IIn everyday life we start from the basic assumption of a given human difference. People are not the same, they are different. Otherwise we would neither be individuals, nor could we see ourselves as members of larger contexts – such as genders, ethnicities or age groups. But how do we do it? How do we differentiate people from one another? If you were to approach this in principle, it would be more of a subject of cognitive science. Or, empirically speaking, the science of history, which could then answer with historical-genetic explanations, for example, why Indian society divided people into castes, the Ottoman by religion and the American by skin color.
Sociology, on the other hand, asks for a systematic explanation of this classification. The Mainz sociologist Stefan Hirschauer suggests the concept of human differentiation. He understands it to mean the social processes that create the categories, characteristics and memberships that distinguish the members of society. According to Hirschauer, human differentiation is a process of increasing distance. A distinction groups personnel that they occupy with interests and valuations and maintain as a controlled boundary. Differentiation is not a kind of evolutionary process of the self-division of a society, but an ongoing “drifting apart”.
The theory says: The normal case is ambiguity, that is, the “not-yet-difference of things, their indeterminacy and ambiguity”. Practice, on the other hand, i.e. the normal social situation, is actually a constant race between equality and inequality. Politics, for example, postulates the equality and equal treatment of citizens, but the economy builds on their economic inequality, and culture in turn celebrates the recognition of their differences as diversity. Modern society therefore expects its members to have a high level of, above all, linguistic differentiation skills: one must always be informed which distinctions are culturally privileged and which have already lost their social legitimacy. This is also where people differ, which of course can also be used to gain social distinction.
Asymmetry is not inevitable
But why is it so difficult to make certain human differentiations disappear completely? If distinctions are imposed linguistically, so to speak, because they create social order and are then consolidated through unequal distribution of power, for example, the permanent re-creation of inequality would in a sense be a fateful characteristic of human societies. A society of equals would then be improbable in theory alone. Hirschauer’s ideas on human differentiation suggest this because human categorizations tend to seek gains in distinction.
You don’t just differentiate yourself from the others, you also prefer to see yourself on the better side. Distinctions make winners and losers, so they are contested. It is easy to charge them politically. In short: Human differentiation has great potential for asymmetries. This is due to their inescapable perspective, says Hirschauer: It is always people, groups, social collectives that distinguish other people, groups and collectives from or in opposition to themselves. Asymmetry is not inevitable, but “latent in the fact that distinctions are at the same time self-locating”.
The sociologically most interesting question is whether there is an inherent tendency in human differentiation to escalate asymmetry. If one were to look at this question only from the perspective of language or social psychology, one could well come to this conclusion. Distinction would then quickly become devaluated, and discrimination would turn into stigmatization and even racist practices of dehumanization.
The sociological approach, however, can correct this logic of amplification of deviations by, on the one hand, researching the social inequalities that can weaken or intensify human differentiation. In addition, Hirschauer focuses his work on building distinctions, not on breaking them down. After all, society also has a repertoire of the “negation of difference”, which slows down the processes of human differentiation, weakened them and could even lead to indifference. The political name for it is: democratic pluralism.