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Differentiation (sociology)

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Differentiation (sociology)

See articles: sociology, sociological theory, social theory, and system theory

Differentiation is a term in system theory (found in sociology.) From the viewpoint of this theory, the principal feature of modern society is the increased process of system differentiation as a way of dealing with the complexity of its environment. This is accomplished through the creation of subsystems in an effort to copy within a system the difference between it and the environment. The differentiation process is a means of increasing the complexity of a system, since each subsystem can make different connections with other subsystems. It allows for more variation within the system in order to respond to variation in the environment. Increased variation facilitated by differentiation not only allows for better responses to the environment, but also allows for faster evolution (or perhaps sociocultural evolution), which is defined sociologically as a process of selection from variation; the more differentiation (and thus variation) that is available, the better the selection. (Ritzer 2007:95-96)


  • Introduction 1
  • Niklas Luhmann 2
  • Segmentary differentiation 3
  • Stratifactory differentiation 4
  • Center-periphery differentiation 5
  • Functional differentiation 6
  • Code 7
  • Understanding the risk of complexity 8
  • Differentiation and modern social theory 9
  • Differentiation: Luhmann's critique of political and economic theories of society 10
  • External links 11
  • References 12


Exemplifying Differentiation and System Theory, this photographic mosaic may be perceived as a whole/system (a gull) or as a less complex group of parts.

production. (Holmes et al. 1983).

There are four types of differentiation: segmentation, stratification, center-periphery, and functional.

Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann (December 8, 1927 - November 6, 1998) was a German sociologist and "social systems theorist", as well as one of the most prominent modern day thinkers in the sociological systems theory. Luhmann was born in Lüneburg, Germany, studied law at the University of Freiburg from 1946 to 1949, in 1961 he went to Harvard, where he met and studied under Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential social systems theorist. In later years, Luhmann dismissed Parsons' theory, developing a rival approach of his own. His magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft ("The Society of Society"), appeared in 1997 and has been subject to much review and critique since.

Segmentary differentiation

Segmentary differentiation divides parts of the system on the basis of the need to fulfill identical functions over and over. For instance, an automobile manufacturer has functionally similar factories for the production of cars at many different locations. Every location is organized in much the same way; each has the same structure and fulfills the same function – producing cars (Ritzer 2007:96).

Stratifactory differentiation

Stratificatory differentiation is a vertical differentiation according to conflict in order to shift the influential communication to their level. (Ritzer 2007:97).

Center-periphery differentiation

Center-periphery differentiation is a link between Segmentary and Stratificatory, an example is again, automobile firms, may have built factories in other countries, nevertheless the headquarters for the company remains the center ruling, and to whatever extent controlling, the peripheral factories (Ritzer 2007: 98).

Functional differentiation

The function systems of society (Roth 2014)

Functional differentiation is the form that dominates modern society and is also the most complex form of differentiation. All functions within a system become ascribed to a particular unit or site. Again, citing the automobile firm as an example, it may be "functionally differentiated" departmentally, having a production department, administration, accounting, planning, personnel, etc. Functional Differentiation tends to be more flexible than Stratifactory, but just as a stratified system is dependent on all rank, in a Functional system if one part fails to fulfill its task, the whole system will have great difficulty surviving. However, as long as each unit is able to fulfill its separate function, the differentiated units become largely independent; functionally differentiated systems are a complex mixture of interdependence and independence. E.g., the planning division may be dependent on the accounting division for economic data, but so long as the data is accurately compiled the planning division can be ignorant of the methodology involved to collect the data, interdependence yet independence (Ritzer 2007:98).

The question of what and how many function systems actually do exist is still up for discussion. Recent publications assume the existence of 10 function systems: politics, the economy, science, art, religion, the legal system, the health system, sports, education, and the mass media system (Roth 2014) and illustrate how their relevance to society is subject to change in time and social space.[1]


Code is a way to distinguish elements within a system from those elements not belonging to that system. It is the basic language of a functional system. Examples are truth for the science system, payment for the economic system, legality for the legal system; its purpose is to limit the kinds of permissible communication. According to Luhmann a system will only understand and use its own code, and will not understand nor use the code of another system; there is no way to import the code of one system into another because the systems are closed and can only react to things within their environment (Ritzer 2007:100).

Understanding the risk of complexity

It is exemplified that in Segmentary differentiation if a segment fails to fulfill its function it does not affect or threaten the larger system. If an auto plant in Michigan stops production this does not threaten the overall system, or the plants in other locations. However, as complexity increases so does the risk of system breakdown. If a rank structure in a Stratified system fails, it threatens the system; a Center-Periphery system might be threatened if the control measure, or the Center/Headquarters failed; and in a Functionally differentiated system, due to the existence of interdependence despite independence the failure of one unit will cause a problem for the social system, possibly leading to its breakdown. The growth of complexity increases the abilities of a system to deal with its environment, but complexity increases the risk of system breakdown. It is important to note that more complex systems do not necessarily exclude less complex systems, in some instances the more complex system may require the existence of the less complex system to function (Ritzer 2007:98-100).

