Interpretive and critical perspectives: which additional comprehension of Diversity management?

by | May 22, 2023 | 0 comments

Interpretive and critical perspectives: which additional comprehension of Diversity management?

Mette Zølner, Professor of Intercultural Studies, Aarhus Universit
  1. Introduction

Since its emergence in the U.S. in the 1990s, Diversity management (D.M.) practices have spread worldwide (Köllen, 2021). Diversity practices consist of various initiatives for enhancing organizational Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. D.M. offers to empower marginalized groups, but it also carries a progressive ideal and rhetoric on ‘differences’ as being potentially enriching for organizational performance and decision-making (Ely and Thomas, 2001; Risberg and Søderberg, 2008). That is, U.S. practices of D.M. are carried by two arguments simultaneously: one is social justice and anti-discrimination and the other is that Diversity has positive effects on the financial performance of firms (the business case) (Kelly and Dobbin, 1998; Ely and Thomas, 2001).

Yet, in recent years, diversity practices have been criticized in societal debates and by management scholars. For example, Dobbin and Kalev (2022) put forward that to achieve the diversity bonus, organizations need to enhance a sense of belonging for all employees regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Dobbin and Kalev (2022) further argue that doing so necessitates a consideration of the particular historical and societal context in which organizations implement D.M. practices. Also, scholars from within Critical management and Organisational studies point to a lack of consideration for the influence of contingent dimensions of organizational dynamics on the outcomes of D.M. practices. They attribute this failure to the positivist epistemological ideal of producing de-contextualized, abstract and generalizable knowledge that still prevails in D.M. research (Hearn and Louvrier, 2016; Holck et al., 2016; Köllen, 2021; Tatli and Özbilgin, 2012).

This raises the question of how to include contextual (ideographic) aspects in diversity management research. And a second question, just as crucial, is how contextual aspects can advance our comprehension of D.M. practices.

To address the question of contextuality, the present paper suggests drawing on the literature on Cross-cultural management (CCM). CCM literature conceives of Diversity as a valuable asset for organizations on the condition that a shared organizational culture is put in place to value and support Diversity. While the positivist/functionalist approach to cross-cultural management remains prevailing in the CCM literature, interpretive and critical approaches have gained terrain in recent years (for examples, see Gertsen and Zølner, 2020; Romani, Bousseba and Jackson, 2020; Romani, Mahadevan, Primecz, 2018a). For both approaches, contextuality is at the core.

The interpretive and the critical approaches share a social constructionist perspective implying that identities and differences are not given or evident but socially constructed within a certain societal and organizational context. That is, the meaning of a ‘difference’ – be it phenotypical traits, nationality, language, religion, social class, age, or gender and sexuality – emerges in and through social interaction within a particular situated context. Yet, while interpretive perspectives focus on the meaning of ‘differences’, the critical ones concentrate on how ‘differences’ are being positioned in relation to power asymmetries and interests.

Some scholars define functionalist, interpretive and critical approaches to CCM as belonging to distinct scientific paradigms that, according to Kuhn, are incommensurable (Kuhn, 1962). Yet, other scholars argue that the three approaches can be seen as being complementary in the sense that each one raises particular questions and provides insights that are of potential use for practitioners (Romani et al., 2018b; Primecz et al., 2023). The current paper is in line with the latter argument. Hence, it is in this light that we will examine which insights that interpretive and critical approaches bring when placing the question of contextuality at the core.

To illustrate the above, we will draw on the Danish example of Diversity. Denmark is generally considered a socially progressive country with a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion in all aspects of society. Also, though social and economic inequalities have grown in recent decades, they remain smaller than in most European countries. Private and public organizations have put various diversity practices in place since the early 2000s. Yet, statistics show that there is still a long way to go to ensure diversity and inclusion in organizations and the Danish labor market in general. For example, a recent rapport from Equalis (2023), a think-tank promoting gender equality, shows that women remain overrepresented in welfare-related job functions in the public sector, their salaries are lower and they are underrepresented in managerial positions in the private as well as in the public sector (Equalis, 2023).

  1. Interpretive and critical approaches to D.M.

Sharing a social constructionist approach, interpretive and critical CCM literature conceive of ‘differences’ and ‘identities’ as multifaceted, fragmented and constantly evolving in relation to the given historical, societal and organizational context in which they unfold. From this follows that identities are always in the becoming, but also that salient differences in boundary constructions between an in- and an out-group depends on the situational context. In other words, whether social actors draw on phenotypical traits or on religious, cultural, or any other differences are enabled and/or constrained by the situational contexts in which they attribute meaning to the selected difference. It follows that for both interpretive and critical approaches, ‘context’ is at the core when explaining and comprehending social practices. Context is conceptualized as multi-layered, encompassing both the situation and the interacting social actors (micro-level) as well as structures, cultures, or discourses that go beyond the situation in the sense of place and time (meso- and macro-levels).

