Understanding diversity primer: 10. Advanced considerations

By Gabriele Bammer


Once researchers have a basic understanding of various types of diversity and their impacts on researching complex societal and environmental problems, what else is it useful for them to know? How can we move towards effective ways of incorporating more diversity into research?

It is important to recognize that, while the principle of increasing diversity is admirable, putting it into practice is hard, time-consuming and risky. Increasing diversity by embedding newcomers into existing teams or establishing new teams requires time and effort to reach new understandings and ways of working to ensure that no-one is marginalized or discounted, and to resolve miscommunications and disagreements.

There are also no easy answers to challenges such as understanding the kinds of diversity that are most useful for developing new insights, how much diversity projects can handle before it becomes unwieldy to manage, and the best ways to increase diversity in research on complex problems. In fact, the extent of the challenges is such that Katrin Prager has called for the establishment of “diversity science.”

Four suggestions for moving forward are briefly discussed next.

1. Fostering plural innovation pathways and research consortia

One way of increasing diversity in research on complex societal and environmental problems is to focus on the research landscape.

This is important because most researchers seek to join or create smoothly functioning groups where researchers and stakeholders build trust and respect by working together over multiple projects, which also involve training students and early career researchers to boost their ranks. Such continuity is attractive to funders and grant reviewers, who look for track records of successful past work, and also allows past negotiations about framing and conducting research to be built on. Furthermore, these negotiations will – often tacitly – have determined the extent of the diversity encompassed by the group, with researchers and stakeholders who do not ‘fit’ excluding themselves or being excluded.

Such groups, of course, have many advantages. But if the majority of groups in the research landscape are similar and primarily focus on incremental advances on each other’s work, the benefits of diversity in tackling complex problems will not be realised.

Diversity in the research landscape can be increased in at least two ways.

First, Ismael Rafols in his i2Insights contribution on using research portfolio analysis argues for a “plurality of research trajectories, each of them made of different epistemic combinations.” He goes on to say that “rather than aiming at fostering a particular ‘melting pot’ of disciplines, research systems should produce a high number of disparate research trajectories…”.

Second, research consortia bringing together multiple diverse projects are another possibility as discussed by Bruce Currie-Alder and Georgina Cundill Kemp in their i2Insights contribution.

2. Expanding multidisciplinary research

Increasing diversity is often easiest in new projects with new teams. As described in my i2Insights contribution on multidisciplinarity, a good starting point can be to invite multiple contributors to write reviews of the problem being tackled from their particular disciplinary or stakeholder perspective. This allows the richness of different problem definitions and approaches to be described and explored.

One use of such a multidisciplinary approach is to subsequently more consciously construct a diverse group to work on a specific project. By having written about their individual perspectives in detail, it allows the new group to be better prepared for the challenges occasioned by their diverse perspectives and to allocate the necessary time and other resources to gaining maximum benefit from the diversity.

Another benefit of multidisciplinary research stems from the common result that a neat synthesis of all the perspectives is not possible. This can be seen as a strength rather than a weakness, as it allows multiple users of the multidisciplinary reviews to integrate and benefit from the different perspectives in their own ways. For example, a decision maker may find that some perspectives inform a new policy proposal; an existing group of researchers may find that other perspectives provide new ideas to enhance their investigations; and, funders, by examining the overall combination of perspectives, may find ways of diversifying the research landscape as called for by Rafols or building a novel consortium as described by Currie-Alder and Cundill Kemp.

Finally, exploring incommensurability among perspectives is an important source of innovation as discussed by Darryn Reid in his i2Insights contribution.

3. Systematically learning from success

One place to look for lessons is the literature, experience and codes of practice developed for tackling mainstream diversity issues around gender identity, age, ethnicity, ability and more.

Valuable insights are also coming from those involved in decolonizing research and in valuing Indigenous, local and lived-experience knowledge, as described in the last blog post of the stakeholder engagement primer.

4. Systematically learning from failure

Fostering plural innovation pathways and research consortia, expanding multidisciplinary research and building on incommensurability as a source of innovation, and encouraging new groups to address complex problems are all high risk undertakings that are in their infancy. Developing effective ways of conducting such research activities is a matter of trial and error and, in order to move forward, it is important to catalogue what does not work as well as what does, including in:

  • choosing effective tools for understanding diversity
  • generating more comprehensive understanding and actions
  • working together effectively.

The benefits of learning from failure are described in two i2Insights contributions: in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research by Dena Fam and Michael O’Rourke and in modelling by Randy Hunt.

Concluding notes

In addition to improving the ways diversity is incorporated in research, the key next steps are pulling together methods for harnessing the benefits of diversity and for managing the challenges. There are a number of relevant i2Insights contributions indexed under the term ‘diversity’.

Anything to add?

Do you have additional perspectives to share about understanding diversity? Are there other aspects of diversity that you would include as fundamental?

Particularly welcome are examples and lessons of how you have dealt with understanding diversity in your research. Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?

If you are new to thinking about diversity, is there anything else that would be useful?

Sources and references:

In addition to my own research and experience, the sources for this blog post are the i2Insights contributions cited.

