Review of Environment, Energy and Economics - Re3 Making the Most of Diversity: Conditions for Living Together (differently)


Print this article Print this article
Making the Most of Diversity: Conditions for Living Together (differently)
by Dino Pinelli
Economics - Articles

Making the most of diversity: conditions for living together (differently) [Note 1]

The ever growing flows of people, goods, images and ideas at global level are changing the way we see and experience diversity. Diversity can be an advantage, for companies, cities, and countries, but it demands re-defining policies and institutions. In this process, cultures should not be taken as pre-given, fixed and monolithic entities. Rather, we should acknowledge that individuals are bundles of orientations that evolve dynamically within social, political and economic processes and contexts. Acknowledging this principle implies re-thinking the form and structures of the polity as well as the way we approach and build social relations on the ground.

Keywords: Cultural Diversity

JEL classification: Z1

Suggested Citation: Pinelli, Dino, Making the Most of Diversity: Conditions for Living Together (Differently) (March 29, 2012). FEEM (Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei), Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (Re3),

See other useful links

1. Introduction

If human beings have always been and always will be diverse (‘la condition humaine’!), globalisation is bringing this diversity into our everyday life. We travel to distant places, we live next to people born elsewhere, we consume goods and see images originating from the other side of the globe. The question of whether and how we can live and prosper together while keeping and enjoying our differences is becoming the fundamental issue of our time.

This is the question at the core of this article summarising the policy-relevant results of the European Network "Sustainable Development in a Diverse World" (SUS.DIV). SUS.DIV brought together over 30 research institutions from a variety of disciplines and cultural backgrounds over 2005-2010. [Note 2]

Concerning the whether, the literature shows concrete evidence that diversity can contribute to prosperity, creativity and growth at different levels: that diversity may improve decision-making in small teams,  that companies can manage diversity effectively for better economic performance,  that productivity and wages are higher in regions and cities with a more diverse population, both in the US and the EU. Regarding the latter, there is evidence that the 1990-2004 inflow of migrants to US caused an increase of US workers’ wages of 0.7%. Focusing on cities, increasing by 5% the probability that two randomly picked individuals are of different ethnicity (less than what happened in London over 1991-2001) leads to an increase of wages and rents in a range between 5% and 10%. 

Attention turns then on the how. Institutions, policies and structures needs to be re-designed to allow different cultures to express themselves, interact, communicate and exchange in a positive manner. The following sections explores some of these conditions. 

2. The forms and understanding of the polity
Nowadays societies seem to be losing sight of what ties them together. The increasing variety of values, practices, and interests seems to challenge their cohesion. Traditional policy models to control, contain and govern this diversity are in crisis and called into questions. 

The first model is the 'segregation' model, under which policy encourages/mandates one or more (cultural) groups to keep separated from the rest of society in one or multiple domains. The apartheid system in South Africa, where separation was mandatory, represents the extreme case. 

The second model is the 'assimilation' model, in which minority groups are expected to completely absorb and incorporate into the local culture. The French model, presenting the French citizen and state as the ideal for everybody, is often put forward as an example of an assimilation policy.  

A third model, the 'integration' model (or 'multiculturalism') comes then at the forefront as a way to remedy the shortcoming of both the segregation and the assimilation model. Integration is indeed at the cornerstone of European policy towards migration. [Note 3]  The model implies a two-ways direction in which the majority group also assimilates cultural elements from the minority groups, and stresses the freedom of minorities to maintain own identity and cultural practices, also through legal provisions. Scholars have highlighted how the ultimate goal remains however to constrain diversity and reduce differences to something that can be managed and controlled . Given existing power relations, the danger is that this call for integration masks an underlying attempt to define other segments and features as `foreign', as misplaced, even as illegitimate, producing and re-producing social hierarchies in society. In this context, policies to grant rights to minorities, promoting their language and cultural activities are often resulted in reinforcing barriers and creating islands rather than fostering interconnection.[Note 4] 

All the above models, while pursuing different goal and practices, tend to be based on the same two assumptions: that minority members' identities are tied to their cultural group and that there exists a well defined local cultural context in which they are required to accommodate. 

Yet, an established literature, particularly in anthropology, provides ample evidence that question these hypotheses. Firstly, that culture does not exist in the holistic, totalising and essentialist meaning that encompasses and permeates all aspects of everyday’s life and determines one’s identity. Secondly, that recent migrations are no longer signed by unidirectional settlement (either temporary or permanent in one country) but are multidimensional in nature, implying that interaction between individuals from minority and majority take place in international networks.[Note 5] 

Future policies need to acknowledge that the ‘culture’ of one person or collectivity is always a hybrid, always in flux, always ambiguous and that the image that each culture is a territorial, homogeneous entity with clear boundaries is not in line with current global conditions. There are only cultural orientations, separate combinations of opinions and practices, changing more or less from situation to situation.        

