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November 29, 2007

New Sociological Research Finds Americans Couch Feelings About Race in the “Happy Talk” of Diversity-Speak

MINNEAPOLIS, MN—According to new research published in the December issue of The American Sociological Review, sociologists at the University of Minnesota have found Americans are generally positive—even optimistic—about the word “diversity,” but when asked, have trouble describing diversity’s value and stumble when giving real-life examples. Even those working in the field of race relations exhibit similar expressive difficulties.

The desire to appear color-blind leads most Americans to prefer the standardized, mainstream language of diversity-speak when addressing issues of race. The researchers conclude that American diversity-speak is a sort of “happy talk,” an upbeat language in which everyone has a place; everyone is welcome and even celebrated. Their undeveloped understanding of diversity compromises their ability to articulate it and their comfort in expressing it beyond politically correct platitudes.

The study takes its conclusions from a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households across the country and nearly 150 hour-long interviews with adults from a wide range of backgrounds living in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The study found a majority of Americans—cutting across race, class, and gender lines—value diversity, but their upbeat responses to the term contradict tensions between individual values and fears that cultural disunity could threaten the stability of American society. Also, regardless of race, Americans' definition of diversity places white people at the neutral center and all other groups of people as outside contributors.

“The public debates and talk-show lamentations about immigration and political correctness leave many Americans to assume there’s a big divide in the country between those who value diversity and those who reject it,” said Doug Hartmann, associate sociology professor, who coauthored the study with graduate student Joyce Bell. “The fact is, most Americans value diversity, but they see it as a benefit with the potential cost of cultural disunity and social instability.”

The study also found that most Americans use platitudes when describing diversity. “The topic of race lies outside the realm of polite conversation,” said Bell. “Everyone in the study—regardless of race, political affiliation and even level of rhetorical ability—had real trouble talking about the inequities and injustices that typically accompany diversity in the United States.”

The study is part of the sociology department’s American Mosaic Project, an ongoing project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family Foundation that examines race, religion, and cultural diversity in the contemporary United States.

For a copy of the study or to request an interview, contact Sujata Sinha at (202)247-9871 or at

The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the 101-year-old American Sociological Association (ASA). Vincent J. Roscigno and Randy Hodson, both of Ohio State University, are co-editors of the American Sociological Review.


About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.