Busting diversity myths

A close-up on the "Gherkin" skyscraper in London's financial district, and some of its surrounding buildings.

The Diversity Studies Centre Oslo (DISCO) is the first research community of its kind in Norway. It will explore what diversity is and how it plays out in different social arenas, and in doing so contribute valuable insight into how members of society view each other.

Words matter

Words have power; they shape how we view the world. Say the word “diversity”, and certain societal categories are often conjured: race, ethnicity, gender.

“The concepts that we use have real impact on how we see ourselves as people, how we see our societies, and how we think about cooperation and conflict,” says Centre Head Torkel Brekke, a professor of cultural and religious diversity.

Reflecting diversity in society

“Diversity is often associated with a very limited number of dimensions,” says Brekke, and points to how age and disability often get overlooked. By failing to take the full range of diversity into account, people are often defined according to “ossified categories that are not necessarily real.” This has real-world consequences for how people perceive themselves and others.

In other words, previous research on the topic hasn’t adequately reflected the complexities of diversity in society. This is where DISCO comes in.

Creating a global centre

Brekke, whose research background is in religion, politics, and conflict, is joined at the helm by fellow centre heads Professor Åse Røthing and Associate Professor Thorgeir Kolshus, a pioneer in gender studies and research on diversity in education, and an expert in social anthropology, respectively.

The creation of DISCO has allowed the three researchers to combine their backgrounds and pull in collaborators from across the globe in various capacities. For example, the advisory board includes scholars from leading institutions in the UK, India, South Africa, U.S., Israel, Sweden, and Norway.

At its core, DISCO revolves around four different research groups or sites of importance: urban space, schools and higher education, health, and the labor market and working life. Each group has two leaders, all experienced researchers based at OsloMet.

Getting at the heart of diversity

Rather than falling back on preconceived notions of what diversity is or is not, DISCO creates an arena where researchers can explore what diversity actually is within the specific context of Norwegian society.

“We believe that we will be able to contribute with better approaches and concepts to describe certain dynamics in society,” says Brekke.

Intersectionality is not a dirty word

A term crucial to DISCO is intersectionality—how different diversity categories interact with one another under varying circumstances.

“Many of the dimensions of social differentiation work together—they interact,” Brekke explains. In other words, diversity is complex and nuanced; it is seldom just about age, gender, or ethnicity.

“Many of the issues we want to investigate have often been researched separately,” Røthing adds.

The term itself sparks controversy. “Intersectionality has traditionally, at least in the American context, belonged to the feminist movement,” Røthing says, “and that has limited its potential.”

“Intersectionality has gotten bad press,” Kolshus concurs. DISCO intends to reclaim the term by broadening its application.

Taking a good, hard look in the mirror

According to Kolshus, Norwegians have historically adopted a “paternalistic attitude to other people, where we can understand the others and we can understand that they don’t understand us.”

Combined with a widely held notion that Norway has historically been culturally homogenous, “this makes it even harder for us to understand others.”

Yet understanding other cultures is necessary, particularly in urban settings like Oslo where people of different backgrounds mix, merge and diverge. Norway itself has always been diverse, with “significant cultural differences between the different regions, and between inland and coastal populations,” Kolshus says.

Cross-cutting perspectives

Weaving across the four research groups and tying them together are two threads or cross-cutting perspectives: disability studies, and the study of indigenous peoples and national minorities.

OsloMet has researchers working in the field of Sámi studies, and will partner with the Centre for Sámi Studies (Sesam) at the University of Tromsø, connecting two of the cities with the largest Sámi populations in all of Norway.

“Looking at the lives of members of indigenous peoples in modern cities is also a promising focus for global and comparative research,” Brekke notes.

Seeking cross-disciplinary inspiration

Ask an ecologist about biodiversity and you’ll get an answer involving the number and relative abundance of different species in a defined area. Is a meadow truly rich in biodiversity if it has 50 different species of wildflowers, but 95% of those flowers are daisies? For decades, ecologists have used indices to measure biodiversity; not so in the social sciences, according to Brekke.

“I think it is fascinating to try to relate the concept of diversity, the way it is used in social science, to the biological concept … simply by doing that, we can see some of the weaknesses in the ways the concept of diversity is normally used,” Brekke says.
“We need to talk to other disciplines and see what we can learn from them.”

Shaping the political agenda

In addition to challenging assumptions, DISCO aims to influence the political agenda. “There are super important global concepts that are in many ways rooted in social science that become globalised and localised in various ways,” Brekke says.
He points to Norwegian debates regarding racism as colored by debates in the U.S., often transplanted without consideration of historical and political context.

In a nutshell, the real issues facing Norwegian society cannot be addressed if the narrative we use is not attuned to nuance. By bringing perspective to Norwegian debate, DISCO hopes to be a “power hub in diversity studies,” as Kolshus puts it, for many years to come.

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Published: 02/07/2021
Last updated: 05/07/2021
Text: Sari C. Cunningham
Photo: NTB Scanpix