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Discuss the Multiple Dimensions of Human Diversity

Discuss the Multiple Dimensions of Human Diversity

Cross-cultural research in psychology has, in most cases, been cross-national in its focus. However, numerous nations are ethnically and culturally diverse, with the United States being a prime example. Nagayama Hall and Maramba (2001) discussed the possible relationship between cross-cultural and ethnic minority psychology, and analyzed published work in the two fields. They found little overlap between the two, and suggested that one way to increase the focus on minority subcultures might be to combine the efforts of researchers in the two areas. This chapter is an effort to assist the reader to achieve that end.

The demography of the U.S. has been rapidly changing over the last several generations (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). In particular, the number of persons who possess multiple dimensions of human diversity (e.g., permutations of sex, race/ ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class) is increasing exponentially. For example, the United States Census Bureau more than a decade ago formally added the categories of “biracial” and “multiracial,” along with the longstanding “Hispanic (any race)” in the collection of race/ethnicity data on its citizenry. No longer can we think about people as members of discrete, mutually exclusive categories in terms of demographic diversity. As Reynolds & Pope (1991) noted in irony as long as 20 years ago, affirmative action statements in employment advertisements encouraging women and minorities to apply can leave women of color wondering within which group they should be counted.

This rapidly changing mix of demography can also pose new challenges for conceptualizing and understanding individuals who possess multiple diverse demographic characteristics (e.g., Asian American lesbian woman), or a mix of majority and diverse cultural attributes (African American, middle-class, gay male). Which demographic characteristics take priority in how people perceive themselves? In how others perceive them?


A cogent place to start our discussion concerns how we define our labels and concepts. Important to clarify first is the concept of cultural diversity. The notion of cultural diversity itself suggests that there is a baseline culture, as well as culture(s) that differ from, or are diverse as compared with, that baseline culture. For our discussion we will rely on the commonly held concept of a majority culture in the U.S. that serves as the baseline.

We remind the reader that although the majority culture base reflects the demographic characteristics of those who hold societal and institutional power, members of the majority culture do not necessarily reflect a majority in the numerical sense (for example, there are more women than men in the U.S., but male-oriented standards and values define the majority culture and men more than women are the chief power holders in the U.S.). We also remind the reader that identifying a set of majority culture demography neither suggests that this demography is superior to other demography, nor that the institutional and societal power held by those with this set of demography defines the way things should be. We simply offer a description of the way things have evolved in the United States through centuries of European imperialism, the oppression and slavery of many non-European groups, the legal and social enforcement of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, as well as the long standing sociopolitical, legal, and economic positioning to power of a majority culture group with a particular set of demographic characteristics.

This set of majority culture demographic characteristics has by many scholars (see Iijima-Hall, 1997) long been purported to include: being male; being of young adult to middle adult age; having European national ancestry; having light skin color, possessing a heterosexual orientation; possessing a middle-class or higher socioeconomic status; being fully physically able; behaving in a rational and emotionally stable fashion, with rare demonstrations of strong emotion (especially publicly); adhering to the Christian faith; being a primary (and typically only) English speaker; and generally striving to think, act, hold values, and live in a way that adheres to a conservative male, Christian, European lifestyle.

As to cultural diversity, we reference and work from the general definition proffered by Iijima-Hall (1997). She defined diversity as “differences in age, color, ethnicity, gender, national origin, physical and mental ability, emotional ability, race, religion, language, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and individual unique style” (p. 646). Thus, although this is an extremely broad definition, basically any demographic or lifestyle characteristic that diverges from the above list of majority culture characteristics constitutes a culturally diverse characteristic.

With respect to multiple dimensions of human diversity, clearly there are ways in which many people will possess or exhibit differences along the continua of these demographic characteristics. For example, a primarily Spanish-speaking, Latina female will be diverse along three of these demographic axes (sex, race, language). This same Latina can also simultaneously hold majority culture axes as a 30-year-old, Catholic, heterosexual, fully physically able person. It is within this complex interweaving of human demography that we will discuss diversity issues, in lieu of a more traditional academic discussion of only one aspect of human cultural expression and identity. Furthermore, because certain demographic variables have historically engendered exceptionally longstanding social oppression in U.S. society, in this chapter we will limit our discussion to these variables. Specifically, we will use sex, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class as frequent examples to highlight multiple dimensions of human diversity.