However, interpretive and critical approaches also vary on several points. This includes the focus and aim of the research. Interpretive approaches aim at exploring how extant meaning systems shape the meaning that social actors attribute to acts and behaviors while also slightly modifying such systems. Paraphrasing Geertz (and Weber), man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun (Geertz, 1973: 166). Therefore, the analysis of culture is an interpretive one in search of the meaning that man attributes to acts, behaviors and events in a given context, that is, a thick description, still with the words of Geertz (1973: 166). Also, interpretive scholars consider meaning categories or frameworks of meaning as being collectively shared and as resulting from ongoing social interactions – or negotiations (see Salk and Brannen, 2000) – that determine which meaning is attributed to a given fact, practice, or event. Such negotiations of meaning are situationally and contextually embedded and preserve while also slightly modifying extant frameworks of meaning.

In contrast to interpretive approaches, critical approaches aim at showing how power asymmetries position ‘differences’ and ‘identities’ within a particular context. That is, critical approaches look to power and interest when explaining why some differences become salient as boundary markers between in- and out-group. Power asymmetries are conceived of in terms of political, economic and social structures as well as hegemonic discourses that endow some groups with power while marginalizing others. With Foucault’s definition, prevailing discourses systematically form the object of which they speak and govern who has the legitimacy to talk about it (subject position) as well as how to do so legitimately in a given historical and societal context (Foucault, 1972). However, the way in which hegemonic discourses constitute a given object is likewise being contested and challenged by counter-discourses that present different ways of talking about the same object.

From this brief presentation follows that while both interpretive and critical approaches conceive of ‘context’ as playing a core role in the analysis, their questions differ. Hence, while they both explore the historical, societal and organizational contexts, they are likely to provide different insights on the role of contextuality in diversity practices. For example, interpretive approaches may focus on the meaning that D.M. acquires when social actors make sense of it, drawing on the extant framework of meaning in historical, societal and organizational contexts that differ from the U.S. context in which D.M. was originally defined. This includes exploring the collectively shared meanings of ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ (see also the concepts of ‘recontextualization and ‘semantic fit’ in Brannen, 2004). In contrast, critical approaches may raise the question of who has the interest and the power to implement D.M. practices as well as how such practices relate to existing discourses on equality and difference. Moreover, critical approaches are likely to raise the question of why some differences become objects to D.M. practices, whereas others are left out.

  1. Denmark as an illustration: insights from interpretive and critical approaches

In early 2000, D.M. travelled from the U.S. to Denmark, progressively becoming a recurrent management practice (Boxenbaum, 2006). Currently, 44% of Danish companies with more than 1,000 employees work with Diversity Management, while the figure is 5% for companies between 0 and 25 employees, and 4% for companies with 26 to 49 employees (Dansk Industri, 2010, quoted in Romani et al., 2017). From within organizational studies and diversity research, scholars have analyzed how a ‘particular’ Danish form of D.M. emerged from the 2000s onwards (Boxenbaum, 2006; Kamp and Hagedorn-Rasmussen, 2004; Risberg and Søderberg, 2008; Romani, Holck, Holgersson and Muhr, 2017). We will draw on this literature to illustrate the questions and insights with which respectively interpretive and critical approaches can provide.

The contextual meaning of ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ (interpretive)

All scholars comment that, in the Danish historical and societal context, the comprehension of ‘equality’ is distinctly different from the one that the US DM carries (Boxenbaum, 2006; Kamp and Hagedorn-Rasmussen, 2004; Risberg and Søderberg, 2008; Romani, Holck, Holgersson and Muhr, 2017). With an interpretive perspective, we may say that extant frameworks of meaning in Denmark infer the understanding of ‘equality’ as ‘being the same’. Hence, equality implies erasing differences and treating people equally. Equality as equalizing is illustrated in Boxenbaum’s quote from a project manager that comments on the implementation of D.M. in Danish organizations: “I think that the Danish tendency to equalize and homogenize is, in fact, an obstacle to diversity management and individual differences. In Denmark, we see it as a matter of fairness to treat people equally. We are trained to equalize”. (Project manager, quoted by Boxenbaum, 2006: 943). This quote also indicates that ‘treating people in the same way’ expresses a strong social norm of fairness. This understanding of equality implies that inclusion aims at making marginalized groups alike – by raising them to the norm of the majority society – in order to further their organizational integration and career advancement (Romani et al., 2017).