Differentiation and modern social theory

Luhmann uses the operative distinction between system and environment to determine that society is a complex system which replicates the system/environment distinction to form internal subsystems. Science is among these internally differentiated social systems, and within this system is the sub-system sociology. Here, in the system sociology, Luhmann finds himself again, an observer observing society. His knowledge of society as an internally differentiated system is a contingent observation made from within one of the specialized function-systems he observes. He concludes, therefore, that any social theory claiming universal status must take this contingency into account. Once one uses the basic system/environment distinction, then none of the traditional philosophical or sociological distinctions – transcendental and empirical, subject and object, ideology and science – can eliminate the contingency of enforced selectivity. Thus, Luhmann’s theory of social systems breaks not only with all forms of transcendentalism, but with the philosophy of history as well (Knodt and Rasch 1994).

Luhmann is criticized as being self-referential and repetitive, this is because a system is forced to observe society from within society. Systems theory, for its part, unfolds this paradox with the notion that the observer observes society from within a subsystem (in this case: sociology) of a subsystem (science) of the social system. Its descriptions are thus “society of society” (Luhmann and Ward 2000).

Differentiation: Luhmann's critique of political and economic theories of society

Luhmann felt that the society that thematized itself as political society misunderstood itself. It was simply a social system in which a newly differentiated political subsystem had functional primacy. Luhmann analyzes the Marxist approach to an economy based society: In this theory, the concept of economic society is understood to denote a new type of society in which production, and beyond that “a metabolically founded system of needs” replaces politics as the central social process. From another perspective also characteristic of Marxist thought, the term “bourgeois society” is meant to signify that a politically defined ruling segment is now replaced as the dominant stratum by the owners of property. Luhmann’s reservations concerning not only Marxist, but also bourgeois theories of economic society parallel his criticisms of Aristotelian political philosophy as a theory of political society. Both theories make the understandable error of "pars pro toto", of taking the part for the whole, which in this context means identifying a social subsystem with the whole of society. The error can be traced to the dramatic nature of the emergence of each subsystem and its functional primacy (for a time) in relation to the other spheres of society. Nevertheless, the functional primacy claimed for the economy should not have led to asserting an economic permeation of all spheres of life. The notion of the economy possessing functional primacy is compatible with the well-known circumstance that the political subsystem not only grew increasingly differentiated (from religion, morals, and customs if not from the economy) but also continued to increase in size and internal complexity over the course of the entire capitalist epoch. For functional primacy need only imply that the internal complexity of a given subsystem is the greatest, and that the new developmental stage of society is characterized by tasks and problems originating primarily in this sphere (Arato and Luhmann 1994).

External links

  • The Legacy of Niklas Luhmann
  • The World as a Social System
  • Contingency and Complexity in the Social Theory of Niklas Luhmann"
  • Complex Organization and Niklas Luhmann's Sociology of Law"


  1. ^ Roth, S. (2014), Fashionable functions. A Google ngram view of trends in functional differentiation (1800-2000), International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction, Band 10, Nr. 2, S. 34-58 (english; online:
  • Arato, Andrew and Niklas Luhmann. 1994. “Civil Society and Political Theory in the Work of Luhmann and Beyond” New German Critique, No. 61, Special Issue on Niklas Luhmann. Retrieved April 24, 2007 Available: JSTOR Scholarly Journal Archive.
  • Holmes, Stephen, Charles Larmore, Niklas Luhmann, and James Schmidt. 1983. “Review: Luhmann in English- The Differentiation of Society” Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 12, No.2. Retrieved April 24, 2007 Available: JSTOR Scholarly Journal Archive.
  • Knodt, Eva M. and William Rasch. 1994. “Systems Theory and the System of Theory” New German Critique, No. 61, Special Issue on Niklas Luhmann. Retrieved April 24, 2007 Available: JSTOR Scholarly Journal Archive.
  • Luhmann, Niklas and Sean Ward. 2000. “Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft” The German Quarterly, Vol. 73, No.2. Retrieved April 24, 2007 Available: JSTOR Scholarly Journal Archive.
  • Naustdalslid, Jon. 1977. “A Multi-Level Approach to the Study of Center-Periphery Systems and Socio-Economic Change” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 14, No. 3. Retrieved April 24, 2007 Available: JSTOR Scholarly Journal Archive.
  • Ritzer, George. 2007. Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots, The Basics, Second Edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Roth, Steffen. 2014. "Coining Societies: An Inter-functional Comparative Analysis of the Euro", Innovation: The European Journal of Social Sciences, online first.
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