social differentiationthe process whereby an institutional activity becomes divided and more specialized in two or more separate institutional activities. Differentiation is a term derived from biology to describe the specialization of functions in society in a process of social evolution. For example, the separation and specialization of the economic function of production from the institution of the family which retains the functions of reproduction and infant socialization. In PARSONS’ (1977) model of the social system this process is described in more abstract terms such as the differentiation of the polity from the societal community. Social differentiation is also referred to as structural differentiation in functionalist theories of SOCIAL. CHANGE (see FUNCTIONALISM).
Nineteenth-century evolutionary theories of social change (e.g. SPENCER) saw differentiation as a fundamental principle of social development in biology and sociology whereby societies increase in size and complexity in adapting to the environment (see EVOLUTIONARY THEORY). Differentiation was accompanied by the functional need for increased integration and interdependence in more complex societies. In the writings of DURKHEIM, social differentiation is identical to the social DIVISION OF LABOUR. Contemporary theories of social evolution retain the concept of differentiation as central to the general development of adaptive capacity in industrial societies (Sahlins and Service, 1960) and, in the case of Parsons’ later work, to analyse the interdependence between the functional subsystems of modern society. See also MODERNIZATION.
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.
L. A. SEDOV