Human Diversity

Human Diversity

In the realm of psychology, the exploration of diversity has often been approached through positivistic methods rather than holistic and integrative perspectives. Beginning in the 1960s, the field turned its attention to cross-cultural demography, branching out from the conventional European, male, heterosexual majority culture to study and understand a broader range of diversity aspects. However, this shift led to a fragmentation of diversity issues, where various dimensions such as sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, race, age, and disability were treated as isolated topics rather than examined within a comprehensive framework.

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The segmentation of diversity issues within psychology is evident in multiple ways. Over time, the American Psychological Association (APA) established numerous specialized divisions that focus on distinct axes of human diversity. These divisions range from the psychology of women, men, race/ethnicity, disability/rehabilitation, mental retardation/developmental disability, sexual orientation, aging, religion, to international psychology. Consequently, not only do these separate APA divisions, along with their respective research journals, concentrate on different facets of diversity, but even general divisions like clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and community psychology have dedicated sections that delve into specific aspects of diversity, such as race and ethnicity.

This approach has fostered specialization, enabling focused exploration and understanding of each diversity aspect. However, it has also resulted in a lack of comprehensive integration, leaving the broader tapestry of diversity fragmented. As the field continues to evolve, there is a growing recognition of the need to transcend this compartmentalization and adopt a more unified approach that considers diversity dimensions in a holistic context. Such an integrative perspective has the potential to yield deeper insights into the complexities of human diversity and foster a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience.


The exploration of diversity issues in mainstream study has emerged relatively recently, leading to considerable scholarly attention directed towards developing theories and models that explain individual diversity dimensions (e.g., sexual orientation) from a general perspective. However, there has been a lack of overarching theories that comprehensively address the development, existence, operation, and behavioral implications of multiple diversity dimensions across various human contexts.

Furthermore, certain areas of diversity scholarship have been marred by theories and research methodologies that uphold the behavior and culture of the majority as the standard against which non-majority groups are compared. This approach contrasts with a more inclusive perspective that recognizes majority culture variables and behaviors as merely one variation of human diversity.

An illustrative example can be found in the historical development of constructs within psychopathology and their underlying theories, which have often favored a Western European, male, heterosexual norm. This bias is evident in the long-standing classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder and heterosexuality as the standard of mental health. Similarly, traditional notions of feminine characteristics aligned with male-dominated, sexist ideals have been pathologized as personality disorders or maladaptive coping strategies. In such cases, the historical attribution of the causes of these “disorders” to women and their role as inadequate or traumatic mothers reflects deeply ingrained biases.

Efforts to comprehend the specific development and expression of diversity variables and to recognize “majority” culture demographics as another form of human diversity have left little time for integrating these diverse ideas into a cohesive framework that spans multiple dimensions of diversity. The challenge lies in transcending the fragmented approach and advancing towards a more unified perspective that considers the interplay of various diversity aspects within a broader context.

The realm of psychology encounters a significant challenge in the development of theories related to human diversity, stemming from the tension between two contrasting perspectives: etic and emic. Scholars within psychology differ in their preferences for one approach over the other.

An etic, or universalist, approach recognizes the complexity of human diversity across various demographic and cultural dimensions. It acknowledges the impossibility of encompassing all possible permutations of diversity and instead seeks to distill common characteristics and factors applicable to people from different backgrounds. This approach is deemed more practical and effective for psychologists aiming to be culturally sensitive and effective in their interactions with diverse individuals.

In contrast, proponents of an emic approach believe that a deeper understanding of specific cultural diversity is necessary to truly grasp, assist, or research particular groups or individuals. Emic scholars emphasize the diversity both between and within cultural groups, asserting that a specific viewpoint is required when dealing with a particular cultural context. They express concerns that an etic, generalized approach might overshadow or neglect the unique differences within diverse groups.

The tension between these etic and emic viewpoints has influenced the way psychology examines human diversity. The traditional epistemological nature of psychology, focused on individual differences, has led to an atomistic approach. Nonetheless, scholars have started to move toward common factors or etic approaches to human diversity to unify and consolidate theory across and within groups.

Efforts have been made to integrate various independent models within broader axes of diversity, primarily due to the complexity of working with numerous models specific to different subgroups. For instance, within the study of race/ethnicity, researchers have formulated distinct models explaining identity development for major racially diverse groups in the United States, as well as their internal subgroups. However, the atomistic nature of these models has prompted some scholars to adopt a more comprehensive etic approach within specific diversity axes. An example is Sue’s minority identity development model, which amalgamates stages from various racial/ethnic identity development models into a single stage model 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.


Methods for studying multiple axes of human diversity remain relatively limited, with researchers often relying on measures that are broadly applicable to different groups. For instance, Phinney’s multigroup ethnic identity measure exemplifies this approach. Rather than assessing an individual’s specific racial/ethnic identity, Phinney’s measure is designed to gauge the extent to which individuals identify with their own racial/ethnic group, applicable to various groups with different racial/ethnic identities.

Any model developed to encompass multiple axes of human diversity would need to exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. Multivariate: The model should be capable of simultaneously accounting for various demographic elements, such as sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and socioeconomic status (SES).
  2. Responsive to Environmental Context: The importance and relevance of demographic variables should shift based on the situational context. For example, the significance of a demographic characteristic like sex could differ drastically between conversations about sexism involving groups of women versus groups of men.
  3. Reflective of Shared and Unique Aspects of Diversity: The model should be able to capture both common aspects of diversity (e.g., shared experiences of oppression across various demographic groups) and unique aspects (e.g., the distinct societal experiences of being a woman versus being gay).

