Human Diversity

Human DiversityIn psychology, typically we have regarded and examined diversity issues through positivistic methods more than holistic and integrative ones. Since the 1960s, when examining cross-cultural demography (e.g., demographics other than the traditional European, male, heterosexual majority culture) came into the fore in mainstream psychology, the discipline has fragmented into independent parts the understanding and study of various issues of diversity (e.g., sexual orientation, sex/ gender, race/ethnicity, aging, disability). We have made comparatively less effort to merge these parts into a coherent whole and examine them within a more complex framework.

This fragmenting of diversity issues within the discipline is reflected in several ways—for example, because of the rise of special interests, over time the American Psychological Association (APA) has created many separate divisions (specialized professional groups) that focus on different axes (aspects) of human diversity (e.g., divisions on the psychology of women, psychology of men, psychology of race/ethnicity, psychology of disability/ rehabilitation, psychology of mental retardation/ developmental disability, psychology of sexual orientation, psychology of aging, psychology of religion, international psychology). In fact, not only are independent APA divisions (and their associated professional research journals) separately focused on these differing axes of diversity, but some very general APA divisions (e.g., clinical psychology, counseling psychology, community psychology) also have special sections devoted to particular aspects of diversity (e.g., race/ethnicity).


Because of the relatively recent acceptance of diversity issues being worthy of mainstream study, scholars have expended much effort on theories and models that explicate individual axes of diversity (e.g., sexual orientation) in a nomothetic (general perspective) manner versus attempts at any overarching theory on how multiple axes or aspects of diversity develop, exist, operate, and explain behaviors across many human situations.

As well, some scholars have designed errant theory (and associated research methodology) in areas of diversity that reflects the behavior and culture of the majority as the benchmark against which these scholars then compare the behavior and cultural variables of nonmajority groups, versus developing theory and research where scholars recognize majority culture variables and behaviors, in and of themselves, as simply another variant of human diversity.

For example, the historic development of several constructs within the realm of psychopathology and the theories behind their etiology reflect biases that strongly favor a Western European, male, heterosexual standard and are strongly biased against a non-European, female, or gay expression of healthy human diversity. We can easily see this majority culture bias in the longtime designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder and heterosexuality as the mentally healthy norm (see Garnets & Kimmel, 1991). As well, we can see this bias in the longtime designation of male-dominated, sexist-driven ideals of “feminine” characteristics (e.g., unassertiveness) ultimately being pathologized as an expression of a personality disorder or maladaptive coping strategy (e.g., dependent personality disorder; see Brown, 2006). And, with respect to etiology, scholars have historically laid the causes of both of these aforementioned “disorders” at the feet of women and their supposed role as inadequate or traumatizing mothers!

So, as we have made efforts to understand the axis-specific development and expression of demographically diverse variables and to account for “majority” culture demographic axes as simply another expression of human diversity (as well as representing beneficiary status within the context of oppression in the U.S. society), there has been little time to integrate all of these ideas into a coherent whole across multiple diversity axes.

Another primary problem with theory development in this area exists within the tension between etic and emic perspectives to the study of human diversity, and scholars in psychology differ as to the most appropriate approach. An etic, or universalist, approach holds that whereas understanding individual and group differences is indeed important, because of the extent to which people can and do vary on a multitude of demographic and cultural axes, it is virtually impossible for psychologists to learn, know, and account for all the possible permutations within the diverse persons they encounter during their daily tasks (e.g., teaching, research, clinical practice, service, consultation). Therefore, concentrating on a distillation of what characteristics and factors are common and applicable to people across cultures becomes more manageable and has greater utility in terms of what a single person can do and know to be as culturally sensitive and effective with as many different types of people as possible.

Conversely, those researchers who favor an emic approach believe that only through in-depth knowledge and skills particular to the specific cultural diversity at hand can a psychologist really understand, assist, or research a group or individual. Researchers who hold to an emic approach look at the breadth of cultural diversity not only between groups but also within groups, and these researchers see this as the chief reason that a specific view must be taken when dealing with a particular cultural diversity. Finally, emic scholars often voice the worry that if an etic, general approach is taken in considering issues of human diversity, such an approach will come at the cost of effectively washing out or ignoring the relevant, unique differences of a diverse group or groups.

