Friday, January 20, 2017

How do you argue for diversity?

During the last couple of months I have been serving as a member of my department's diversity committee, charged with examining policies relating to diversity in graduate and faculty recruitment. I have always put a value on the personal diversity of the people I worked with. But until this experience, I hadn't thought about how unexamined my thinking on this topic was, and I hadn't explicitly tried to make the case for diversity in our student population. So I was unprepared for the complexity of this issue.* As it turns out, different people have tremendously different intuitions on how to – and whether you should – argue for diversity in an educational setting.

In this post, I want to enumerate some of the arguments for diversity I've collected. I also want to lay out some of the conflicting intuitions about these arguments that I have encountered. But since diversity is an incredibly polarizing issue, I also want to be sure to give a number of caveats. First, this blogpost is about the topic of other people’s responses to arguments for diversity; I’m not myself making any of these arguments here. I do personally care about diversity and personally find some of these arguments more and less compelling, but that’s not what I’m writing about. Second, all of this discussion is grounded in the particular case of understanding diversity in the student body of educational institutions (especially in graduate education). I don’t know enough about workplace issues to comment. Third, and somewhat obviously, I don’t speak for anyone but myself. This post doesn’t represent the views of Stanford, the Stanford psych department, or even the Stanford Psych diversity committee.

Should you even make the case for the value of diversity? It turns out that people have different intuitions on this topic. Some people will be upset if you simply presuppose that diversity is an especially positive value over and above pure excellence. Caricaturing a little bit, for these people, diversity is fundamentally a resource issue, whether in the form of admissions slots, recruitment effort, or other institutional allocation of time or money. And such allocations need to be justified. But others will be upset if you do not presuppose the value of diversity and instead feel the need to justify it empirically or morally. Very reasonably, these other folks – who are often themselves from diverse backgrounds – feel that people asking “why diversity” are really asking “why are you even here?” So asking for a justification of diversity can itself feel like an aggressive move.

Presuppositions like this are a tricky issue in linguistics. If you presuppose too much, you can be seen as being coercive (classically: “when did you stop beating your wife?”) or your presuppositions can fail embarrassingly (“Q: how old is your son? A: that’s my husband.”). How can we address this issue in the case of presuppositions for the value of diversity? One strategy that seems viable to me is by asserting that we should direct our attention to a piece of shared knowledge, rather than by presupposing it. In other words, we should draw people’s attention to their – presumably held, but perhaps unexamined – values. Research on value affirmations seems to me like it might act this way, by calling people’s attention to values that they already hold without threatening or calling into question their belief. 

If you argue for diversity, what is the case you should make? In my internet-browsing on this topic, I was surprised by a lack of resources summarizing the different arguments that are made for diversity. Perhaps this is because of the issue described above – that advocates often feel that making the case for diversity is itself a complicated issue. So I created my own taxonomy of arguments – again, without passing judgment on whether these are good arguments (or even whether some might feel that they are actively offensive). 

