Principles of society building

As a basic mechanism of society building we can make out the process of differentiation. Usually there are three mechanisms of such differentiation made out, namely differentiation on grounds of




Stratification and



Theses modes of differentiation are seen in a sequence, characterising different historical stages of soci(et)al development.

Differentiation on grounds of segmentation as supposedly first stage of development by differentiation reflects a linear growth of seize which is answered by splits of nearly identical entities. Differentiation exhibits itself as a kind of "cloning".

The second, i.e. differentiation on the basis of stratification means that on a later historical stage social development and living together is characterised by different status of people, the establishment of social strata and classes respectively. This different status, constituting a hierarchical order amongst social groups, is then characterised by a difference in mutual "accessibility" and accessibility of the environment, thus constituting different levels of power. Thus, accessibility means that the opportunities of appropriation and utilisation are unequal, life chances are distributed along the lines of belonging to a certain class rather than by needs, capabilities or let alone preferences.

Functional differentiation, characterising in this theory an even higher and up to now last stage of soci(et)al development and characterising contemporary societies, is characterised by a mode of social development and living together that follows the requirements of "functions". Factual requirements rather than status characterise this stage. Supposedly differences between classes and social strata are diminishing, loosing their meaning as regulators and are "replaced" by mechanisms of "system requirements". Niklas Luhmann, one of the main representatives of such a system theoretical approach, claims that these modern societies are in regard of their power structures "societies without centre and top".

We do not have to look further into details of these modes of differentiation. What we can say is that there are some major limitations and problems with such a theory of differentiation. A shift in modes of differentiation can be stated, indeed. But there a distinction of societies according different modes of societies can be doubted simply because there are main elements of each type of such differentiation on different "stages" or phases of societal development. Even in early stages as we discussed them in connection with the oikos, the ancient economy of the household and the process of state building as Plato describes it – but even in much earlier stages of society building, i.e. societies of huntsmen and collectors we find for example strong elements of functional differentiation. And we can even doubt if processes of stratification had been as strong as then much later during the process of industrialisation, which had been building up classes, depending on their property –


on the one side the bourgeois, defined by possessing the means of production


on the other side the proletarian – free in the twofold meaning of not being owned as a slave and not possessing any means of production, thus depending on his labour force, which thus had been defined as commodity.

Furthermore, theories of differentiation start with an abstraction, emphasising different elements of an entity in their demarcation instead of highlighting their belonging together. As Pierre Bourdieu (Les structures sociales de l’Économie; unlocated : Éditions du Seuil, 2000) states,

‘La science que l’on appelle « économie » repose sur une abstraction originaire, qui consiste a dissocier une catégorie particulière de pratiques, ou une dimension particulière des tout pratique, de l’ordre social dans lequel toute pratique humaine es immergée.’ (11)

In my own translation

What we call economics as scientific discipline is based on a fundamental abstraction, which is based on the isolation of very specific practices or even one specific dimension of practice from the social order from which all social and humane emerged.

However, as we know from elsewhere an abstraction can only be understood as condensation of the variety of contradictions. In actual fact, differentiation is always the constitution of links and boundaries rather than simple demarcation.

Furthermore, there is a strong static perspective as these approaches highlight the constitution of different levels and groupings rather than the process of living together in a historically developing setting.

‘L’intérêt économique, auquel on a tendance à réduire a tort toute espèce d’intérêt, n’est que la forme spécifique que revêt l’investissement dans le champ économique lorsque celui-ci est appréhendé par des agents dotés des dispositions et des croyance adéquates, parce que acquises dans et par une expérience précoce et prolongée de ses régularités et de sa nécessite. Les dispositions économiques les plus fondamentales, besoins, préférences, propensions, ne sont pas exogènes, c'est-à-dire dépendantes d’une nature humaine universelle, mais endogènes et dépendantes d’une histoire, qui est celle là même du cosmos économique où elles sont exigées et récompensées.’ (ibid., 20)

In any case, we are nevertheless confronted with a process of differentiation, which had been described in clear terms by A.S. Maine, when he states

‘The word Status may be usefully employed to construct a formula expressing the law of progress thus indicated, which, whatever be its value, seems to me to be sufficiently ascertained. All the forms of Status taken notice of in the Law of Persons were derived from, and to some extent are still coloured by, the powers and privileges anciently residing in the Family. If then we employ Status, agreeably with the usage of the best writers, to signify these personal conditions only, and avoid applying the term to such conditions as are the immediate or remote result of agreement, we may say that the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.’ (Ancient Law, Chapter 5)