We wish to stress that this does not represent any kind of imposed hierarchy (on our part or otherwise) on the perceived or real importance of these demographic axes over others; rather, in this limited amount of space we have chosen to deal with those axes that have commonly been dealt with in texts, so as to help expand those presentations. Excellent chapters and texts exist that offer in-depth coverage of variables we will not touch on here (e.g., see Dunn, 2009 for an excellent discussion of diversity as it applies to disability issues). Finally, we believe that many of those diverse demographic axes we will not deal with or illustrate directly can nevertheless be conceptualized in the manner in which we will propose considering those variables we do present.

An Overall Schema

Beyond the ways in which people can differ from one another in their demography, people also interact with, shape and are shaped by various environments and levels of environments within our society. Similar to the work of Abes, Jones, and McEwen (2007), we can conceptualize the diverse demography of people within the spheres of their intra-psychic, interpersonal, and socio-institutional domains of existence. Thus, the aforementioned Latina has a highly influential internal sense of awareness of and level of identity with her various demographic characteristics. Additionally, on a daily basis, her internal sense of self (derived in part from her demography) influences and is influenced by the people with whom she directly interacts (e.g., family, friends, co-workers, and service professionals). Finally, her intra- and interpersonal worlds are also influenced by the majority culture-based socio-institutional realm of the society within which she lives. She and the people with whom she directly interacts are all affected by the political, socioeconomic, religious, legal, educational, labor, and other social systems that are based upon the practices, values and perspectives that emanate from the majority culture base (e.g., male, European, heterosexual, Christian, middle-class).

These societal factors impinge on (and support) her demography in different ways, while simultaneously affecting the way others interact with her. For example, as a woman in the U.S., on average she will earn only 80 cents to a man’s dollar. Often she will be perceived as placing a (presumed and stereotyped) desire to be a mother as a higher priority than her desire to achieve success in a career. Moreover, she will be expected to abandon a career (or at the very least to significantly reduce her work hours) if she has children in order to be their primary caretaker, lest she be considered a bad mother. As a Spanish speaker, she will frequently encounter reactions ranging from confusion to anger when she attempts to speak with the majority of people living in the U.S., who have chosen to learn and speak only English. Others may view her accent and secondary use of English (even if it is fluent) as a sign that she is not a “real” American, or they may stereotype her as an “illegal alien” or recent immigrant, even though her family may have lived in the U.S. for several generations and have chosen simply to retain their fluency in Spanish. Finally, because of her darker skin and Latina cultural heritage, she may face racism and discrimination, both subtle and overt, both seen and unseen, and she will not enjoy the race-based cultural privileges that her more light skinned, European counterparts do (cf., Jensen, 2007; Rothenberg, 2007; Wise, 2007 on the concept of White privilege).

Yet, at the same time, she will enjoy some majority culture benefits and privileges because of the particular demographic characteristics she shares with the majority. As a heterosexual, she can walk down the street holding the hand of her boyfriend, even stopping to give him an intimate public kiss or display of affection, without fear of derision or assault, without being thought of as psychologically maladjusted or immoral (as most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered [LGBT] people are stereotyped), or without being advised to stop “flaunting” her sexuality publically or stop “forcing” it upon others. Ironically, we do not consider heterosexuals kissing in public as “flaunting” or “forcing” their sexuality upon us. She can place her boyfriend’s picture on her desk at work and freely discuss her relationship with him with her friends, parents, and co-workers. She may even eventually choose to legally recognize her relationship in the form of a state marriage license that allows her a multitude of legal, economic, and political rights that her lesbian and gay counterparts do not have in all American states.

In sum, all of these factors simultaneously influence our Latina and her daily life (as they do each of us according to our own demography), and also to some extent have a reciprocal and interactive influence on the individuals in her social groups and in the institutions within which they all interact.

We believe that the two concept maps we have discussed here (intra-psychic and level of environmental context) interact to create the lived experience and public perception of moment-to-moment aspects of cultural diversity; especially the lived experience of multiple dimensions of diversity. We propose that rather than a cultural identity (singular), every human being possesses and manifests many cultural identities, according to their demography, culture-based experiences, and daily experiences in society at large, which itself favors its own cultural values, behavioral norms, and realities. In the remainder of this chapter, we will offer more detail on the factors we believe influence the waxing and waning of various cultural identifications and the salience each may possess dependent upon the intra-psychic and environmental context forces in play.

