Diversity is an abstract noun formed on the adjective diverse. The adjective was borrowed into Middle English from Latin, along with the (now rare) variant form divers. It is typically used to describe populations with internal variation. Although diverse seems to have been always able to modify a singular noun, generally some plural population would have been implied. Thus, “she is diverse in her talents” would gloss as “her talents are diverse.” Similarly, “her background is diverse” would gloss as “she has a diverse array of experiences in her background.” Usages such as these are extremely common today. In addition, the construction “A is diverse from/to B” was used from Middle English onward, through at least to C19, glossed as “A is different from B,” though that usage seems less common today. In late Middle English and Early Modern English, it was also possible to use divers (but not diverse) with the sense “different from, or opposed to what is right, good, or profitable.” The Historical Thesaurus of English lists over sixty synonyms or near-synonyms for diverse since Old English, including unlike, different, and sundry from ME, and distinct, disparate, and heterogeneous from Early Modern English.
The term today seems overwhelmingly to be used in relation to human populations with particular types of internal demographic variation. It is not uncommon today, for instance, to refer to a diverse city, a diverse neighborhood, a diverse society, a diverse student body, a diverse profession, or a diverse workforce. In addition, it is quite common to specify how the given population is diverse, including by means of such adjective phrases as racially diverse, ethnically diverse, and demographically diverse, or by use of phrases such as nominalized gender diversity. Indeed, diverse today often implies variation within some notional or standard measure of human demographics. So, when television is diverse, this seems often to refer to programming representing human populations with specific types of internal variation: variation in terms of race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ability/disability. Diverse television, reflecting this tendency, seems only rarely to refer to variation in terms of genre or other features, rather than population variation. In many instances, diverse can accordingly be used in alternation with multicultural, and in this way forms part of discourses of social and cultural contact, race, ethnicity, immigration, diaspora, and empire. Diverse can also be seen to alternate with vibrant, used as a term for populations noted for their internal racial or ethnic variation.
In very recent usage, diverse has become a descriptor of individuals without explicit reference to any comparator or population, referring instead to individuals showing some “non-normative” or marked characteristics. A diverse group can include an individual diverse member, for example. This use seems to be evidenced particularly strongly in the spheres of employment and education. It is possible to view the change, linguistically, as related to back-formation, from plural constructions referencing populations with internal variation, including diverse candidates and diverse learners, to singular constructions referencing the marked variant within the population, including a diverse candidate and a diverse learner. But while diversity of populations is often standardized and quantified (e.g., in measures of increasing or decreasing diversity in an elected parliament or city neighborhood), the diversity of an individual is not generally represented as quantified or variable, but as something absolute, defined by some assumed demographic benchmark.
The phrase diverse candidates refers to a candidate pool, in employment contexts, that exhibits a wide array of features: in particular, a population that contains not only a range of races and ethnicities but also other features, including variation by gender, sexual orientation, or disability. Diverse candidate emerges as the related term for a candidate from a minority demographic: that is, the marked or non-normative candidate. Diverse in this context seems in some uses a polite alternate for non-normative, or “drawn from the minority or underrepresented population.” We find guides, for example, advising on “distinguishing yourself as a diverse candidate,” while the normative or non-marked candidate within a diverse population is not referred to as a diverse candidate. The related noun phrase diverse hire (referring to a newly hired employee who is diverse, representing the minority demographic) is not uncommon in employment discourse and seems to be used similarly to, and in tandem with, diverse candidate.
By highlighting a diverse candidate and diverse hire, non-normative or marked individual attributes and representation of minority demographics may be incorporated into calculations of the value of labor. In fact, such features are used in discussions both for and against particular value associated with the diverse candidate. For example, race and disability can become measures of capital when embedded in discussion of “cost-per-diverse-hire”; and they can feature in strategic assessment of commercial advantages or disadvantages in hiring a non-normative or marked candidate. Such employment discourse focuses on the quantum of value of an individual worker with absolute demographic characteristics rather than on the value of a collective population of workers with its internal variation (or diversity in another sense). In relating the two, diversity management comes to be conceived as an important activity for organizations and businesses. Often supported by diversity consultants, such diversity management can consist of analyses of the capital value of a diverse hire, while also providing diversity training for employees who represent majority demographics in how to interact with a diverse hire representing a minority demographic.
Use of diverse learner has (in a manner similar to diverse candidate) also recently become common in pedagogical writing. Diverse learner emerges to characterize an individual learner who is non-normative or marked in some way, perhaps by race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, or learning disabilities. The term is usually employed, significantly, alongside calls for empowerment of and support for such a non-normative learner. Diverse learner might have implied a different kind of relation to a wider population, referring to an individual who had taken an interesting and potentially enriching variety of educational paths. That sense, however, is quite discrete from the more recent diverse learner as a non-normative and typically underperforming member of an educational population.
Diverse, then, features importantly in a cluster of discourses representing the relationship between individuals and populations, and so interconnects with changing notions of communities, collectives, and organization in society. The challenge presented by the word reflects an underlying tension it mediates between multiple forms of variation, on one hand, and persistent emphasis on standardization, on the other. Diversity increasingly denotes variation in characteristics, lives, and jobs, which is nevertheless often defined against standard demographic measures of populations—which are then themselves subject to variation between societies, cultures, subcultures, and states in an increasingly interacting and potentially convergent globalized world.
Diversity is a particularly complex word, packing numerous equations of meaning into a single noun and its associated adjective. It is a way in which many of the complexities of multicultural and multiracial societies are both negotiated and obfuscated. Some of the overwhelmingly positive force of the word may derive from its use not in the social, but in the biological realm. The concept of biodiversity as the degree of variation of life forms within an ecosystem has mutated from biology into common parlance with incredible speed. As there has been a remorseless decline of biodiversity since the first recorded use of the term in 1985, an increase in biodiversity is seen as an unquestionable good.