The concrete terms of the process and their meaning and "realisation" in detail can be debated (see as well Durkheim: Division of labour; Toennies: Community and Association; Community and Society [there are two different translations]; much later Juergen Habermas: Theory of Communicative Action). What is important is the fact that the regulation of the relationship between people changed and had been less immediate, constituting more and more mechanisms of "external controls". As seen, Maine himself used the expression "from status to contract". What had been connected with it was the constitution of long chains of action (see Norbert Elias: The process of civilisation). These had been meant as increasing reach of control by freeing space by internalisation of norms rather than execution of direct control in the immediate interaction of people. However, he increasing reach of control was at the same time ambiguous. As far as the "object" over which one gained power had been in some distance, the control, the power developed more and more to be a matter of social interaction, a fait socieaux, as Emile Durkheim called it. It was in particular Durkheim who made us as well aware of processes of anomie, i.e. the fact that at times the gap between personal and social meaning and influence reaches a height where individuals and societies alike end in what we can call simplified a loss of identity. Especially Durkheim’s work on Le suicide markedly analysis this process and clearly shows the interaction between the mentioned fait socieaux and the individual psychological digestion.

Accepting this, we find modern societies as being characterised by functional differentiation, which is based on different social, in particular class status (see Peter Herrmann: Society and Organisation. Sociological Theory of Organisations (Gesellschaft und Organisation. Zur soziologischen Theorie von Organisationen); Egelsbach/New York: Hänsel-Hohenhausen, 1993; The Organisation. An analysis of the Modern Society (Die Organisation. Eine Analyse der modernen Gesellschaft); Rheinfelden/Berlin: Schäuble, 1994 – both in German only). In other words, functional differentiation follows the requirements of social power. And social power is based on mechanism of an unequal distribution of access to the means of production. This class division – and I want to keep this as a basic mechanism of differentiation as well in contemporary societies – manifests itself in different forms.

One main aspect here is the differentiation in terms of division of labour. In one perspective, this division is a mechanism following functional requirements. But these functional requirements are due to the different accessibility of the means of production. Thus division of labour means very much as well (and even more) a division of power. – In this sense division of labour is, indeed, not only a manifestation of class division but in a way as well cause of class differentiation. Here we have to return to what had been introduced as the role of appropriation. This had been said to be concerned with the process of making something one’s own, gaining control over something in technical terms and/or terms of possession. What is important here for the understanding is the link between such a view on appropriation (the Latin proprium, which is terminologically part of the term appropriation basically to be translated as possession, possessive, property) and the term participation, from the Latin pars and capere, meaning part and take, to take part, to take a share out of a whole and making it one’s own and meaning as well to take part in something, to act together with others.

Coming to the second aspect of the manifestation of differentiation we can see this in terms of spatial differentiation, i.e. the different forms of settlements, non-settlement and accessibility of space "across borders". It is interesting how close issues of the physical natural and human-made environment and social space come – for example when we look at early settlements, located close to points where rivers meet, the exits of valleys etc. Here, natural conditions make human settlements easy and "profitable" in economic terms (as they are ideal places for exchange because of the high accessibility in terms of transport) and they support the foundation of wealth. Now, the natural conditions cumulate wealth and at the same time existing wealth will usually be used for further wealth creation, i.e. for instance for investment processes.

As far as this process is understood in a wider meaning and then subsumed under the heading of modernisation it is of course connected with the described process of differentiation. (Mind: the described process is not modernisation as such; in other words, modernisation is not the same as the production of economic wealth; a possible connection is that economic wealth is somewhat a consequence of modernisation. Furthermore: Modernisation can find [and actually found] other expressions than capitalist modes of production. Capitalism was just one pathway and it can be said that as such it actually undermined the full blossom of enlightenment.) Modernisation is, however, connected to enlightenment. The easiest way of describing enlightenment is probably the reference to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative that reads

‘Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.’ (Immanuel Kant: Critique of the practical reason – 1788).