The Intra-Psychic Realm

Prieto (2006) discussed various factors for persons with multiple dimensions of diversity that could influence the personal and environmental salience of a particular demographic characteristic. These intra-psychic factors included: the specific mix of majority and culturally diverse demography that people possess; differential identity development growth vectors surrounding these demographic characteristics (and their interaction); and, an individual’s own shifting, internal weighting of her demographic characteristics as a function of salience perceptions. To these we now add: past experiences based on or attributed to demography; the effect of immediate learning and choice to alter cognitions or behavior; situational emotional reactions; learned coping strategies/ego defenses adapted as a function of life experiences (or those taught by others such as parents—see Kerwin, Ponterotto, Jackson, and Harris [1993] for strategies taught by parents to their biracial children to deal with potential future racism); and the impact of acculturative forces (the pressure from society to shape our being more toward the favored majority culture values, behavioral norms, and perceptions).

We suggest that these factors can be conceptualized by way of a regression equation of sorts; that is, each of these different intra-psychic factors (variables) has its own “beta weight” in a particular environmental or psychological context that can roughly explain individuals’ manifestations and expressions of cultural identities. For example, we could write this as:

y = x1b1 + x2b2 + x3b3 … xnbn + e

where y is an individual’s moment-to-moment manifestations and expressions of cultural identities. Each x (1 through n) is the intra-psychic factor of interest (e.g., impact of acculturative forces; effect of immediate learning and choice to alter cognitions or behavior; situational emotional reactions; and identity development surrounding demographic characteristics such as sex, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status). And each b associated with each x is the particular beta weight (salience) associated with that particular variable in a given situation or context (we will deal with how we include the interpersonal and institutional environmental variables in a later section). Error (or noise) in this equation would be conceptualized as e; we see this as a way of both providing “wiggle room” for the influence of additional variables not yet known theoretically or empirically, and to explain the sheer fuzziness of human (cultural) experience!

We recognize that we are making certain assumptions in using a linear, least squares regression model that might be limiting or might not match the reality of the phenomena we are describing. For example, a linear model does not account for moderation or mediation effects among the x variables and ignores the possibility of various curvilinear relations among the x variables or between the x variables and the y variable we wish to explain. However, we believe that a more parsimonious model is better to start with conceptually, and we look to future research to flesh out the shortcomings or unknowns in our present thinking on the matter. We also recognize that readers may balk at conceptualizing human experience via such a sterile and removed method as a statistical equation. However, this type of metastructure allows for the modification of our schema in a tidy way and also allows for a relatively specific way of capturing a fluid, human event of lived experiences and social perception.

One way to think about this method of conceptualizing human culture-based experience is how one of us (Prieto) teaches applied psychology graduate students to conceptualize working with clients in psychotherapy. I often bring in a piece of moving classical music (the baroque composer Vivaldi is my favorite—specifically his Four Seasons concertos) and have my students listen to it while they note their visualizations, the emotion in the music, and the effects the changing melodies and mood of the music have upon them. I then show them the sheet music for the concertos, explaining that the same music they have subjectively experienced with their senses, that moved them emotionally, and that they connected with on a personal level (as they do with clients and their experiences in therapy), can also be written in the extremely structured and precise format of musical notation. The time, notes, key, and complex arpeggios of the music are all there; the structure and precision in the writing of the music does not detract from its phenomenological beauty and humanity. The sheet music and aural music are one and the same.

The Interpersonal and Institutional Realms

In addition to the intra-psychic realm, we can identify two other important levels or spheres of environments within which individuals manifest and express their cultural identities. These are the interpersonal and the institutional levels. We will detail our conceptualizations of these levels below.

The interpersonal realm

The easiest way to define this level is to say that the interpersonal realm encompasses all the human interactions we encounter on a daily basis within our more proximal networks. It is important to understand that by proximal we do not mean, necessarily, close to us with respect to physical distance. Rather, we mean proximal with respect to our ability to truly interact with people and experience direct reciprocal impact on personal manifestations and expressions of cultural identities. So, for example, our families, friends, co-workers, and colleagues, and those who offer us various services (waiters, transporters, educators, authorities) are all a part of our interpersonal realms. We can influence and affect their manifestation and expression of their cultural selves and identities about as much as they can influence ours. And that influence can come from across the world or just a cubicle away.

Within the interpersonal realm, there are several factors that can influence an individual’s cultural identities. We conceptualize these as being: social power bases within the environment (e.g., authority hierarchies); the social formality and purpose of the environment (e.g., work, leisure, home); the similarity of the individual’s demography to that of people in the environment; the level of acceptance and safety felt by the actor within the social environment; and the extent to which individuals in the environment enforce socially oppressive or culturally privileged aspects of the majority culture.

Additionally, the people with whom we interact also have their own intra-psychic factors bringing about the attitudes and behaviors they share with us. As noted above, these include: the specific mix of majority and culturally diverse demography that people possess; differential identity development growth vectors surrounding these demographic characteristics (and their interaction); an individual’s own shifting, internal weighting of her demographic characteristics as a function of salience perceptions; past experiences based on or attributed to demography; the effect of immediate learning and choice to alter cognitions or behavior; situational emotional reactions; learned coping strategies/ego defenses adapted as a function of life experiences; and, the impact of acculturative forces.

