Telling People Apart: Outline of a Theory of Human Differentiation

Stefan Hirschauer

Alongside subsystems, classes, and types of socials relations, societies differentiate between categories of their personnel, referring to their age, sex, “race,” (dis)ability, performance, geographic and social origin, sexual preference, religious conviction, profession, and so on. 

This article outlines a theory of human differentiation with the aim of viewing processes leading to reified memberships of human categories in an encompassing comparative approach. Differentiating humans distinguishes them perceptively, categorizes them lingually, shapes them physically, segregates them spatially, and subjects them to othering and unequal evaluative treatment. The analytic vocabulary developed in this article puts forward five elementary processes—prelingual distinction, lingual categorization, official classification, material marking/dissimilation, and segregation—and three advanced processes of asymmetrical differentiation: the alterization of humans, their differential evaluation, and the escalation into boundary constitution and polarization. Processes of human differentiation are stabilized via coupling with social and societal differentiation, but they can also be practically minimalized, normatively contained, and institutionally diluted.

Hirschauer, Stefan (2023): Telling People Apart: Outline of a Theory of Human Differentiation. In: Sociological Theory 41 (4): 352-376.