In essence, developing methods and models that comprehensively address multiple dimensions of human diversity requires a nuanced understanding of the intricacies involved in diverse demographic attributes and their interactions within various contexts.

In an abstract sense, a heuristic model that can be applied to achieve these goals is analogous to a regression equation:

a1b1 + a2b2 + … + axbx = y

In this equation:

  • “a” represents any given axis of human diversity.
  • “b” represents the situation-specific weight or salience assigned to that axis by an individual within a particular environment.
  • “x” corresponds to different axes of diversity that an individual possesses.
  • “y” represents the behavior or attitude expressed by the individual as a result of both external environmental factors and the internal relationships among their diverse axes.

From a statistical standpoint, a regression equation enables researchers to consider the influence of multiple variables on a specific outcome. It allows the weights or salience of these variables to predict or explain observed outcomes, and these weights can change as the outcome being predicted or explained changes.

To illustrate this concept in a real-world context, let’s take the example of an elderly, indigent, disabled, lesbian Latina individual. She possesses various axes of diversity, such as her sex, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The weight or salience of each of these axes can vary based on the environment she is in.

For instance, if she were in a setting with young lesbian Latinas on a college campus, her age, socioeconomic status, and disability might become more prominent as factors that differentiate her from the students. Simultaneously, she could also find common ground with the students in terms of shared experiences as women, Latinas, and lesbians. This oversimplified example highlights the dynamic nature of demographic axes’ salience, where both external environmental factors and internal influences impact the weight assigned to each axis.

Consider a scenario involving a group of Latino/a men and women discussing their experiences as Latino/a individuals in U.S. society. Initially, they may find common ground and agreement on this topic. However, if the conversation shifts to discussing sexism within the United States, the salience of different demographic axes could change. For instance, participants might emphasize their gender-based identity (female or male) rather than their shared Latino/a identity, altering the dynamics and frames of reference within the discussion.

This regression equation model demonstrates that the importance of various demographic axes is flexible and can be influenced by both external circumstances and internal perspectives, underscoring the complexity of understanding and navigating human diversity in different contexts.


By employing a regression model to conceptualize multiple axes of diversity, researchers can enhance their understanding of several important aspects related to human diversity:

  1. Intrapsychic Attributional Processes: The model allows researchers to comprehend how elements of demography, such as sex, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, gain or lose salience in an individual’s perception of their environment and situation. This helps in understanding how individuals attribute significance to different aspects of their identity depending on the context.
  2. Mediators and Moderators within Demographic Characteristics: Researchers can determine whether the salience of certain demographic characteristics within individuals is influenced by other demographic factors they possess. For instance, they can investigate whether the importance of being a certain ethnicity varies based on an individual’s socioeconomic status. Additionally, the model can reveal whether the relationships between demographic characteristics change depending on environmental or situational factors.
  3. Complex Interactions Among Individuals: The simultaneous regression models enable researchers to represent how the salience of demographic characteristics changes across individuals who share a common environmental or situational experience. This provides insights into the dynamics of diversity within groups and how different aspects of identity become more or less prominent as circumstances shift.
  4. Cultural Influences on Research, Education, and Clinical Procedures: Researchers can uncover how specific demographic characteristics within psychologists and the people they interact with (research participants, students, mental health patients) relate to the effectiveness and outcomes of research, educational practices, and clinical interventions. This understanding helps tailor interventions and approaches to diverse populations more effectively.

In summary, applying a regression model to the study of multiple axes of diversity offers a comprehensive framework to explore the intricate interplay between various demographic characteristics, environmental factors, and individual perceptions. This approach has the potential to advance our understanding of human diversity and its implications for research, education, and clinical practice.

Employing complex models like the regression equation can lead researchers to shift away from reductionistic approaches and move towards a more integrative perspective on the intricate nature of human existence and diversity.

In addition to existing models that elucidate the dynamics of interactions within a single axis of diversity, such as racial/ethnic identity development, more comprehensive models can be developed to account for the interactions across multiple diversity axes. Helms’s model, for example, focuses on interactions between individuals at different stages of racial/ethnic identity development. This model identifies progressive, parallel, and regressive interactions. Progressive interactions involve a professional (e.g., therapist, teacher) functioning at a higher level of racial/ethnic identity than the client or student, potentially advancing their development. Parallel interactions occur when both parties are at similar levels of development, either benefiting or hindering each other depending on the overall level of development. Regressive interactions involve a professional functioning at a lower level than the client or student, possibly stalling or regressing their development.

Expanding such models to encompass the multivariate demography of individuals with multiple diversity axes would result in complex yet comprehensive frameworks. These frameworks could provide a detailed understanding of cross-cultural interactions, taking into account the fluid interplay of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and societal forces. This more nuanced approach would allow for precise examination of how various aspects of an individual’s identity interact within specific contexts, leading to deeper insights into the dynamics of diversity and its implications for interactions, relationships, and societal outcomes.


The increasing diversity among those being trained and served in psychology over the past few decades, coupled with the ongoing diversification expected in the 21st century, highlights the growing necessity for a deeper and more sophisticated comprehension of human diversity. To effectively address this need, researchers must work towards creating enhanced theoretical models that foster integration rather than separation among different axes of diversity. These models should provide a comprehensive and holistic perspective on how individuals with multiple diversity dimensions navigate and function in various contexts. By striving for more comprehensive models, psychologists can better understand and address the complexities of diversity, leading to more effective interventions, research outcomes, and societal progress.


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