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Why Understand Diversity - Institutional Versus Ideological Understanding

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Why Understand Diversity?

All societies have dominant and subordinate (also called majority and minority) groups. In all industrialized societies, these groups are arranged in layers, or strata, reflecting their relationships with one another. The dominant or majority group is at the top, and the subordinate or minority groups range below them. In most cases, this arrangement reflects numerical representation in the society, but this is not always the case. For example, the dominant group in the nation of South Africa is European-origin Whites, who represent a relatively small percentage of the total population, while the subordinate groups are the native African people and immigrants from non-African nations (such as India), who represent the numerical majority of the population. This is why we have to consider which groups dominate the society's major social institutions, rather than which have the most members, when thinking about diversity.

Institutional Versus Ideological Understanding

The key to social dominance lies primarily with control over political power, the economic system, the educational system, and, to a lesser degree in industrialized societies, the religious system. Through these major institutions, the dominant group will shape the society in ways that reflect its interests, values, and beliefs and minimize those of less dominant groups. The result is discrimination, even though the dominant group may not admit or even recognize its existence. The term for this kind of discrimination is structured or institutionalized discrimination, which is much different from ideological or individual discrimination. Structured or institutionalized discrimination is the result of longstanding practices and/or behaviors that have a negative impact on members of subordinate groups. When a bank consistently denies loans to people of a particular race, this is an example of institutional discrimination. Ideological or individual discrimination consists of one-on-one acts by members of the dominant group that harm subordinate group members or their property. Often, this kind of discrimination is based on the belief that certain groups are innately inferior or superior to others. An example of this kind of discrimination is an individual deciding not to rent an apartment to someone of a different race or ethnicity. The type of discrimination with which we will be most concerned in this course is the structured or institutionalized type.

The first step is to accept that this discrimination exists. Most of us would react with considerable anger if someone accused us of discrimination, much less with being prejudiced. Yet the daily assumptions that we make about members of groups different from our own guide our attitudes and behaviors toward practices that often result in sometimes very subtle discrimination. One of the simplest examples is with our gender relationships. Ask yourself how many times you have muttered something like "just like a woman/man" (depending on your gender) or "typical" under your breath at some action, statement, or behavior that irritated you. That is prejudice based on long-held and accepted assumptions of gender behavior. It reflects something each of us has learned throughout our lifetime. When we act on that assumption, we discriminate. Let's use a little scenario that we might see on a TV ad for laundry detergent. A husband tries to wash a load of clothes and is looking intently at a box of laundry detergent. The little girl in the family, seeing this, runs to mom and tells her that dad is trying to wash clothes again. Mom reacts with horror and races to the laundry room, grabs the box from his hands, and pushes him from the room. Mom and daughter smile at each other, shake their heads, and proceed to pour the proper amount in the washer.

Does discrimination always require prejudice? Can a person be prejudiced against a particular group without discriminating against that group? According to sociologist Robert Merton, the answer to both questions is yes. Merton's typology of prejudice and discrimination, which identifies four combinations of attitudes and behaviors, is depicted below:

Our gender assumptions place things such as laundry in the women's domain and put forth the idea that men have little knowledge about them. This assumption is sometimes accurate, but it isn't because men are somehow less skilled. Rather, it is that these particular men have not had the need to learn such things. Our social understandings place laundry and other household tasks within women's roles and, as such, men (especially married men) are not expected to demonstrate competency. In our scenario, mom's reaction to learning that dad is in the laundry room represents a prejudicial attitude toward his knowledge level, and her taking the box and pushing him from the room is a discriminatory action. He has been excluded from an activity based on presumptions about his competence.

This example is extremely simplistic, but it is based on readily recognizable gender stereotypes. A point to consider is that since it is questioning a man's competence doing women's work, it probably sounds pretty silly. If we turn it around and question a woman's competence to do men's work, we run into a different situation. We are not likely to see a motor oil commercial in which dad pushes mom away from the family car while she is trying to change the oil. To do so would be seen as unacceptable sexism. The reason



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