Diversity? Amongst other things, the dictionary says of diversity: markedly different from one thing to another. It is this ‘difference’, when it comes to people, that we are interested in when we talk about diversity in communities. Bacon sees diversity as a key force in building and maintaining communities, particularly in terms of belonging (Bacon 2009 – Pg39). He points to two levels of diversity in communities, what he calls ‘surface-level’ diversity (race and gender, for example) and ‘deeper’ diversity (attitudes, opinions,…). According to him, communities can be stronger if deeper diversity is encouraged and respected.
Learning through diversity
I believe diversity in communities can be better understood if we see communities in terms of learning. Difference (between people and the ways they do things) is a major source of change and learning. Creating a context in which difference can be a motor for learning will clearly enrich a community. Seen from this perspective it is clear that both race and gender (deemed by Bacon to be only superficial sources of difference for communities) can also be a rich source of learning when they are seen as a new world to explore, rather than an insurmountable barrier (often created when difference is seen as a threat).
From the perspective of difference (and diversity) as a source of learning, it is not debate that needs to be fostered, as Bacon suggests (Bacon 2009 – Pg40), but a less confrontational way of exploring difference. Debate, as I understand it, is about opposing points of view in the belief that the best point will triumph. The winning point of view in a debate is not necessarily the most interesting one nor the one that sparks off the most learning. A debate is not what is required. What we need are (new) ways to explore different points of view and to see what they can teach us about our perspective. In addition, such a way of looking at capitalizing on difference seen from a learning perspective should provide a better approach to disagreement. Perhaps the answer lies in the ‘relativity of points of view’ and a culture that cultivates the co-existence of difference.
For diversity in a community to be seen as a source of learning and not as a threat, trust and respect are necessary. Bacon sees the setting up of a code of conduct as a key facilitator for resect. (…)
Uniformity & Diversity
A second key force at work in communities opposes diversity, striving for uniformity. A community is generally a grouping of like-minded people with common goals. A key part of the identity of the group and the strong feeling of belonging that holds it together and drives it forward springs from this ‘like-mindedness’ with its roots in shared experience, shared visions and common practices. When Etienne Wenger talks of communities of practice, he puts a lot of emphasis on the creation of shared ‘artifacts’ (rules, codes of conduct, emblems, work and goals achieved, …) that embody practices within the group. Newcomers necessarily need to be inducted into the community and become aware of these shared artifacts. The existence of this shared body of knowledge and experience stands as both a guarantee of the identity of the community but also a barrier to entry of people from outside. It sets a limit to the diversity that a given community will be able to support. The balance between uniformity and diversity within a community and the related balance between being closed or open, will determine the extent to which the community is conductive to learning and change.