The tension between the etic and emic positions, and the scholarly pursuits carried out by proponents of each, have greatly affected the nature of the way psychology has chosen to examine issues of human diversity. The traditional epistemological nature of examining and theorizing about individual differences in the discipline of psychology has led to a more atomistic approach overall, although scholars have begun movements toward common factors or etic approaches to human diversity so as to unify and distill theory both across and within groups (see Fischer, Jome, & Atkinson, 1998).

Scholars have made efforts to integrate various independent models within general axes of diversity, largely because of the unwieldy nature of working with and researching several different models that are specific to particular subgroups. For example, within the study of race/ethnicity, researchers have created individual models explicating identity development for each of the major racially diverse demographic groups in the United States (e.g., American Indians, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and African Americans) as well as the heterogeneous subordinate groups within each of these categories (e.g., Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodians, and East Indian for Asian Americans). Because of this expansive spread of ideomatic models (and continuing atomistic approach), some scholars have tried to take a broader, more inclusive etic approach within specific diversity axes (e.g., racial/ethnic differences). An example of this is Sue’s (1989) minority identity development model, which integrates stages proposed in several racial/ethnic identity development models and collapses them into one stage model common and applicable to all racial/ethnic groups.

Models that simultaneously attempt to account for several axes of diversity are all but nonexistent. Some models do attempt to achieve a smaller version of this goal, by examining two or more axes of human diversity in connection with a particular professional practice (e.g., psychotherapy and education; see Constantine & Sue, 2006) or for individuals with multiple diversity axes dealing with a particular life situation (e.g., the comingout process for homosexual racially/ethnically diverse persons; see Smith, 1997). And, some scholars have tried to incorporate identity models explicating the development of various diverse axes into extant general models of identity (e.g., Erickson’s psychosocial developmental model; see Schwartz & Pantin, 2006). Not yet present in the literature is a fully articulated model that encompasses the majority of recognized human diversity axes and explains their intersection and integration across the knowledge domains of psychology and common human life situations.


Scholars have established few methods to study multiple axes of human diversity. Instead, researchers have developed measures that are applicable to different groups. Phinney’s (1992) multigroup ethnic identity measure is a good example of this method. Rather than assessing an individual’s specific racial/ethnic identity, Phinney designed her instrument as a common measure across aggregates of individuals who all have different racial/ethnic identities, to see the degree to which they subscribe to and identify with their own particular racial/ethnic group.

Any model of multiple axes of human diversity would necessarily have to be

  • multivariate—having the ability to simultaneously account for several elements of demography (e.g., a person’s sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status [SES])
  • responsive to environmental context—having the salience of demographic variables shift according to the context of a situation (e.g., the demographic of sex [say, being a woman] holding one meaning and level of importance in situation A [say, a conversation about sexism involving a group of women], but an entirely different one in situation B [the same conversation about sexism, but within a group of men], as the difference between the two situations could relevantly bring about such a change).
  • reflective of shared and unique aspects of diversities— able to reflect common aspects of diversity (e.g., the general similarity of identity development or societal experience across various demographic variables, such as the common types of oppression that a gay person or person of color would experience in society) as well as unique aspects (e.g., the difference in societal oppressive experiences given that being a woman is usually an obvious demographic characteristic, while being gay is not).

In an abstract sense, a heuristic model to employ to achieve these three goals is found in the concept of the regression equation: a1b1 + a2b2 +. . . . .axbx = y, where “a” is any given axis of human diversity, “b” is the situation-specific weight (or salience) given to that particular axis by the individual in any given environment, and “y” is the behavior or attitude expressed by the individual in response to the external environmental press and internal relations among her diverse axes. Statistically, a regression equation allows researchers to account for the influence of several variables on a particular outcome, allows the “weight” (salience) of the variables to be predictive or explanatory of an observed outcome, and allows the “weight” (salience) of the variables to be changed if the outcome to be predicted or explained changes.

To place this idea in a real-world context, consider a person who is an elderly, indigent, disabled, lesbian Latina. This woman has many axes of diversity (her female sex, her sexual orientation, her age, her physical ability, her race/ethnicity, and her socioeconomic status) that might differentially be weighted for her (and others) contingent upon the environment in which she finds herself.

