The debate about the nature and causes of ethnic, gender and other ‘differences’ is complex and contentious. Here, for the sake of simplicity, two very broad and contrasting perspectives on the issue are presented. Understanding different theoretical perspectives on an issue is important, since these perspectives impact on and influence policy and practice. In this instance, the way in which ‘difference’ is understood has important consequences for how difference is responded to, whether by individuals or by organisations.
2.3.1 An Essentialist Perspective
One way of understanding apparent differences in people’s behaviour and needs is to account for them as a direct result of their membership of a particular social group or category. For example, it might be suggested that a patient expresses herself in a very physical way because she is of African-Caribbean origin, and therefore because of certain innate biological or psychological attributes shared by all members of that ethnic group. Or it might be argued that a male manager behaves aggressively and competitively in a meeting because that is simply the way men are. According to this view, apparent differences in behavior are innate within the person, as a member of a particular group, and they remain fairly fixed and stable throughout their lives. Difference is seen as an ‘essence’, something belonging to the person which they bring to an interaction. Some essentialist arguments locate the roots of difference in people’s genetic or biological make-up, while others identify upbringing and socialisation within the family (in the case of gender, for example) or within the social group (in the case of ethnicity and culture). Either way, what all essentialist views have in common is a tendency to see difference as working ‘from the inside out’, as something that is fairly fixed and stable within particular groups and the individuals who belong to them. As you might expect, essentialist approaches to issues of difference tend to be linked to various psychological perspectives. This does not mean everyone working within a psychological perspective can be labelled ‘essentialist’. However, it is broadly true that a psychological perspective tends to see differences as residing within an individual or a group, rather than as the result of social processes.