From this perspective, a co-ordination model is to be preferred to the integration model. The co-ordination model only deals with compatibility of views, and in particular, practices and it does not involve a search for commonality or even convergence of values. The focus is on the interactions and negotiations between people with different cultural orientations rather than on the freedom of 'cultures' to maintain identity and traditions. The commonality of issues (“a lively neighbourhood”; “ensuring stable livelihood”), rather than commonality of values, provides the connecting net. 

The coordination model calls for a step-change in governance. The modern understanding of the polity based on the idea of a single, monolithic nation-state possessing a single set of interests and values cannot longer be assumed as a valid representation of reality. The classical rational model in representative democracies, where decisions are assumed to be taken by the elected in the pursuit of the common good, is at stake. 

The focus should rather be on the coordination, combination, harmonization, and reconciliation of the interests of the various actors (who depend on one another for the satisfaction of their demands or the realization of their objectives/goals). Such interaction model would recognise the possibility of competitive or even antagonistic cooperation between the actors actually and ultimately expose the common good as the interest of an actor who is attempting to impose his or her definition of the situation on others. Given mutual dependence the interaction model needs a mediator or coordinator able to ensure a rich interactive environment that takes into account a multi-actor perspective in which as many interested parties as feasible take part on a particular issue. In practice this requires a broader understanding of democracy based on political participation, dialogue and public interaction. Without questioning the legitimacy of the elected, this principle advocates for a new form of (reciprocal) legitimisation that allows all the other actors (civil society organisations, NGOs, grassroots movements) to be accommodated within political processes.

3. The types and structures of social relationships
Intercultural dialogue is attracting exponential interest in policy, academia and the media. The European Union declared 2008 as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and activities and policies related to it are mushrooming at the European and member state levels.  

The concept of 'intercultural dialogue' is however subject to two profound misunderstandings.
First, 'inter-cultural' may be taken as implying that cultures exist as separate essences disregarding the relational and dynamic nature of identities. SUS.DIV studied the targeting of intercultural dialogue by national and city councils in the context of festivals.  The research reveals that such events, when framed in ethnic terms, tend to lead to a decrease in community involvement and a resulting decrease of intercultural relations in the neighbourhood. This is because they tend to promote, through stereotyping, the belief that there is a cultural ‘otherness’ intrinsic to communities, resulting in marginalizing, isolating and segregating such communities. Other scholars have taken similar position with regard to religion-centred political approaches for building peace in troubled areas of the world. For instance, Sen (2006) discusses how the stress on religion, by downplaying non-religious values and affiliations, has strengthened the position of the religious establishments and increased the sense of distance between communities.  

Against this backdrop, a broader conceptualisation of intercultural dialogue seems to be needed. Intercultural dialogue should be framed in terms of encounters among people (with different cultural orientations) rather than as dialogue between 'cultures'. Encounters are not necessarily formal; they can happen in environments such as churches, sports, schools, cafes, streets and all sorts of urban spaces. SUS.DIV research on urban areas shows how local systems that facilitate encountering and interactions resulted in higher level of identification, participation and solidarity in the local community, across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Second, 'dialogue' presumes equality. Yet, cultural differences are formed by and reflect the power and hierarchy-making processes. Emphasis on dialogue and diversity could be a tool to veil fundamental issues of inequality and may end up producing and reproducing social hierarchies. Evidence shows that views and practices ignoring this relationship are misleading. SUS.DIV research in the US and France shows the need to locate diversity research and policy into hierarchy-making processes highlighting how practices of diversity may continue to reinforce rather than reduce inequality.  At a more micro-level, studies on diversity training indicate that providing people with information about out-group members’ culture may actually reinforce group stereotypes and prejudices and that cross-cultural workshops can be threatening to the dominant groups and provoke their backlash.

Against this backdrop, research and policy should no longer ignore the strict, bidirectional relation that exists between diversity and inequality. Diversity policies (e.g., anti-discrimination measures; intercultural dialogue initiatives or other) need to consider, address and partially neutralise the inequitable effects of people’s disadvantaged social-economic backgrounds. At the same time, institutions and organisations should continually self-assess to identify and challenge structural factors that (mechanically or intentionally) reproduce inequalities and stratifications. The risk is that an assimilation agenda may enter through the back door. Differences will be cast as deviant (tolerable exceptions at best), requiring ethnic minority individuals to unilaterally adjust in order to assimilate.

4. Conclusions
The ever growing flows of people, capital, goods, services, images and ideas at global level are changing the way we see and experience diversity. 

