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
- 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.
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)