"All the life's innovations . . .
have been unable to break through
some set ceiling on diversity"
Richard A. Kerr (2001)
The problem area: a few stylized facts
First, variety is a crucial factor in the development of complex systems, but it does not mean that maximum variety is optimum variety. There is a balance between the sort of variety that generates novelty and the need for some basic security zone if efficient social learning and creative adaptation are to ensue.
Second, diversity was in the past a matter of accident. Globalization has accentuated the intermingling of populations, and most societies have become more or less polyethnic and multilingual. It would appear that some societies feel disconcerted by such trends, while others embrace them as desirable. But it is not clear what diversity really means. Is it diversity of agents, of traits, of values, of interest?
Third, variety like any "social chemical," cannot be examined in isolation, for it interacts with other social chemicals. For instance there has been an extraordinary growth of symbolic group recognition as a result of the Charter of Rights and other such developments. This sort of phenomenon has quickly translated into entitlements. This has meant that symbolic recognition has not been a substitute for material gratification but a complement to it. This has had revolutionary effects, since diversity has become a lever underpinning and legitimizing seemingly unbounded social demands on the state.
Fourth, variety would appear to be perceived as undermining other social characteristics such as belonging, identification and commitment. Indeed, it is widely presumed that there may be a trade-off between these desirable social features and variety-cum-diversity. This entails that there is a celebration of diversity, but only as long as there is no sense of threat to these values. As soon as diversity requirements appear unbounded and of necessity threatening to those other values, then there is a slip in support, even though it's not always apparent.
Fifth, there is a great confusion about the complex relationships linking social capital, social cohesion and diversity. Social cohesion has been used too often as a proxy for uniformity, and egalitarian actions have therefore been propounded as the source of social cohesion/uniformity. In fact the creation of social capital as a label for civic solidarity, organized reciprocity and social networks based on trust may be facilitated by a certain degree of commonality and security. But it also emerges from conflict since social learning is enhanced by diversity and contrasted perspectives.
Sixth, we are confronted with a major problem of vocabulary. We do not have a language of problem definition that is satisfactory. Too many words - like diversity, identity and belonging - stand in the way of a meaningful dialogue. Words like these limit our capacity for analysis by setting multiple traps like political correctness. It has become impossible to raise the question about any of these icons (diversity being one) without being accused of bigotry.