Cute Concepts for A-level Sociology: Relative Differentiation

“Evaluation” is a key skill in A-level Sociology that scores lots of exam marks and while there are many different ways to evaluate ideas and arguments there are some useful generic concepts students should be encouraged to regularly (and repetitively) deploy in their evaluation armament from the start of their course – one such being the concept of “relative differentiation”.


It’s useful because it’s a concept that can be applied to a range of questions in ways that both allow students to show an awareness of “sociological problems” and encourage them to develop lines of evaluation that dig deeper into areas like sociological methodology where the Really Big Marks are to be found. 


Relative differentiation (and its related concept of relative undifferentiation) involves the idea that when dealing with large groups (“boys”, “girls”) or concepts (“crime”, “education”) students need to be aware there’s a tendency to treat them as if they are simple, homogeneous, groups (as “undifferentiated” or “all the same”). This can lead to problems.


A couple of examples illustrate to dangers of this tendency:

1. Crime is often treated as a single, overarching, category. This is okay if you’re just describing a general class of related behaviours, but not very useful if you’re looking to understand something like the causes of criminal behaviour. This follows because the only thing something like murder and burglary may have in common is that they are both defined as crimes. The problem, for sociologists, with this type of relatively undifferentiated approach is that explanations for why people commit burglary are going to be very different to explanations for why people kill each other…

2. In a slightly different way it’s increasingly common to see reports that “girls outperform boys in the UK education system”. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this general characterisation, but problems for sociologists occur when people try to explain this difference or suggest ways the “balance can be restored”. This relatively undifferentiated approach fails to take account of the fact, for example, that not all girls outperform all boys (social class or ethnicity, for example, may be differentiating factors in this equation).

Applying the idea of relative differentiation can, therefore, be both a useful source of initial criticism – it highlights potential problems with, for example, an explanation (such as “boys’ underachievement”) – and a stepping-stone to a more-nuanced (and higher marked) explanation for something.

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