Paul Kei Matsuda

RE: difference or diversity?

Hi Mickey,

An interesting word game! I'm in!

To me, these terms overlap in their core meanings, but my usage has been shifting gradually from diversity to difference, depending on the audience. That's largely because of the shifting connotations of these terms.

Diversity has been a useful term because of its positive connotation and because of its association with biodiversity--a necessity rather than just something that's nice to have. But it has also become somewhat diluted for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is the institutionalized "celebration" of diversity that often leads to token representations and naïve (though well-intended) liberalism. It has also been appropriated for too many different purposes and by people who represent a range of political perspectives (e.g., "intellectual diversity"). But it still remains useful in some contexts, so I'm not willing to give it up entirely just yet.

Difference, on the other hand, allows us to focus on the substance of "diversity" more directly. It is aligned with the thoughts of de Saussure and Derrida (or the reconstructed thoughts, in the case of de Saussure). While diversity is more celebratory, difference is more confrontational, raising the awareness of the presence of, well, differences that have been neutralized in our discursive practices.

This is not to say that there have not been naïve-liberal attempts to co-opt this term. Some people react to the naked reality that the term "difference" exposes and argue that it's not "nice" to focus on the differences, that we should be focusing on similarities. "Everyone is different," the argument goes, so we should treat everyone the same way. Well, yes, everyone is different, but in different ways and to different degrees.

We need to realize that some differences are more consequential than others (depending on the context); some differences are accepted while others are simply ignored (because it's not "nice" to talk about those differences). I'm thinking of language differences in the writing center and the writing classroom, of course. Academic writing (in English) may be the second language for everyone, but to some, it's a much more distant second language; and a growing number of students are actually dealing with "writing as a second language" while also learning a second language (see Matsuda and Jablonski).

What works for the dominant population (whose differences have already become the norm) doesn't work for those whose differences have been disregarded. If we are going to treat everyone the same way, the baseline should include a wider variety of differences.

These are the issues that are becoming increasingly apparent, and these are the issues that the term "difference" seems to help me capture.

Here is the link to Matsuda and Jablonski:

It's fun to play with words, isn't it? ;-)


Paul Kei Matsuda, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Director of Writing Programs

Arizona State University
Department of English
Box 870302
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302 USA 

Founding Chair, Symposium on Second Language Writing

Editor, Parlor Press Series on Second Language Writing

Web Administrator, Journal of Second Language Writing

-----Original Message-----
Subject: difference or diversity?
From: Muriel Harris <>
Date: Mon, 27 Apr 2009 00:10:39 -0400

Hi all, word game for the week:

I've been wondering how we distinguish difference from diversity. We
talk about different tutorials, different students, different ways of
learning. Is that the same as diversity? If not, how do you
distinguish between them? If we talk about diversity in the writing
center AND difference in the writing center, what separates them?
Some dictionaries treat the two words as synonyms, but are they in
the terminology or context we use them?

I'm really curious to hear what others think, and I don't expect us
to agree, but that's part of what makes this so interesting.

Muriel Harris
Professor Emerita of English
Writing Lab Newsletter, Editor
Writing Lab Director (retired)


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