In general, Kant refers to an understanding of reason as the highest capability of cognition, i.e. the capability to develop ideas as process of transcending agreement and norms, without losing the openness for reasonable critique. The problem that arises from here is that there is a permanent tension between


increasing rationalisation as process of differentiation (as described in the terminology of the development from status to contract) and


increasing rationalisation as process of making out connections, recognising the holistic character of the world and dialectical connotations.

This means as well that modernisation is characterised by the fundamental contradiction


of building and maintaining social classes and strata and


integration of people, increasing their access and opportunities of participation.

This is at the same time a founding stone of social policy, as it is exactly this contradiction and tension where social policy is located and develops – we can see this reflected in the different functions of social policy.

Another point is in my view of crucial importance, dealing with the recognition of the character of development. Usually, an important aspect of development is seen a mechanism permanent "improvement", the reaching on "higher stages". And linking this to what we know from Maine, i.e. the development from status to contract we are seemingly confronted with a process of permanently increasing alienation. Formalisation, contractualisation, the increase of the distance between people seems not only unavoidable but as well a spiral without end. The thesis here, now, is that – taking the terms from Maine – we are actually dealing with an alternating process, which appears in some form of steps or stages. This can roughly described as follows.

Stage 1

society is integrated by relations on the basis of status.

Process 1

the mode of integration changes due to external (e.g. technical or natural) or internal (e.g. social upheavals) changes. A process of differentiation takes place and relationships are changing their basis, namely they are following "contractual" principles.

Stage 2

the new contractual forms are settling over a period of time, connected with temporary regressions, setbacks, insecurities etc. These processes and phases of anomie, as they had been mentioned in connection with Emile Durkheim’s studies are finally, however, the reach at a new "status based integration". What has developed during the previous process as integration on grounds of contract is being internalised on this stage and thus developing to a new status.

Process 2

The with the time "internalised" patterns of integration, on stage 2 originally contractual, in the meantime status based, provides a basis for the development of a new contractual model, "contracts of a higher level". In a way process 1 is repeated, but takes place now on a higher level.

Stage 3

basically this is a repetition of stage 2, i.e. again the "settlement" of the contractual integration and the reach of a new status based mechanism of integration.

Process 3

We can visualise this in the following figure (from Peter Herrmann: European Integration and Social Policy – What modernisation looks alike; forthcoming)

History does, however, not repeat itself. The changes are fundamental and basically a step back cannot take place. This does not mean that progress is necessarily "positive" – we all know about the atrocious experiences during more or less recent history, namely German fascism. However, it is problematic to assess this simply as "step back". All such systems had been built on experiences, which could not simply been wiped out. And thus, we find even during fascism not simply an abolition of social policy. What was even worse, the fascist social policy had been to some extent even extended and completely subordinated under the interests of social control by the political regime. In other words, one of the functions had been brought to sole dominance – expression of this "barbarism on a higher stage of development" had been the strict process of family-planning and the vicious policy of genocide.


Two final remarks: First, we never should forget that many of these developments and social "constructions", which seem completely new to us are in part well known from history. This is not to say that history is repeating itself. And it is not meant to say that no changes take place. But we have to be aware that some fundamental mechanism are in existence and that some developments are somewhat gradual, reaching at any one stage in history a new quality by their cumulation – what is called in philosophy qualitative leap. One important aspect in this context is the principle of dialectics and permanent development. So, looking at Elias and well appreciating what he said about the increasing reach of control by the – conscious – constitution of ever lengthening chains of interaction we should never forget that already early philosophy had been well aware of such chains, for example expressed by Heraklit who stated that it is not possible to enter the same river a second time. The river always changes and we are permanently changing ourselves. And it is actually this permanence of interaction that is a major part of the change. Who could overlook some parallels between such reasoning and for example that of Elias on civilisation.

Second, even if describing development in such a way it gives some idea of being an intended, consciously planned and consciously implemented process, the result is – even based on conscious individual actions – very much one of unintended consequences of action. Due to variables that cannot be controlled (for example due the lack of knowledge, or due to the not easily grasped length of chains of interaction) and not least due to the contradiction between different interests, actions and groups the individual action does not (necessarily) result in what it is immediately aiming on.

This is what Marxist writing pointed out when it says that human beings make their own history, but they make it under certain conditions, given by previous action. To acknowledge such unintended consequences it is not least important


to explain the contradictions of social policy and its multifaceted functions


to understand the contradicting character, impact and consequences of social policy


to understand for examples the constitution of specific social constructs of fait socieaux as the family.