For example, if she were to find herself in a crowd of young lesbian Latinas on a college campus, she might find her axes of age, SES, and disability becoming more salient as the factors that differentiate her from the crowd and separate the students’ experiences from her own. Simultaneously, however, she may be able to join with the students to some degree on their experiences as women, Latinas, and lesbians. This is, of course, an oversimplified approach, as demographic axes possessed by people who are seemingly in common are not always those on which people can join with one another, and those that are different are not always those upon which people experience distance from one another. However, the regression equation model is one where we can see both environmental and internal influences have an effect on the salience of any given demographic axis, and is one where the weights on given demographic variables are malleable and can change, sometimes rather quickly, as factors within an environment change.

For example, a group of Latino/a men and women discussing experiences and difficulties surrounding being a Latino/a in U.S. society may easily be able to join and agree on ideas. However, if the topic of their discussion shifts to sexism within the United States, the factors involved with that topic may change the demographic axes that are most salient for each of them. People in that discussion may now suddenly emphasize less being Latino/a and emphasize more their demography of sex (female and male), and this shift in salience could change the bonding and frames of reference they previously employed in their discussion with one another only moments before.


If researchers use a regression model to conceptualize multiple axes of diversity, they may be able to increase their understanding of

  • intrapsychic attributional processes—the ability to understand how elements of demography (e.g., sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation) gain or lose salience with respect to how an individual perceives her or his person-in-environment situation.
  • potential mediators/moderators within demographic characteristics— the ability to determine if the salience of various demographic characteristics within individuals are affected by other demographic characteristics they possess (e.g., if the salience of being a Latino varies according to one’s socioeconomic status) or if the relations among demographic characteristics are contingent upon environmental/ situational factors.
  • complex interactions among persons—the ability to use simultaneous regression models to represent the changes in the salience of demographic characteristics across individuals who are sharing a common environmental/situational experience. As well, researchers can assess changes in the salience of demographic characteristics across individuals as environmental/situational experiences shift focus.
  • cultural facets that influence research, educational, and clinical procedures—the ability to uncover how particular demographic characteristics within psychologists and the people they serve (research participants, students, mental health patients) are related to the effectiveness and outcomes of research, educational, and clinical processes/ interventions.

Finally, in employing more complex models, like the regression equation, researchers can begin to move away from a reductionistic approach and toward a more integrative way of viewing the complexity of human existence.

Models already exist that explicate the interactional dynamics of persons operating at different developmental levels within a single axis of diversity. For example, Helms (1990, 2003) has proffered a model that accounts for the outcomes potentially associated with interactions between therapists and clients or teachers and students who are at different stages of racial/ethnic identity development. Helms views these interactions as being progressive, regressive, or parallel in nature. A progressive interaction is one where the professional (therapist, teacher) is functioning at a higher level of racial/ethnic identity than is the client or student, and can potentially advance the client’s or student’s development. A parallel relationship is one where both parties are operating at a similar level of development, and when such development is at an overall higher level of functioning, the interaction can be of benefit to both. However, if such development is at an overall lower level, the interaction can stall the development of both parties by reinforcing less developed perspectives within each other. Finally, a regressive interaction is one where the professional (therapist, teacher) is functioning at a lower level of racial/ethnic identity than is the client or student, and can potentially cause the client or student’s development to stall or revert to earlier levels of functioning.

Models such as Helms’s allow for a clear conceptualization of how the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and societal forces in a situation are fluid and can affect the result that a given interaction brings. If general diversity models are expanded to account for the multivariate demography of those with multiple diversity axes, although they would be complex, their comprehensive and integrative nature would allow for a much more specific and precise examination and understanding of cross-cultural interactions.


Those we train and serve in psychology have become increasingly more diverse in the past 50 years, and will only continue to become more diverse throughout the 21st century. The need for a better and more complex understanding of human diversity will also remain paramount. In order to achieve this goal, investigators need to develop improved theoretical models that begin to integrate, rather than separate, axes of diversity and offer a more comprehensive picture of the functioning of individuals with multiple axes of diversity.


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