Diversity and Social Cohesion

In the last few years there has been a growing tendency on the part of some social sciences researchers to adopt a broad definition of diversity (including, for instance, not only cultural values, but also gender, age, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation) and to use this term as a synonym of "the other", the non-ego. This fact has been particularly helpful both from an epistemological and an educational point of view. The relationship with diversity is a basic and continuous aspect of human experience, as the self develops through its relations with others. Thus,the meaning and the "management" of diversity are closely associated with issues like social cohesion, social and political conflict, and social/educational interventions aiming to foster social cohesion. A positive and real social cohesion in an ingroup rests on the acknowledgment of and the dialogue with the diversities of the various members of the ingroup itself, which inevitably results in the ingroup members' becoming familiar with and getting used to diversity in general. This means that diversity relating to the outgroup and to the various members of the outgroup is understood and accepted, given that diversity among the members of the ingroup is also understood and accepted. This way, cross-cultural relations within an ingroup and between the ingroup and the outgroups are fostered. That is to say, social cohesion within the ingroup is automatically extended and generalized to the relations with outgroups, which contradicts some traditional assumptions in social psychology research according to which social cohesion in the ingroup is accompanied by its hostility toward the outgroup. It goes without saying that not all kinds of diversities should be accepted. All diversities should be analyzed and evaluated, which means that some diversities can be accepted, while others should be rejected (like, for example, the diversity of a Nazi). Indeed, social cohesion should be grounded in what we might define as a " well reasoned analysis of diversities". At the psychological level, human beings' education must be fundamentally based on the awareness that at any given time the self, far from being immutable, is an entity which needs to be understood and, in case, modified as a result both of the continuous contact with others, who are inevitably diverse, and of the analysis and understanding of this contact. One of the most significant results of a research study we conducted in Italian state schools on youths' (aged 15-19) attitudes toward multiculturalism with the use of focus groups was the realization that most of our participants have lost or have never even experienced a feeling of general social cohesion (at the level of the nation, home town, or community at large), this fact being especially related to their lost confidence on public institutions and especially on political institutions. Their view can be very synthetically summarized in some participants' phrases, like "the law is wrong, the whole system is wrong", "there is no control, no security service", "the Italian state is weak", "politicians are Mafiosi", "where is justice?", and "political parties are not reliable". Besides, our data indicate that not only participants' perception of social cohesion is nonexistent or is only very partially existent, but also social cohesion itself is actually non-existent or is only very partially existing, since a real social cohesion in a group implies on the part of the members of the group a good knowledge of the various aspects of the group itself. Instead, participants' views were often characterized by a certain degree of misinformation regarding significant aspects of present Italian social reality. Frequent examples of misinformation were, for instance, the sometimes contradictory beliefs that all Italians are unable to make both ends meet, that immigrants receive a lot of money from the Italian state when they arrive in Italy, that immigrants who commit a crime very easily get away with it while Italians are severely punished and are put in jail for less serious wrongs, and that jails are nice places to live in. Our participants' discussions also indicated that insecurity and lack of general social cohesion create fear and that fear can provoke aggression. Vehement exclamations against immigrants, who are frequently perceived as dangerous criminals, pronounced by some of these youths, like "Get back to your bloody country!" or "A curse on those that made you come here!" clearly express hate and resentment. In most cases during the focus groups these same participants expressed sincere interest and even empathy toward their immigrant classmates when they were telling the stories of their arrival in Italy and of their previous hard life in their countries of origin. This means that at school level or, at least, at class level, positive cross-cultural contact has been created and social cohesion has been built. This also means that in their work teachers should always provide concrete examples of social cohesion and, what is more, should try to enable their students to become aware of their contradictory views when dealing with the problems of immigrants in general and when dealing with the problems of their specific immigrant classmates. Finally, the adoption of a broad concept of diversity also on the part of teachers can boost their efforts to improve their pupils' cross-cultural relations, as teachers are aware that at the same time their efforts can also improve their pupils' relations with other kinds of diversities since from a psychological point of view the logical structure of that complex process which is constituted by the understanding of diversities is always the same.

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Contributo in atti di convegno
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IAIE International Conference 2012: "Tapalewilis for Intercultural Education: sharing experiences, building alternatives", pp. 1–15, Xalapa - Messico, 13-17 February 2012
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Camilla Pagani's picture
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