Understanding diversity primer: 1. Why diversity?

By Gabriele Bammer


Why do researchers who tackle complex societal and environmental problems need to understand diversity? What kinds of diversity are relevant? What are some good starting points?

Diversity is critical for:

  • developing a more comprehensive understanding of any complex problem, both what is known and what is not known
  • providing a greater range of ideas about addressing the problem, including what may and may not work
  • providing deeper and more effective insights into how the research can support policy and/or practice action to address the problem by government, business and civil society.

The point is not to seek to develop fully comprehensive understanding or a perfect solution – both of which are impossible – but to use an understanding of diversity to find untapped knowledge, new insightful questions and fresh ideas, so that better ways of addressing the societal or environmental problem can be found and implemented.

On the other hand, increasing diversity generally makes it more challenging for those contributing to the research to work together, as more time, effort and expertise need to go into identifying and recruiting relevant perspectives, building understanding across perspectives, developing trust, and dealing with inevitable misalignments, irritations and disagreements.

What kinds of diversity are relevant?

Disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge and experience are well-recognised sources of diversity in research. It is now well-understood that each discipline and stakeholder brings only partial knowledge about any problem. Equally importantly, each discipline and stakeholder favours different questions when developing new research, with each group focused on only a subset of all the potential questions that could be addressed.

Taking illicit drug use as an example, pharmacologists and drug users bring knowledge and ask questions about drug effects, legal experts on regulations and laws, police about enforcing those laws, historians on how those laws came into being, and policy makers about options for changing those laws.

The focus in this primer is on diversity that cuts across disciplines and stakeholders. Well-recognised sources of cross-cutting diversity include gender identity, age, class, race and ability. For example, women, men and those with other gender identities will often emphasise different aspects of problems and favour different potential solutions.

In this primer, I focus on 8 less-recognised sources of cross-cutting diversity that are likely to occur in research addressing complex societal and environmental problems. These are differences in:

  • mental models
  • perceptions of good research
  • power
  • values
  • interests
  • culture
  • personality
  • team roles.

In brief, these different types of cross-cutting diversity cast light on how the contributions of those involved in the research are affected by:

  • how they understand the world (mental models)
  • how they set research standards (perceptions of good research)
  • how they understand and use their ability to influence others (power)
  • what they care about (values)
  • what they want (interests)
  • the social behaviours and norms of the groups they belong to (culture)
  • the traits that predict their behaviours (personality)
  • the ways in which they most effectively work with others (team roles).

The importance of understanding differences

Understanding diversity is in itself an important step in addressing complex societal and environmental problems. It alerts researchers not only to be on the look-out for a range of perspectives, but also to the multiple ways in which differences can be expressed, for example in disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge; in gender identity and ability; and in mental models, power and culture.

A key task is to find effective ways of identifying differences. For each aspect of diversity covered in this primer, my aim is to describe one tool that is useful for classifying it, so that differences are easy to distinguish and work with. Categories based on psychometric measures are presented for values, culture, personality and team roles. Categories based on other systematic approaches are presented for perceptions of good research and power. However no comprehensive classification tools seem to be available to make differences in mental models and interests easy to categorise and work with.

Concluding notes

Understanding diversity sets the scene for a more systematic approach to cataloguing existing (and developing new) ways of incorporating, harnessing and managing diversity:

  • Incorporating diversity is about deciding which differences to include in a research project.
  • Harnessing diversity is about integrating different perspectives to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the problem, a greater range of ideas, and deeper and more effective insights about the possibilities for action.
  • Managing diversity aims to reduce the likelihood that differences will get in the way of researchers and stakeholders working together effectively to understand, incorporate and harness diversity.

The final blog post in this primer on “advanced considerations” lays out the challenges in incorporating diversity into research projects and highlights some potentially productive ways forward.

Anything to add?

Do you have additional perspectives to share about the importance of understanding diversity in research on complex societal and environmental problems?

Particularly welcome are examples and lessons from your research about which types of diversity were important and why, as well as any that you may have missed. Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?

If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding diversity that would be useful?

Sources and references:
The main source is my own research and experience which aligns with other work cited in this primer.

Bammer, G. (2013). Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems. ANU Press. (Online) (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.22459/DI.01.2013

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.

The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:

This blog post:
1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)

Still to come:
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)
4. Power (May 12, 2022)
5. Values (May 19, 2022)
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

11 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 1. Why diversity?”

