Human difference in a time of multicultural diversity

Human difference takes on many forms. This can be as simple as having brown eyes or blue. Or more complex, such as having ginger hair in a sea of blond and brown. The more types of difference a person experiences, the more complicated their experiences can become. And we are living at a time when multicultural diversity is becoming ever more significant to the dynamics of our societies. Perhaps the nature of difference has become more complex than ever before.

The many forms of difference

For the purpose of my research, I define human difference in terms of its opposite: any trait or category that characterises the majority of people in a group, but not everyone. For example, according to the National Autistic Society, 1% of people in the UK are on the Autism Spectrum, a trait that sets them apart from nearly everyone in their society. So the majority have ‘typical’ ways of thinking and behaving while the minority are ‘atypical.’ Their behaviour and thought patterns will often feel very different to everyone else’s.

Yet, difference obviously has many traits and categories, and most of us experience difference in one way or another. Feeling ‘too short’ or ‘too tall’, ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny’ causes anxiety and bullying for lots of people. It’s about falling on either side of an average ‘ideal’ that can make someone feel different or excluded. As I mentioned in my video on Having Good People Skills, I too have difficulty feeling ‘normal’ in everyday conversation.

Moreover, in societies where multicultural diversity plays an important role, difference can take on complex meanings. As a researcher, I want to investigate the meanings people assign to the ethnic and racial differences around them.

Children’s social worlds

In particular, I want to look at how children understand ethnic and racial difference and the categories that are most important to them in defining relationships. So, I will participate in research at a primary school in a multicultural community to work with the children there.

Besides ethnicity, gender is also an important category in my research, as it’s nearly always important to children. Being a boy or a girl can define a child’s experience from a very young age. Toys, colours, games and activities take on the category of ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls.’ And children will often define these boundaries even if their parents do not.

Why children, then?

While many people assume that children are passively socialised into society, this is not true. Anthropology and childhood studies (and parents!) have found time and again that children have their own social worlds and participate actively in the world around them. They do influence the direction of social change and very often change the way their families think and talk about the world. Children can offer an understanding how ethnic and racial differences impact their relationships. And then perhaps we can better understand when and how racial thinking becomes a factor in children’s social worlds.

Children are and must be seen as active in the construction and determination of their own social lives, the lives of those around them and of the societies in which they live.

Allison James & Alan Prout
Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (2015)

A mini case study

I designed a sort of practice study (NOT for my research) that I did with two children. They were both over 4 1/2 years at the time. I asked them if I could watch them play with these wooden dolls to help me understand how children play, and they gave their consent. We role-played ‘school,’ and they chose dolls to represent themselves, as well as one for the teacher. They also gave names to the other dolls based on the children’s series ‘PJ Masks.’

Naming the dolls

  • Tall red doll = Child 1 says: this one is me “because red is my favourite colour”
  • Short red doll = Child 1 says: this one’s Owlette “because humans are normally straight”

Notes: I painted the tall dolls as boys and the short dolls as girls, but I did not inform the children of my choice. In retrospect, I don’t think I should have painted them this way. Rather, I could have painted them without any of the conventional markers of gender (particularly the hair could have been the same on all the dolls or the height could have been random).

On the other hand, using these gender markers could show if the style of hair or height had any influence in the identification of the dolls. For child 1, it didn’t seem to matter. Whereas for child 2, it might have.

  • Tall green doll = child 2 says: this one is “Green Boy”
  • Tall blue doll = Child 2 says: this one is “Cat Boy”
  • Short yellow doll = Child 2 says: this one is me “and it’s also Cat Girl”
  • Tall yellow doll = Child 1 says: this one’s the teacher and “she’s a girl”

Child 1’s favourite colour is red, and Child 2’s is blue.

Neither of the children seemed to rely on the colour of the dolls’ faces for identifying them. However, this study cannot determine that.

Child 1 appeared to use the categories of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ based on whether the doll was straight or A-shaped. The short dolls are A-shaped. Child 2 appeared to categorise the tall dolls as boys and the short dolls as girls.

The practice of multiculturalism

My question, then, is how do children participate in multicultural diversity? What are the boundaries they create or recreate? What are their narratives surrounding ethnicity, and when do these narratives become important to their relationships? Since gender difference is important to children from at least as early as preschool, how does this merge with ethnic difference?

Of course, my research questions will evolve as time goes on (and with more reading and writing). They have already changed quite dramatically since I started about seven months ago. Yet, I think my foundation is firm: in the most general terms, it involves multiculturalism and its processes within children’s social worlds.

Engaging with multicultural diversity

I am very excited to be participating in a public engagement festival called ‘Research Without Borders.’ There will be multiple events taking place from 7th to 15th May, with the Showcase Exhibition on the final day. During the showcase, postgraduate students from the University of Bristol will be presenting their research in an interactive and fun way. It will be a great time for all – children and adults alike!

Discussion panels will involve Digital Health and Bristol’s One-City Plan, both of which take place at the Watershed in Bristol. All events are free and open to everyone, and you can book tickets on Eventbrite by following the links provided!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts or feedback on my ideas. Please post them in the comments section below.

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