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:

1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)
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)

This blog post:
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

10 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 10. Advanced considerations”

  1. Akin to the ‘houses’ with Hogwarts school of Harry Potter fame, a diverse research environment intentionally cultivates distinct personalities. The college house, in fiction and in real-life universities, provides an organizational home: a more tractable affiliation within the vastness of an overall university structure. In hindsight, the four research consortia within our former CARIAA program* were akin to such ‘houses’ as each had their own research focus, entry points, and methods, as well as being the first ‘team’ affiliation for people to find each other and work together. Collectively CARIAA was richer for the diversity between consortia.

    Moving forward, the new Climate Adaptation and Resilience (CLARE) program aspires to take an extra step, convening three distinct thematic clusters of projects. Each of these is dedicated to a particular aspect of the climate challenge, time horizon (near-medium-long term), and professional community (climate science, humanitarian, and development practice). Each of these themes have promising research opportunities in their own right, and the interweaving of them offers diversity in ideas and people. This approach departs from a fundamental conviction that there is no one way to address the climate crisis, that a portfolio of research requires a plurality and complementarity of approaches.

    *See: How to support research consortia by Bruce Currie-Alder and Georgina Cundill Kemp

  2. Thank you so much for the primer. It was insightful to reflect on my experience leading cross-cultural interdisciplinary teams with all this content. Regarding these advanced considerations, I would like to stop on the issues that synthesis processes pose since we have worked in our local team in the same line, finding connections with you!

    These processes, regarding integration or synthesis of knowledge systems, always entail a loss of meaning of the integrated knowledge. This is the problem of information loss, which consists of the loss of the global meaning of knowledge each time it is synthesized, as we can see in Tengö et al., 2017, or analyzed, as criticized by Simondon, 2015. At last, as stated by systems thinkers, the emergency also entails the extinction of systems. Not all the components of diverse perspectives or insights can be brought forward to the final synthesis stage; as shown by the incommensurability approach you shared with us (by the way, what an approach!). At this point, we think situated or relational approaches like this are necessary. As we have discussed in Vienni et al. (2022 – see citation below) “The situatedness proposed by Haraway (1988) does not correspond to a topology of fixed locations, but of a relational nature.”. Reid also relates this with relativistic approaches in human sciences, extrapolating quantum mechanics and general relativity theory. How can we integrate such dissimilar approaches?

    Waiting for your response, I think an integrative approach useful for this issue is one that resolves the contradictions by the creation of a new insight that embraces the best of each of the individual positions. Here in Colombia we have some authors that have worked on this, but it is not enough developed, Have you worked on this issue with a specific reference there?
    How to surpass the incompatibilities?

    Regarding this “codes of practice developed for tackling mainstream diversity issues around gender identity, age, ethnicity, ability and more.” I think the intersectionality of Black thought feminism by Collins (1990) would be very useful at seeking for equity in society and even teams!.

    Vienni-Baptista, B., Goñi Mazzitelli, M., García Bravo, M.H. et al. Situated expertise in integration and implementation processes in Latin America. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 184 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01203-7

    • Many thanks for this rich comment. To start, thanks for alerting me to Patricia Hill Collins’ 1990 book Black Feminist Thought (which is available in open access) – the final three chapters provide the kinds of helpful lessons that I was pointing to in my blog post.

      I agree with the points you have made in the rest of your comment about the challenges of integration. Integration goes far beyond what I was setting out to do in the primer, but the primer does aim to lay the groundwork for the sorts of observations that you have made.

      My own thoughts can be summarised as follows: It is important to remember that perfection is impossible. Except in the very simplest cases, it is not possible to include all the diversity that may be relevant or to run processes that suit everyone. A key challenge in integration is the expectation that the integration will be neat and all-encompassing, whereas the complexity of the problems addressed means that integration can only ever be partial. How the “messy bits” that cannot be integrated are handled is therefore also important.

      I think your framing of ‘loss of meaning’ is very helpful. Where we may disagree is the notion of surpassing incompatibilities. I would argue that we can embrace them and learn what we can from them, but not overcome them.

      In any case there is a lot of work still to be done in the areas your comment has highlighted. Congratulations on being in the vanguard of moving the field forward in this area.

      • You right! it is not a matter of surpassing incompatibilities but of recognizing them as an issue of the process.
        By the way, I was checking my notes and recallled that Collins have submitted a revision and update of the theory just the last year.

        Collins, P.H., da Silva, E.C.G., Ergun, E. et al. (2021). Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Contemp Polit Theory 20, 690–725 https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-021-00490-0

  3. Gabriele, this is great, I truly appreciate your on-going efforts.

    As Ismael Rafols points out in his blog, there are diverse ways of thinking and knowing that need to fall into balance in team dynamics. Just as boards, for example, select members based on the diversity of perspectives, there may be a need to develop a specific skills list that includes specific collaborative process skills as well as areas of knowledge and expertise. These skills can be identified by each team member at the outset of the proposed research project. This might be an approach to team selection as well as development or training needs. A self-reflective component of individual and team dynamics and communication at the start and end of each meeting might help here too.

    Something I uncovered recently that would be helpful for understanding dimensions of cultural awareness for diversity in collaborative projects is the six dimensions approach. These six dimensions (outlined in website below) are: Power Distance Index; Individualism vs Collectivism; Masculinity vs Femininity; Uncertainty Avoidance Index; Long vs Short Term Orientation; Indulgence vs Restraint. One can compare countries based on cultural features along these six dimensions to understand aspects of diverse individual perspectives in collaborative projects. Although these are cultural generalities, this does give an idea of people’s grounding for deeper understanding of collaborative dynamics.



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