. Such as, “This time I will give in but next time you must!” A reasonable strategy for children playing, but this is not suitable for a professional setting.

Peter Koestenbaum writes, “The central leadership attribute is the ability to manage polarity” (2003). The language formula is “both/and”. The assumption underneath leveraging polarities is not to resolve the essential or relative differences between poles but to take full advantage of all the positives of each and manage any negatives.

I see the characteristic of maturity underlying this capability.

What role does social science research have in understanding and speaking for underrepresented groups?

The social sciences provide a philosophical and methodological basis for: (a) understanding the “lived experiences” (Dilthey) of others and (b) collaborating together effectively. Empirical research in the field is able to validly and reliably inform the social scientist about observable behaviors, socio-cultural institutions, shared but tacitly assumed values, and core worldview assumptions.

My friends in Bangalore, India have told me they understand that most U.S. Americans eat pancakes for breakfast.[2] This may be an innocent and false assumption. However, other assumptions are not innocent. They can be damaging when our opinions are not grounded in observed data.

I see social science research as the way to know who people are and what they do. Such observations are diachronic, looking across time at history and gathering the master narratives that give meaning to the lives of people.

Research provides both ETIC and EMIC perspectives.[3] An outsider’s perspective at times can describe behavior and structure in comparison to universal norms. An insider’s perspective always tells the phenomenology, that is, what it is like to be and live as a unique person in a particular group of people.

The social scientist is able to provide a voice for others. Action research is not benign. It seeks to solve problems, develop plans, create processes, and empower people.


Differences are not problems but opportunities for something better. It is important that I see differences in a sophisticated manner. I do not deny that they exist. People are different culturally. Through authentic relationships and effective processes, one can truly leverage the positives of differences for increase. Social science research plays an integral role by providing a valid and reliable way of knowing and representing others.

[1]Essentialism is an assumption that any entity (a physical object, group of people, or observable behavior) has a set of requisite attributes essential to its form and function.

[2]Research shows that if we do eat breakfast at home, we most often drink coffee and eat cold cereal. Pancakes are not even in the top ten.

[3]ETIC – the outsider’s view; EMIC – an insider’s view

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