We see two specular reactions in the policy field. While a number of documents at the international level celebrate diversity and its potential for human development (the UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity says that "the cultural wealth of the world is diversity in dialogue" and that diversity is "one of the roots of development" ), we also hear of a "clash of civilizations", and cultural and religious differences are often claimed behind a number of local and international conflicts.

The interdisciplinary research exercise undertaken in SUS.DIV shows that diversity has indeed a positive potential, for companies, for cities and for nations. This demands however a step-change in the way diversity is addressed and managed. 

Policies, structures and institutions should be re-defined to acknowledge the diversity, relational and socially constructed nature of diversity. Cultures should not be taken as pre-given, fixed and monolithic entities that uniquely determine the identity and lives of individuals. Individuals are bundles of orientations that evolve dynamically within social, political and economic processes and contexts. Class, gender, race,  profession, and personal roles can be equally important. What matters is that individuals have the freedom to decide which identity they want to emphasize in which situation. 

Acknowledging this principle implies re-thinking the form and structures of the polity (how we take decisions in the public realm) as well as the way we approach and build social relations on the ground.


[Note 1] From the definition of "social cohesion" in Novy A., Coimbra Swiatek D. and Moulaert F. (2011), Social cohesion: a conceptual and political elucidation, Social Polis Platform, last download November 2011.

[Note 2] Network of Excellence Sustainable Development in a Diverse World (SUSDIV contract CIT3-CT-2005-513438 ). Financial support of the European Commission under 6Framework Programme , Citizenship and Governance in a Knowledge-Based Society programme is gratefully acknowledged. 

[Note 3] Recently confirmed in Council of the European Union (2009), Stockholm programme. The Stockholm Programme – An open and secure Europe serving and protecting the citizens, Council doc 16484/1/09.

[Note 4] Our project has for instance looked at the Bolivian and Swedish policies. See The Sustainability of Cultural Diversity, Chapters 5 and 14.  

[Note 5] For a review and discussion, see Janssens and Zanoni (2009), cit.


Homan A.C., van Knippenberg D., van Kleef G.A. and De Dreu C.K.W. (2007) ‘Bridging faultlines by valuing diversity: Diversity beliefs, information elaboration, and performance in diverse work groups’, Journal of Applied Psychology 92: 1189-1199.

Zanoni P., Nilsson A., Janssens M. and Wåhlin N. (2010) ‘Towards sustainable diversity in organizations: Lessons from good diversity management practices’, in Janssens M., Bechtoldt M., de Ruijter A., Pinelli D., Prarolo G. and Stenius V.M.K. (eds) The Sustainability Of Cultural Diversity. Nations, Cities and Organizations (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited).

Ottaviano G.I.P. and Peri G. (2005a) ‘Cities and Cultures’, Journal of Urban Economics 58: 304-337; Ottaviano G.I.P. and Peri G. (2006) ‘The Economic Value of Cultural Diversity: Evidence from US Cities’, Journal of Economic Geography 6: 9-44; Bellini E., Ottaviano G.I.P., Pinelli D. and Prarolo G. (2009) ‘Cultural diversity and economic performance: evidence from European regions’, FEEM Working Paper No. 63. Ottaviano GIP, Peri G (forthcoming) Rethinking the effect of immigration on wages, Journal of the European Economic Association

Jannses M. and Zanoni P. Facilitating Intercultural Encounters within a Global Context: Towards Processual Conditions, in Sustainable Cities. Diversity, Economic Growth and Social Cohesion,  Janssens M., Pinelli D., Reymen D.C. and Wallman Sandra (eds), Edward Elgar, London, UK.

de Ruijter A. (1995), Cultural pluralism and citizenship, Cultural dynamics, 7(1), pp 215-31.

Council of Europe (2008) White Paper on Intercultural dialogue, p. 17.

European Commission, (2007) ‘An Agenda for Culture in a globalising world’, COM(2007) 242 final.

European Institute for Comparative Cultural Research (ERICarts) ‘Sharing Diversity. National approaches to Intercultural Dialogue in Europe’, Study for the European Commission. 

Küchler S., Kürti L. and Elkadi H. (eds) ‘Every Day’s a Festival! Diversity on show’ (Sean Kingston Publishing).

Sen A. K. (2006) ‘Identity & Violence. The illusion of destiny’ (London, UK: Penguin Books ltd). 

Bowman P. J & Betancur J.J (2010) ‘Sustainable diversity and inequality: Race in the USA and beyond’; and Rousseau O. & Mukherjee S.R. (2010) ‘The French debate on diversity’, in Janssens M. et al (2010), cit.

Unesco (2001) Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001, Art. 3.









Dino Pinelli coordinated the European Networks ENGIME (Economic growth and Innovation in Multicultural Environments) and SUS.DIV (Sustainable Development in a Diverse World) at FEEM.