Differentiation, Social

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Differentiation, Social


the division of a social unit or its parts into interrelated elements. Social differentiation refers to the process of differentiation as well as to the results of this process.

Non-Marxist sociology has studied primarily the formal aspects of social differentiation. The English philosopher H. Spencer was the first to advance a theory of differentiation at the end of the 19th century, borrowing the term “differentiation” from biology and proclaiming it a universal law of the evolution of matter from the simple to the complex. According to Spencer, in human society the division of labor is a manifestation of the universal differentiation process. The French sociologist E. Durkheim considered differentiation resulting from the division of labor to be a law of nature and related the differentiation of social functions to the increasing density of population and the intensification of interpersonal and intergroup contacts. The German philosopher and sociologist M. Weber saw differentiation as a result of the process of the rationalization of values, norms, and relationships between people.

The contemporary structural-functional school of non-Marxist sociology (for example, the American sociologist T. Parsons) views differentiation as both an actual characteristic of social structure and a process leading to the emergence of various forms of activity, roles, and groups that specialize in fulfilling certain functions indispensable for the preservation of the social system. Structural functionalism, however, leaves unsolved various problems concerning the causes and types of differentiation. In addition to functional there are taxonomic definitions of differentiation, which simply point out differences in roles, status, groups, and organization. V. I. Lenin criticized the abstract treatment of the differentiation process in bourgeois sociology, which does not consider the basic fact of the division of society into antagonistic classes (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33, p. 10).

The founders of Marxism-Leninism analyzed the process of differentiation in society, relating it to the development of productive forces, the division of labor, and the growing complexity of social structure. The most important stages of social differentiation are the division of agricultural labor and animal husbandry, of handicrafts and agriculture, and of production and the family, as well as the emergence of the state. Marxism demands the study of the concrete process of differentiation in society as a whole—the emergence and formation of classes, social strata, and groups and the separation of certain social spheres (for example, production, science)—as well as differentiation within these classes and social spheres. Such concrete analysis shows, for example, that differentiation under capitalism is related to the growth of social inequality, whereas under socialism, society moves toward homogeneity and the overcoming of class distinctions.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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