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DST-NRF SARChI Chair, Critical Diversity Studies

Professor Melissa Steyn holds the South African National Research Chair in Critical Diversity Studies

Melissa Steyn

National strategic planning has recognised that in order to create wealth for the nation in the context of globalisation, human resource development has to be prioritised, especially in the context of the shift towards knowledge economies. Of particular concern nationally is the continuing -- sometimes subtle, yet systemic and pervasive -- underdevelopment and even exclusion of those groupings historically marginalised in almost all spheres of economic activity, but notably in key areas of knowledge innovation. In society as a whole and in the workplace specifically, legislative reform has attempted to redress such social injustice along a number of axes of difference -- named in the constitution as race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual ori­entation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

This SARChI chair addresses these social dynamics, unpacking the ways in which powerful systems of sense making shape subjectivities that are invested in retaining forms of organisation that are dominated by, centred on, and identified with, their interests. These hegemonic systems, such as whiteness, hegemonic masculinities, able-bodiedness, heteronormativity, etcetera, intersect and co-construct each other. The implication is that unless an approach that addresses the root dynamics of how power operates upon difference is grasped and applied, little progress will be made towards creating environments that advance all our talents and are open to receiving all our contributions. As such, the kind of  knowledge produced by the proposed chair is integral to unlocking our national potential.

The research to be undertaken by the chair articulates with national strategies in several ways. First, the programme will produce graduates who understand and are committed to addressing, through their research and practice, the worrying kinds of distorted demographic participation in the economy that government is concerned to redress. The intake of young researchers will inevitably attract students from marginalised groups. Nevertheless, students from privileged groups who become engaged with the research agenda are also important in that they act as social justice agents with influence in their communities. Second, this knowledge can be engaged within workplaces, organisations and institutions across the board, thus speaking to the imperatives for institutional and organisational transformation that are prioritised in numerous policies. Finally, both innovation and excellence are held back if, as a nation in general, and organisations and institutions in particular, we do not draw on and fully foster the broadest possible talent base and different perspectives available in our country. Internationally, the relationship between valuing diversity and the attainment of excellence and creativity is well established, as is the unfortunate corollary of the deleterious effects of poor management of our differences. The mere establishment of jobs, or the institution of legislation to change demographics in organisations, does not deal with the factors that inhibit enabling environments, and often lead to a high turnover of staff.

The argument presented above clearly shows the relation between Diversity Studies and the issues of decent work and sustainable livelihoods. While the field does not focus on the creation of job opportunities per se, the way in which differences are constructed, responded to and integrated into a context is directly related to the politics of gaining access to work, as well as to the experience of a work environment.  It also indicates that the field has direct bearing upon the creation of a skilled and capable workforce that will support inclusive growth, as well as the delivery of quality education. In many of these aspects of our human capital development, attention to the advantages of developing inclusive approaches to difference and the negative consequences of othering can only lead to better outcomes.    

 The work of the chair is informed by Steyn's Critical Diversity Literacy (CDL). Steyn (2015) states that critical diversity literacy is an analytical orientation that allows a person to read social relations as one would read a text. The following are the ten criteria for critical diversity literacy:


  • An understanding in the role of power in constructing differences that make a difference.
  • A recognition of the unequal symbolic and material value of different social locations. This includes acknowledging hegemonic positionalities and concomitant identities such as whiteness, heterosexuality, masculinity, cisgender, ablebodiedness, middleclassness etc. and how these dominant orders position those in non-hegemonic spaces.
  • Analytic skill at unpacking how these systems of oppression intersect, interlock, co-construct and constitute each other , and how they are reproduced, resisted and reframed.
  • A definition of oppressive systems such as racism as current social problems and (not only) a historical legacy.
  • An understanding that social identities are learned and are an outcome of social practices.
  • The possession of a diversity grammar and a vocabulary that facilitates a discussion of privilege and oppression.
  • The ability to ‘translate’ (see through) and interpret coded hegemonic practices.
  • An analysis of the ways that diversity hierarchies and institutionalised oppressions are inflected through specific social contexts and material arrangements
  • An understanding of the role of emotions, including your own emotional investment, in all of the above.
  • An engagement with issues of the transformation of these oppressive systems towards deepening social justice at all levels of social organisation.

Drawing on cutting edge social theory, the Critical Diversity Studies lens opens up challenging research questions which emerge in the interstices of current disciplinary boundaries. These questions have the capacity to shift ‘common sense’ assumptions about the social, enabling fresh and penetrating analyses of current social challenges. While no single research methodology need necessarily flow from  Critical Diversity Literacy, it involves the recognition of social construction and the constitutive role of discourse in employing critical social theory.