Do We Choose Diversity?

January 17, 2012

Do we want friends with a diverse array of backgrounds and beliefs? Or do we want to choose as friends those who are most like ourselves? We say we want diversity, but our behavior shows otherwise.  Or so says a research paper by Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett and Christian Crandall at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas being published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations (2012 15: 119). The paper is discussed by Jonah Lehrer this week on his Frontal Cortex blog for Wired.

My first academic position was at Temple University, a place with more than 30,000 students. Nearly all of them came from Philadelphia and its environs, but in every other way my students were as diverse a collection of human beings as these United States can produce. They differed in age, race, religion, social class, and political and social and social orientation. The diversity was great for teaching public policy courses. But outside the classroom, I noticed my students clustered in very homogeneous groups — often composed of friends from the same high school. That is, outside the classroom, the diversity seemed not to be something the students valued or learned from.

That out-of-classroom homogeneity is the nub of the Bahns et al. paper. They sampled dyads (pairs of students) who were observed relating to one another in informal settings and administered a short questionnaire, separately, to both students asking about their background characteristics, attitudes and beliefs. They did this in two settings: at the University of Kansas (a big, diverse university) and at several very small residential colleges also in Kansas. They found that the dyads at KU were much more similar in backgrounds, attitudes and beliefs than the dyads at the very small colleges.  That is, in the setting where the students had great variety from which to choose friends, they selected  friends who were much more similar to them. The students chose against diversity, even though KU (like most colleges and universities) professes to value diversity.

Earlham has extraordinary diversity in many regards, especially (now) diversity of national origin. One reason we chose to keep Earlham small is that the small size works against students fissioning into homogeneous groups. To find friends, students at Earlham are pressed to step outside their comfort zone. Even so, we often reminded ourselves that having diversity assembled on our campus through the admissions process wasn’t enough. We had to sponsor activities and engagements among students to encourage them into relationships with students different from themselves in background, attitude and belief.

Leaving it to the students isn’t enough.  Like most human beings, they’ll choose against diversity and seek interactions with people who are just like them.

Lehrer concludes his post on the paper with this: “Such results also complicate the standard justification for affirmative action programs. In Grutter v. Bollinger, for instance, the Supreme Court held that universities have a ‘compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.’ In theory, that’s absolutely true. But this research suggests that diversity sometimes backfires, so that a more varied student body leads to less varied interactions.”

I think Lehrer is going too far. It isn’t enough, as this research shows, to assemble diversity. You also have to encourage and prod students to engage with others who are not like themselves. Bahn (the lead author) now teaches at Wellesley, a much more diverse small college than the small colleges in Kansas. What she would find there? I hope she replicates the research in a setting where the available diversity can be found within a relatively small institution, and where (I suspect) the college does a great deal to promote interactions among students from diverse backgrounds.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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