What is Social Differentiation? It’s Meaning and Causes

What is Social Differentiation?

Social differentiation refers to the differences in men and women, teenagers and adults, children and oldmen, master and servants, rulers and ruled, teachers and taught, rich and poor, literate and illiterate, etc. because they are not always judged as equal. The main causes of social differentiation according to Talcott Parson’s are factors like possession, qualities, and performance.

Diversity is the law of nature and so is differentiation. No, two individuals or societies are exactly alike. Social differences can create discrimination among individuals on the basis of their social characteristics such as the color of skin, ethnicity, age, profession, ability, etc. For e.g. the discrimination exists between Whites and Blacks based on skin color. Social differences can create a lot of problems in society because discrimination always results in inequality, inferiority and superiority complex, etc.

Can you identify whether certain sex, religion, profession, or ethnicity are better or higher than the other? It is very difficult to answer. There is no single scientific evidence that can prove men are superior to women nor white people are better than black people. By the same token, there is no hard evidence that proves one religion is better than the other. However, even if we arrange (classify) members of the society in the same level i.e. if they are arranged horizontally, there still exist differences between them in terms of skin color, religion, ethnicity, race, age/ possession, qualities, ability, performance, etc. which is called Social differentiation.

Men have long dreamed of an egalitarian society i.e. equal society, a society in which all members are equal. Unfortunately, egalitarian society remains a dream.

Social differentiation is based on kind of traits such as;

  • Physical traits such as the color of skin, physical appearance, age, sex.
  • Social and cultural traits such as differences in etiquette, values, manners, ideas, ideologies, etc. that form groups based on who conform to or lack of conformity to certain codes of refined behavior.
  • Cultural traits such as status ascribed to individuals and groups from a foreign culture are noticeable by their cultural differences.


According to American sociologist Talcott Parsons, there are three main causes of differentiation:

  • Possession– People in society possess unequal resources and therefore there is inequality and differentiation.
  • Qualities – People in society have unequally achieved or ascribed (gained by birth) qualities such as intelligence, morality, physical strength, etc. that makes society differentiated. For e.g. one may be good and the other may be dull at studies.
  • Performance– Performing a duty/task varies from individual to individual; one may accomplish the task on time and in an excellent manner, while others may not despite their same qualification. Hence, the performance also causes differentiation in society.

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