The United States is as diverse as it has ever been, yet most organizations have not kept pace with this rising diversity. In recent months, a wide range of organizations from Google to the Republican Party have spoken of the need to be more racially and economically diverse, yet have struggled to achieve this goal. Meanwhile, diverse communities struggle to create a shared sense of identity.

A new paper in the American Sociological Review titled, “The Role of Bridging Cultural Practices in Racially and Socioeconomically Diverse Civic Organizations,” written by University of New Mexico Associate Professor of Sociology Richard L. Wood; Assistant Professor of Sociology from the University of Connecticut, Ruth Braunstein; and Ph.D. candidate in sociology from Duke University, Brad R. Fulton, posit that organizations can overcome these challenges and unlock the internal benefits of diversity by engaging in cultural practices that help participants bridge their differences.

In studying one kind of organization (politically oriented civic organizations that exhibit unusually high levels of racial and economic diversity), the researchers discovered that these groups used prayer to highlight participants' shared identity as people of faith, while either downplaying or celebrating their racial and socioeconomic differences.

Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork within one local faith-based community organizing coalition, and using data from a national study of all faith-based community organizing coalitions in the United States, shows that these diverse coalitions use bridging prayer practices to navigate organizational challenges arising from racial and socioeconomic diversity.

They suggest that non-religious forms of bridging cultural practices - like sharing meals, playing sports, singing or volunteering together - may play a similar role within other kinds of diverse organizations.

Wood notes: “Good organizations often seek to diversify the profile of their employees or participants. But they also often struggle with the resulting diversity – both racial diversity and income diversity. We show that one way they manage that tension is by doing things together that bridge those differences – in this case, prayer, but lots of other things, too. American society can learn a lot from organizations that are struggling honestly to embrace diversity – especially as we become a majority-minority society in the coming decades, with high levels of income inequality.”

Currently, many of the insights revealed in the study have not been fully incorporated into debates over the challenges of diversity in civil society. But demonstrating how politically oriented civic organizations use bridging cultural practices to forge shared cultures across internal differences is a beginning. If unlocking the benefits associated with organizational diversity requires successfully navigating the challenges arising from social differences, then understanding how organizations use these kinds of practices is critical and merits ongoing scholarly attention.

Primary funding for the national study was provided by Interfaith Funders, along with secondary grants from the Hearst Foundation, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Religious Research Association, the Louisville Institute and Duke University.