Cultural diversity is a central feature of community psychology. It derives from a general psychological focus on the naturally occurring diversity among people within a context and between groups of people who are a part of different contexts. Implicitly, most theories and practices of psychology have inferred ordinal distinctions among people in a context and ordinal distinctions between people of different contexts (Jones, 1994). In contrast, community psychology assumes that diversity reflects nominal and not ordinal differences among people.
Cultural Diversity Definition and Conceptual Perspective
At first glance, cultural diversity appears to be a redundant phrase: Culture and diversity are two words that both connotatively and denotatively refer to the state of uniqueness and variety. More precisely, Lonner and Malpass (1994) stated that culture is defined as the distinct and significant explanation of differences observed among different groups of people. Culture characterizes the many complex ways in which peoples of the world live, and through which they tend to pass along to their offspring significant meanings about the world. Diversity is defined as differing from one another, to make diverse, or to increase variety. Diversity implies appreciating the plurality of views and experiences in our society (Anderson & Collins, 1996). Thus, a closer examination reveals that cultural diversity reflects the sentiment of community psychology’s notion of promoting resilience and strength by acknowledging and availing an already existing variety of attributes among people and, more important, between groups of peoples. Hence, the research and practice of community psychology require an analysis and accounting of cultural diversity.
Cultural Diversity and Ecological Perspective
As a fundamental principle in community psychology, cultural diversity fits neatly within an ecological viewpoint of research and intervention. Cultural diversity substantiates the notion that significant meaning contained in an environment is reflective of the unique perspectives held by different populations about the way the world works and their understanding of their place in that world (Gibson & Ogbu, 1991; Lonner & Malpass, 1994). Therefore, cultural diversity is consistent with the theoretical perspective outlined by Kurt Lewin (1935/1977). Lewin offers a formula that illustrates the interdependence between the nature of human functioning and the context, the structure of the context, and the processes taking place between them. The formula B = f (P.E) conceptualizes this relationship, such that human behavior evolves as a function of the interplay of the person and her environment.
In addition, activity within a context can occur at multiple levels of that context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). For example, Bronfenbrenner (1979) conceptualizes social networks as several concentric circles of ever-increasing environmental influence around an individual, including settings in which he or she either participates. or never enters, and the generalized patterns of societal, institutional, and cultural interaction. A broader understanding of and a closer approximation to the reality of one’s social environment is obtained by examining the dialectical influences of interlocking and interacting networks (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). More important, everyone is presumed to be involved in a complex and complicated set of human contexts. Behaviors cannot be measured and interpreted without considering contextual influences. The contextual parameters of cultural diversity are evident by the existence of significant meaning and life perspective, relevant behavioral activities and patterns, beneficial associations and networks, and productive and resilient consequences in human contexts.
Cultural Diversity and Strategies of Research and Interventions
Psychology in general and psychological science in particular acknowledge the mutuality in the relationship between the individual and the context. However, the usual scientific practice is to account for and control relevant but extraneous contextual effects, of which, cultural diversity is a representative. Thus, with few exceptions, Lewin‘s symbolic equation seldom guides the enterprise of most psychological research. Often, researchers either attend to the individual’s behaviors in isolation, or may attribute behavior to the context while ignoring the interdependence between the person and the contextual variables.
Harrison and her colleagues noted that ethnic minority status has potent meaning and experiences of cultural diversity because of the difficulties such culturally diverse groups have experienced in attempting to coexist with the European American culture (Harrison, Wilson. Pine, Chan, Buriel, 1990). These difficulties shape part of the meaning of being a member of a culturally diverse group in the United States and form external environmental forces operating on the functioning of diverse groups. That is, ethnic minorities who have traditionally experienced persistent discrimination, exclusion, and oppression in American society make their ethnicity qualitatively different from all other ethnic groups that have immigrated to the United States. In addition, Boykin (1984) has asserted that ethnic minority people hold several competing frames of references including the majority, a minority, and bicultural frames of reference which merge majority and minority references. Boykin suggests in this triple quandary hypothesis that the minority person’s experience of the world reflects a complex and complicated perspective and status in society. These experiences have influenced beliefs about what it means to be a member of an ethnic minority group. It is widely held that beliefs form an important psychological guide to action (Siegal, 1983). A cultural diversity perspective must assess and account for the variety of relevant meanings and understandings of the target group’s or individual’s environment and the subjective meaning of that group’s and individual’s place in particular environments. In other words, human functioning must be understood both in terms of the behaviors themselves, as well as the contextual containment of human functioning. Because community psychology assumes that intervention and research necessarily involve work with contextually relevant diverse groups, it is important to assess the meaning, activity, situation, and consequences of human contexts. Incorporating a culturally diverse perspective in research and intervention means that the relevant population’s frame of reference or contextual understanding is included in the project.