Without further ado:
  1. Social justice arguments. These arguments center around notions of fairness and equality of access to educational resources (and are tied to complex and thorny issues of affirmative action – see the wonderful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the topic). Roughly: Because of historical and current inequalities and the value we place on addressing these, we should work positively to increase representation in our educational institutions from underrepresented or marginalized populations. These arguments are not subject to empirical verification – they are a priori; either you are convinced or not. 
    1. Historic inequity. This variant on social justice arguments focuses on addressing past injustices and their long-term consequences (e.g., in professional representation for minorities), regardless of your views on the current educational system. 
    2. Current inequity. This variant focuses on current inequities – systemic issues in access to education and opportunity mean that we need to focus resources on underrepresented populations. 
    3. Future inequity. This variant focuses on the future consequences of failing to educate a diverse group of researchers, teachers, and leaders. 
  2. Institution value arguments. Perhaps having a diverse student body provides value for an institution over and above fulfilling ethical requirements (or even if you don’t think that ethical arguments hold). These arguments are subject to empirical verification – it might turn out in some cases that they do or not hold (here’s a somewhat-critical review of the workplace diversity literature, for example). 
    1. Value for studies of diversity. There are many lines of academic research in psychology departments that focus on diversity-related topics, e.g. implicit bias, inequality, etc. It seems pretty clear that people from diverse backgrounds have unique contributions. In fact, in some sense it would be odd – or even illegitimate – if such work were done exclusively by people who were not affected by its content.** 
    2. Value for studies of people. Extending the previous argument, if you study people in general, and you believe that life experiences can give insights into academic work, maybe you want to bring people with different backgrounds into your community. (This argument doesn’t advocate for particular under-represented minorities; rather it is an argument in favor of people with different experiences generally). 
    3. Value of differing perspectives generally. Actually, perhaps having people with different perspectives helps with any kind of group decision-making process. According to some research (nice summary here), homogenous groups underperform in studies of creativity and decision-making, perhaps because of groupthink. A similar caveat applies here as for 2.2 – this is again about general differences between people rather than the particular characteristics targeted by efforts for diversity. 
    4. Value for the students they teach. Finally, graduate students teach as part of their education (and are being trained to teach in their future careers). Some research suggests that under-represented minority students learn better from teachers from their own minority group (some links to primary studies here). Since institutions will have minority students – whether or not they work actively to recruit these students – fostering diversity at the graduate level will likely lead to more positive academic outcomes for those students. 
  3. Student value arguments. These arguments appeal to the educational mission of the university by promoting educational outcomes for students and the public welfare more generally.*** 
    1. Marginal gains for students. If we are trying to maximize student learning as at least part of our mission, then perhaps we should choose those students for whom our education would make the most difference – or at least we should have this as one criterion in selection process. Put another way, many top students will do fine anywhere, but if we look for students from a diverse range of backgrounds we may increase the chance that we change someone’s life. 
    2. Marginal gains for society. By the same logic, maximizing student growth is actually good for the world in general. If all institutions select for students who stand to gain more (e.g., because of their more limited opportunities), then the overall educational gains for the population are greater, and society benefits. 
  4. Pragmatic arguments. These arguments appeal to external constraints, and are typically fall-back arguments for people who are not persuaded by the other arguments above. Folks who are strongly persuaded by the other arguments above sometimes find these arguments offensive because making them implicates that you are not persuaded by others. 
    1. Statistical argument. Even if there is no value to diversity per se, accessing larger populations for recruitment purposes will allow you to tap a larger pool, hence increasing access to talent. 
    2. Incentives/social desirability argument. Positive rewards at the institutional and program level means that supporting diversity will bring you good things. So even if you believe in nothing, you still look good. 
Once I had compiled this taxonomy, I started trying some of these arguments out on people. I was shocked by how different people’s responses were – some felt that the pragmatic arguments were the most convincing, while others felt that the pragmatic arguments presupposed the lack of an ethical argument and so were actively offensive to them. I even reached out to the twitter community and asked them to participate in a poll. Of course, A) this is a twitter poll with a self-selected set of academics who follow me (N=105) and so not really that useful. And B) my representations of these arguments in 25 characters are pretty limited. That said, I was surprised both by the distribution of answers across these options and also that the empirically-falsifiable instrumental arguments were the winner.
My intuitions also accord with a recent study on this topic by Trawalter et al. (2016). They do a number of studies on the effects of a “diversity is good” vs. a “diversity is fair” framing and argue that “diversity is good” actually decreases people’s focus on specific underrepresented populations (e.g., they’re more likely to say that geographic or political diversity is important too). I was most interested in their first study, where they compare mechanical turk workers’ intuitions on whether the “good” or “fair” framing was preferred or considered to be more effective. Although they find a slight bias for the “good” framing (64%), the proportion who believed it would be more effective was even smaller (57%). While the authors interpret this differences as indicating a “good” preference, I see it a different way. With these two options at least, na├»ve participants were quite split on which argument they thought was most effective.

In sum: If we are interested in diversity in education, and want to work to increase it, we need to understand the effectiveness of our arguments. This feels like a fertile area of research to me. Communication about vaccination can have “backfire” effects, where people who hold anti-vaccination views can see those views strengthened by direct confrontation. Similarly, advocates for diversity need to consider the consequences of different argumentative strategies.

* Understatement!
** This gets complicated quick – see debates about ethnographic methods.
*** For example, Stanford’s mission statement is all about promoting the public welfare.


  1. Shouldn't the Twitter poll have included ideological diversity alongside race/ethnicity/SES in the argument for diversity in academic departments? It seems that most or all arguments for racial/ethnic/SES diversity in academic departments apply equally or more to ideological diversity. For example, the most popular option to the poll is that more views equal better research, and ideological diversity *directly* selects on views. Moreover, a relatively large number of academics *state* a willingness to discriminate against other academics based on ideology:

  2. Great and useful summary. Thank you! It's especially interesting to hear about different reactions to each type of argument, it almost seems like a gamble: you risk alienating or offending with the "fair" vs. "good" arguments, respectively, so if you lead with the wrong one you may risk shutting down the conversation (perhaps... that's an empirical question by itself).

    Furthermore, I wonder how persistent a change in values can be if the last argument proves effective. If there is a potential, tangible reward for diversity and you are persuaded by it, how long will you hold that view in the face of prior, perhaps deeply held biases? And if the benefits end up being too intangible, does the value disappear?

    Thanks again, will continue to ponder :)

  3. Hey Mike. I actually made a different argument in class yesterday. I was asked why we don't know much about languages other than English (and to some extent, a handful of European languages). The answer is easy and straightforward and obvious in retrospect. I mean, I may want to do research on Mayan languages (and I do!), but it's enormously difficult *for me*, so I mostly stick to English, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish. Until we have a sufficient number of Mayan speakers doing research -- and there are some! -- it's going to remain understudied.

    It's pretty easy to extend this to other areas. Why is Sickle Cell so under-studied despite being very common, whereas Tay-Sachs research is pretty well-funded, despite being extremely rare? Well, who are the medical researchers?

    This is not a knock on people doing work on the things they care about. They absolutely should! The problem is when the people doing the work are a narrow set, the things they care about is similarly constrained.