The socio-institutional realm

The institutional realm is the uppermost level of the socio-cultural milieu and context that we conceptualize. This level can be described as the more faceless, bureaucratic, codified systems in our society—like the legal, educational, and healthcare systems. Of course, these systems and institutions are nothing more than a collective of individuals, but because of their removed bureaucratic nature, the individuals who work within them generally have little personal vulnerability to those with whom they interact. And, except in the most egregious of situations (e.g., irrefutably clear instances of bias or harassment based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status), workers in these systems can act with relative immunity. The people who make up these institutions in our society are the ones who create, maintain, and enforce both the socially oppressive policies and laws as well as the cultural privileges in operation in our society. They collectively create a monolithic force that sets the majority culture values, norms, mores, and guidelines for acceptable behavior toward others.

For example, although only a few federal legislators may personally sponsor, write, and publically advocate for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (or restrict the legal use of a marriage contract to heterosexual couples only, either avenue has the same effect), no one lawmaker can ever be singled out for being personally responsible for the actual passage of such a law. The responsibility for such an oppressive law and its corresponding oppressive behavior is spread among several hundred lawmakers in Congress. Even after such a discriminatory law is passed, legislators who voted to approve it can attribute their behavior to the wishes of their constituencies; no one need take individual responsibility for their actions.

And, once an oppressive law is on the books, the attitudes and values it represents infiltrate the system and are enforced by those individuals who work in the system. They each now have the power to act in a discriminatory way toward LGBT persons, but they also have the ability to say to those LGBT persons (while in the process of discriminating against them) “It’s not me—it’s the law.” In some fashion, the individuals within an institution can always hide behind or use the shield of bureaucracy, law, and policy. They can also hold themselves harmless and distance themselves from those they discriminate against and from the negative effects such discrimination brings into the lives of those who are oppressed. Likewise, these same individuals are able to extend cultural privileges without vulnerability to those who possess the demography favored by the majority culture base (in this case, heterosexuals). In fact, the policies and law often allow if not encourage this extension of these cultural privileges to those who have majority culture characteristics. As the old saying by cartoonist Walt Kelly goes: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

One way in which this institutional oppression is commonly seen is the inability of many LGBT workers to find health insurance (or employers who offer health insurance) that will allow them to obtain coverage for their life partners. Often, LGBT partners are denied coverage because the couple remains unable to obtain a state marriage license, the document that legally confers the status of “marital spouse” and allows one to enjoy coverage on their partner’s insurance policy.

In terms of an environmental realm within which individuals find themselves interacting as complex, multiply culturally identified beings, this socio-institutional realm can be thought of as a background that provides strong contextual elements suggesting how people should interact with one another. Recall that we conceptualize the institutional level as both the monolithic entity that legitimizes (by law and social policy) as well as enforces (by courts, money, and distribution of resources) our majority culture norms. The institutional level also serves as the vehicle within which individuals decide and create what our majority culture norms will be.

As an analogy, in clinical work and psychotherapy, we talk about both patients’ mood and affect to describe their emotional states. As defined in the Diagnostic and statistical manual—text revision (4th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2007), mood is “the pervasive and sustained emotion that colors the perception of the world” (p. 825). On the other hand, affect is defined as “the expression of a subjectively experienced feeling state (emotion)” (p. 819). Therefore, a person might feel and express a happy affect, even while in the midst of an overall depressed mood. Likewise, a person in a generally euthymic or good mood might feel and express a strong dysthymic or “down in the dumps” affect in reaction to a disappointing incident. So, in this analogy, we would use the concept of mood to describe the overarching socio-institutional realm (exerting a pervasive and sustained cultural influence) on the expression and manifestation of individuals’ identities, and the concept of affect (transient experience) as the more proximal or immediate interpersonal and intra-psychic influences on the expression of identities.

In this way, we can see how the pervasive institutional realm can affect both the actions and reactions of individuals, as well as moderate the effects of more proximal interpersonal and intra-psychic experiences. For example, although a gay man might meet a supportive straight ally in a dorm and feel a good measure of acceptance and real friendship in that personal relationship, he will not forget that others in that same dorm might treat him badly if they knew he was gay. Similarly, he may know that the general public will not be accepting of him or his LGBT orientation because of the heterosexism and anti-LGBT oppressive values held and enforced by the majority culture society.

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