Another illustration of the norm of treating people equally is the strong resistance to quotas for women on the boards in Danish companies that the political and societal debates on gender equality have illustrated. This resistance is in contrast to, for example, Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbor, Norway, that already in 2003 adopted laws on quotas for female representation on the board of large companies. Finally, political and societal debates also illustrate a persistent focus on whether minorities are ‘just as good as’ – that is, alike – the majority. For example, debates on the labor integration of ethnic minorities of migrant origin tend to raise the question of whether ethnic minorities are ‘sufficiently good in Danish’ (implying speaking just as well as ethnic Danes) and/or ‘have the right competencies’ (meaning similar competences as the majority). In contrast, such debates rarely ask whether the ‘differences’ of ethnic minorities of migrant origin have the potential to enrich a given profession or organization thanks to their linguistic and cultural skills other than Danish. A similar observation can be made regarding gender inequality. Debates tend to discuss whether women have sufficient competences to enter boards and whether they have the will to make the sacrifices required (less investment in family life) to make such a career. In other words, the assumption is that women should adopt male career patterns. Less voice has to be been given to whether women can enrich the boards with alternative perspectives thanks to, for example, different career patterns and experiences of carrying the mental burden of family obligations that is still, primarily, the one of women in a Danish context (Equalis, 2023).

It follows from above that the Danish meaning of equality contradicts the positive perspective on differences that the U.S. version of D.M. carries. One may say that a lack of semantic fit – between extant Danish meaning categories of equality and those of the U.S. D.M. concept – led to a ‘recontextualization’ (Brannen, 2004) of D.M. in the Danish context. That is, D.M. acquired a different meaning and was practiced differently in the Danish historical and societal context, and this, to such an extent that some scholars talk about a hybrid form of D.M., quite different from the original U.S. version (i.e., Kamp and Hagedorn-Rasmussen, 2004).

Diversity in the interest of whom? And which Diversity? (Critical)

Adopting a critical perspective raises the question of who were the social actors that promoted D.M. in Denmark and in the interests of whom did the hybrid Danish version of D.M. emerge? Initially, it was a small group of progressive business actors that welcomed D.M. as a ‘fresh’ new way to address anti-discrimination and the integration of ethnic minorities that, in the 1990s, became a main political issue (Kamp and Hagdorn-Rasmuss, 2004; Romani et al., 2017: 270). However, a prevailing discourse on ethnic minorities of migrant origin as constituting social economic burdens rather than potential resources on the labor market constrained the implementation of diversity practices. Also, in the Danish universal welfare state model with corporative collectivistic labor market institutions, far from everybody was interested in favoring U.S. D.M. practices that were colored by an individualistic and neoliberal approach to social justice. Therefore, D.M. came to be promoted by more conservative and liberal groups of political and corporate actors that wished to place stronger social responsibility on private organizations and that, eventually, came to see diversity and immigration as a way to remedy to talent attraction and labor shortage. (Romani et al., 2017: 273).

These diverging interests in relation to D.M. give insight into the particular way in which the U.S. concept of Diversity was translated into a Danish practice. In top management, D.M. was promoted, emphasizing the positive effects of diversity on financial performance. The business case argumentation was also supported by Ministerial funding schemes (i.e., Diversity Program 1 (2007) and 2 (2008)) and put forward by consultancy firms, NGOs and state agencies (quoted from Romani et al., 2017). Moreover, firms connected D.M. with established practices of human resource management and aspects of corporate social responsibility as a way to legitimize D.M. in the Danish context (Risberg and Søderberg, 2008). However, at the level of middle managers and labor organizations, the focus tended to be on social justice – anti-discrimination and inclusion of marginalized groups (Romani et al., 2017).

Also, Romani et al. (2017) argue that, for lower-skilled and manual jobs, the privileged diversity category tends to be ethnicity, while in white-collar jobs and top management positions, the privileged diversity category is gender. The latter is illustrated by the Danish Diversity Awards for best practices (2023) in which the distributed prices primarily concerned gender equality, while other diversity categories were hardly addressed in the accounts justifying the nominations ( Handicap and age were mentioned only a couple of times, while ethnicity appeared to be almost absent in the 2023 celebration of the diversity agenda. Also, at the Danish Diversity Awards, several speakers regretted that Danish companies lacked behind companies in other Nordic countries and pointed to the need to reinforce diversity practices for gender inequality.

Indeed, statistics do confirm the need for increasingly addressing gender inequality in Danish organizations (i.e., Equalis, 2023). Yet, statistics also show the need for addressing other discriminations in the labor market – such as exclusion due to handicap, age, or ethnicity. The question is, therefore, why gender inequality dominated the diversity agenda as defined by the Danish Diversity Awards 2023? This question is particularly pertinent since the labor market integration of ethnic minorities of migrant origin remains at the top of the political agenda in 2023. However, we might speculate that the reason is simply the discourse on migrant groups of non-western origin – or of Muslim origin, such as these groups are recurrently referred to in political and societal debates group. The prevailing discourse still represents the ‘diversity’ of these migrants as an economic and social burden rather than as constituting a potential enrichment for the labor market. On contrary, ‘expatriates’ – that is, migrants of Western origin –are presented as enriching Danish companies with their talents and their internationalization.

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