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Social differentiation can explain cultural polarization, radicalization, and factionalism.

posted Dec 11, 2013, 9:52 AM by Michael Maes   [ updated Jan 6, 2014, 5:55 AM ]
The process of social differentiation plays a key role in sociological and anthropological theories of norm formation, cultural diversity, group formation, societal stratification, and segmentation. In these theories, social differentiation is defined as the tendency of individuals to adjust their opinions, behavior, and values in order to increase differences to others. This tendency, however, has been conceptualized in two different ways. First, individuals may dislike or disrespect peers who diverge too much from their own views, and may change their opinions or behavior to distance themselves further from those negative referents. Second, when surrounded by similar others, actors may try to maintain a sufficient sense of uniqueness by exploring new opinions or behaviors. 

The two conceptualizations of social differentiation seem to be very similar. However, we demonstrate in a new paper that the two differentiation mechanisms lead to different patterns of cultural polarization, radicalization, factionalism, and integration. We also show that they generate these patterns under very different conditions. To this end, we developed an agent-based model that builds on the key assumptions of classical social-influence models supplemented with assumptions about social differentiation, conceptualized as either distancing or striving for uniqueness. This general model allowed us to compare the predictions of the two differentiation models. In closing, we discuss the implications for cultural dynamics in organizations.

This paper was coauthored by Andreas Flache and James Kitts. It appeared in a book called Perspectives on Culture and Agent-based Simulations. Please let me know if you have problems downloading the paper.


This figure shows dynamics when social differentiation is conceptualized as distancing from dissimilar others.

This figure shows dynamics when social differentiation is conceptualized as striving for uniqueness.