Diversity monitoring using free-text responses

Christopher Stephens and Lia Shimada recently completed preliminary research exploring the impact of gathering data about people’s identities using free-text responses rather than tick-box options. This post summarises their project.


Organisational studies show that the positive effects of diversity amongst members are numerous: stronger teams, more creativity, broader perspectives, improved problem-solving, and greater commitment from members.

For Christians, human life is a reflection of God’s own image, and diversity is an intentional, and valuable, part of God’s creation. From this perspective, finding a method for understanding, celebrating, and enhancing the diversity of the Church is a theological standpoint and a theological practice. Finding and using the right method for collecting and analysing data is therefore the critical starting point.

For contemporary organisations, whether secular or faith-based, the ‘tick-box’ approach to diversity monitoring is the default method for collecting demographic information. However, while undoubtedly helpful for statistical analysis, the limitations of this process are that the tick-box format struggles to respond to ‘mixed’ categories, to changes in collective understanding of identity, and to the sheer multiplicity and fluidity of identities within each human being. The time is ripe for organisations to find new ways of asking questions about diversity information gathering, and there is a role for faith communities in leading the way.

For churches and faith organisations with rich theologies of the value, dignity, and diversity of human life, the limitations of ‘tick-boxes’ are problematic. An approach to diversity monitoring that constricts answers about human identity to standard, pre-defined categories does not simply provide a limited understanding of people. It undermines those theological commitments in the public arena and contributes to a damaging dissonance between what is said in theory and what is done in practice. For Christian communities in particular, developing a different approach provides an opportunity for a greater understanding of identity dynamics and their implications for the life and witness of the Church.

The Susanna Wesley Foundation responded to this challenge by exploring new approaches to collecting demographic information, to enable organisations to deepen their understanding of – and engagement with – the diverse identities of their members.

In Spring 2017, the Methodist Diaconal Order (MDO) took part in a research process to develop a preliminary profile of its members’ diverse identities.

The semi-structured questionnaire offered open (free-text) responses to a range of questions within various diversity and identity strands. Participants were invited by this provision to express their identities and their understanding of their ‘diversity’ in their own words. The following questions were asked:

  • What is your age (or how would you describe your age?
  • How would you describe your disability status? Are you registered disabled?
  • How would you describe your ethnic identity?
  • How would you describe your national identity?
  • How would you describe your relationship status?
  • How would you describe your family arrangements?
  • How would you describe your gender?
  • How would you describe your sexual orientation?
  • How would you describe your religious and/or spiritual affiliation?
  • Diaconal Identity:  Methodist Deacons are called to a ministry of ‘witness through service’. To what extent – or not – does this define your identity?

The method and motivation for gathering information (data) on diversity is an important first step for any organization as part of a plan to assess and develop organisational diversity. In this project, we illustrate how allowing free text responses rather than tick box diversity monitoring forms provides for more fine-grained descriptions, and allows participants to take ownership of how they define their own identities.

To find out more about the results of this research, click here to read the report.