  1. Thanks for bringing up an important issue in this blogpost, Gabriele! I’m jumping into this discussion late. Reading this reminds me of Naomi Oreskes’s book “Why Trust Science”. In it, she says that diversity is one of the three pillars of what makes science science (the other two being knowledge creation by consensus and methodological openess and flexibility)…”Diversity is crucial because, ceteris paribus, it increases the odds that any particular claim has been examined from many angles and potential shortcomings revealed. Homogenous groups often fail to recognize their shared biases.” She makes the claim that not only is diversity good for society, but essential for doing good science, by using historical examples of “when science has gone awry”, where group think led science down a wrong path before critics, not belonging to the same class or gender as the original proponents, called out its weaknesses (e.g., eugenics, limited energy theory, the rejection of continental drift).

  2. Thank you for addressing the need to understand diversity. I believe there is a great need to understand what is known about working in diverse groups and teams from diverse fields like social psychology, management psychology, team science, neuroscience and other areas. We explicitly work with this in each course with students, teachers and researchers. We introduce aspects from the literature and use group activities to help identify the internal resistance or ‘automatic pilot’ we tend to go to when we are in diverse environments that somehow challenge us. Shedding some light on mechanisms that are common to all, helps to pay attention and move forward into what can be unusual to us.

    • Thanks Ana for sharing your important work. For this primer, I am focusing on different kinds of diversity. An important next step as you say is how to deal with it and you provide some important insights.

  3. Hi Gabriele! Your post reminded me of another one that was published here a while ago; it talks about the need for both cognitive AND demographic diversity.

    We’ve been implementing a method called Prospex-CQI for quite a long time now in different transdisciplinary sustainability projects that goes beyond usual ‘snowballing’ approaches mentioned in literature; it enables us to ‘break down’ the system we’re working in, and analyse the stakeholders in terms of the various and specific types of diversity they can bring to the project – including demographic diversity, different types of expertise, etc. etc. It also allows us to monitor and control for gaps in the diversity of our stakeholder pool as well.

    Definitely not perfect, and it can be a cumbersome process; but at least we have some evidence that this works from the stakeholders’ perspective: the fact they get the chance to talk to / hear from people they do not usually engage with, is quite often the nr 1 thing they like most about our workshops.

  4. Dear Gabriele, what a timing! We are just discussing diversity in my class from the theory of change for sustainability transformations course. In one of the learning materials the need for diversity is discussed. However, it is also mentioned that increased diversity might lead to disagreements and inability to make decisions that could be crucial when it comes to change. So the question then is: how diverse system is diverse enough? Of course it would depend on the system boundaries, but are there any general principles? I’d be happy to read your thoughts on it. thank you.

    • Hi Varvara,
      Great to hear that you are discussing this in class. It’s one thing to answer the important question of “how much diversity is enough” in principle, but there’s also the issue of how well that applies in practice. On the one hand, researchers need to do what’s feasible with the resources they have. On the other this should not be an excuse not to even try increasing diversity. I suggest we need to collect both success stories and stories of failures to really figure this out.

      Look forward to hearing the experiences and thoughts of others on this critical issue.

  5. Thank you Gabriele, for this thought provoking post. This primer on how to identify and facilitate lesser known forms of differences will be very useful for researchers and intermediaries working with transdisciplinary knowledge to start building a toolkit for managing, incorporating, harnessing and valuing diversity as an asset rather than being seen as a hindrance to ‘good research’. I see this often, even in everyday interactions around research activities, where people will mentally block or avoid each other if they sense potential conflict arising from differences – particularly the 8 less recognised ones mentioned here – being naturally drawn towards likeminded people to ensure their ‘success’. How do we reverse that habit?

    I think increasing our awareness of, and exposure to the many differences through participating in well-facilitated forums, projects and events featuring diverse actors, can help ease mental blocks and cognitive dissonance. From my experience, here are what I think some of the main benefits of understanding cross-cutting diversity:

    Being able to produce research that can result in multiple outcomes and actions;
    Opening minds to various possibilities, rather than a limited ‘best solution’ that sometimes aligns with a researcher’s agenda;
    Improving impact and communication, as the research results would be more likely to resonate with various audiences affected by similar issues;
    Helping bridge differences when their voices are included and heard, breaking down divisions and mental blocks that prevent deep listening;
    Being aware of how to deal with diversity enables teams working on a complex problem to be informed by knowledge gained from increased empathy with people’s different perspectives.


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