Cultural diversity: An asset to Europe

Cultural diversity is an untapped resource for social development policy in Europe, according to a recent EU-funded research project. Researchers involved with the SUS.DIV project have presented a new policy strategy based on a multidisciplinary understanding of how diversity can promote social and economic growth.

Researchers have proposed that globalisation - the worldwide exchange of people, goods and ideas – can in some cases accelerate cultural exchange and contribute to an economically and socially enriched society, but in others, it can serve to highlight and reinforce cultural divides, giving rise to fear, intolerance and conflict. This is the ‘double-edged sword’ paradigm of multiculturalism.

Through an extensive review of existing literature, interviews, observations and workshops, the SUS.DIV project investigated the role of cultural diversity in ‘sustainable’ European socio-economic policy. This involved examining how diversity affects, and is affected by, globalisation and how to take advantage of diversity to create a prosperous and secure society.

Diversity promotes economic and social sustainability

The primary policy recommendation from the research is to move away from the idea of distinct cultural identities, which may reinforce feelings of separation through stereotyping. Instead, recognising cultural orientations that are constantly in flux and which do not define a person’s complete identity will lead to greater standards of living (economic sustainability), social cohesion, housing and education (social sustainability).

It fosters innovation and creativity

Part of the SUS.DIV research investigated the benefit of diversity (through migration) in the European labour force. In case studies across the Netherlands, inadequate management of diversity was found to have a negative effect on communication within business teams. However, well-managed diversity enhanced productivity, innovation and decision-making. Across Italy, skill levels and income among native and non-native workers were also higher in more diverse regions.

This is attributed to the fact that an influx of migrants to an area helps to differentiate the labour tasks, similar to the ‘complementarity’ theory applied to natural ecosystems, in which a more diverse plant community should be able to use resources more completely, and thus be more productive.

  • Businesses and organisations should express a commitment to diversity and include minorities as a key feature of their mission statement.
  • ‘Cross-cultural’ education in the workplace can enhance stereotypes and should be avoided. Instead, businesses should openly accommodate all cultural groups.

Improve cultural dialogue

Whilst diversity per se can benefit societal development, regional events to ‘showcase’ different cultures, such as festivals, were found to be counter-productive if citizens felt categorised purely by ethnicity. Meaningful experiences by participants, on the other hand, had a powerful effect on social cohesion at the local level.

  • Authorities should encourage informal social interaction by enabling all public areas (i.e. schools, markets, cafés, parks and urban spaces) to accommodate any cultural orientation.
  • Policies should avoid referring to dialogue in terms of ethnicity as this could reinforce or construct barriers, as well as neglecting the fluid nature of cultural orientation.

Take advantage of globalisation

  • Policy makers should encourage public participation in democracy by involving representatives in decision-making processes at the local, national and European level.
  • Businesses and organisations should regularly ‘self-assess’ for diversity issues to avert inequality or prejudice in the workplace.
  • Diversity policies should address, not mask, underlying sources of inequality, such as gender and socio-economic hierarchies.

Future diversity research

An important objective of the SUS.DIV programme has been to fundamentally change how diversity research is carried out:

  • The multidisciplinary nature of diversity research makes it difficult to publish in traditionally single-subject journals. Policy makers should support an overhaul of academic ‘reward criteria’ to promote multidisciplinary research.
  • Diversity researchers should acknowledge that they are part of the political process, and should disclose their own perspectives so that policy recommendations have a greater impact on policy makers.

The SUS.DIV project brought together economists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, artists and educators from over 30 research institutions in 16 countries (Sweden, Italy, Bolivia, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Netherlands, France, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Belgium, Hungary and the United States).

Alongside SUS.DIV, a sister programme called EURODIV1 has hosted summer schools, learning exchanges, conferences and training for stakeholders on cultural diversity in the globalisation era. Both initiatives have generated several journal articles, books, book chapters and conference proceedings, available from the website:


1 EURODIV- Cultural Diversity in Europe.

SUS.DIV – Sustainable Diversity in a Diverse World (duration 1/9/2005 – 28/2/2011) was a Network of Excellence funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Valeria Papponetti,