Assumptions of Group Heterogeneity and Heterogeneity of Groups
Culturally diverse groups of people must be understood from their contextual perspective and experiences. Race, ethnicity, gender, and class are the usual categories of cultural experiences in which aspects of human life are structured. Thus, two general assumptions concern the relationship of diverse groups of people. First, although it is generally agreed that people may be exposed to a similar context, that context will be experienced differently by each and every person. Second, not only are people in a similar context different but different contexts and contextual influences on people will differ. In order to compare any two groups of people we must make assurance that instruments of comparison are reflective of the relevant and similar meaning, activity, situation, and consequences within each group.
However, research is often conducted in a way that diminishes the importance of diversity. Past research has assumed homogeneity among participants of a particular population and cultural equivalence between populations. Indeed, race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation have been so confounded by the assumptions of group homogeneity and cultural equivalence those egregious blunders are made. For instance, past research on lower socioeconomic African Americans was assumed to represent all classes of African Americans.
Failure to acknowledge cultural diversity and other contextual variables within a research population ultimately raises questions about generality and the validity of results. Thus, it is important to assess not only individual differences among a population of people but examine carefully contextual differences. Usually, it is experimentally convenient and expedient to assume contextual equivalence homogeneity and cultural equivalence among categories of people such that legitimately comparisons can be assessed in terms of a common standard. In addition, the existence of hierarchal relationships among people reflects a socially constructed variation where the primary purpose is subordination.
It is important to remember that a context is conceptualized validly in research under two conditions (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). First, the researcher must know the subjective meaning that the context carries for the individual. The researcher must understand the context in the terms of the experiences and the meaning for the individuals that are a part of that context. This subjective meaning may change over time. Second, the subjective meaning of the research context must correspond to the context to which the researcher wants to generalize the findings.
Community Research and Action
In addition to research, a major tenet of community psychology is action. Oftentimes, action takes the form of intervention efforts. Here the accurate assessment of contextual influences proves invaluable to successful efforts. Intervention programs are based on an understanding of a problem and proposed solutions for that problem, or the problem definition. Definitions structure our approach to social issues, and are inherently embedded in our own views of human behaviors and our value systems. As a discipline, community psychology encourages scientists to operate from a clear framework that integrates values, research, and action (Rappaport, 1977). The fundamental premise of recognizing the values of both the researcher and the target community promotes the establishment of an intervention program that encompasses the interest of all parties.
Throughout the research and action process, values must be made explicit and include respect for diversity because this will facilitate the development of a common purpose, plan, and program, and will increase the intervention’s likelihood of success. This approach becomes increasingly important when working with culturally diverse groups of people and with groups whose cultural practices differ from those of the mainstream culture. Indeed, failure to ensure the congruence between the values implicit in a proposed program and the cultural beliefs and practices of people who are directly affected by the efforts, may result in harm to the very population intended to help. One general and fundamental strategy for addressing the issue of varying values is to always define and address problems through collaboration with the members of the community, as this will ensure that the intervention is valid for that context and promote community support to secure the success of the program.
Cultural diversity is a valued aspect of humanity. Its social implications are dramatic and far-reaching in that the key to viable solutions may lie in the diversity of our peoples. Community psychology places cultural diversity as a hallmark to understanding and finding solutions to problems in living (Rappaport, 1977; Trickett et al., 1994).
- Anderson, M. L., & Collins, P. H. (1996). Race, class, and gender (3rd ed.). Belmont. NY Wadsworth.
- Boykin, A. W. (1984). Reading achievement and the social frame of reference of Afro-American children. The Journal of Negro Education, 53, 464-473.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Gibson, M. E., & Ogbu, J. U. (1991). Minority status and schooling. New York: Garland.
- Harrison, A. O., Wilson, M. N., Pine, C. J., Chan, S. Q., & Buriel, R. (1990). Family ecologies of ethnic minority children. Child Development. 61, 347-362.
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- Rappaport, J. (1977). Community psychology: Values, research and action. New York: Holt Rinehart, & Winston.
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