The German Research Foundation (DFG) has approved the establishment of a new Research Unit at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz on the topic of "Un/doing Differences. Practices in human differentiation." Within the research network, which has been initially established for six years, the eight participating researchers from the fields of Sociology, Anthropology, American Studies, Theater Studies, and German Linguistics will look at the cultural differentiation of humans and investigate how differences between individuals and communities arise or are created, and how these change or are expunged. The coordinator of the new DFG Research Unit is Professor Dr. Stefan Hirschauer of the JGU Institute of Sociology. A Research Unit funded by the German Research Foundation takes the form of a close working alliance between several prominent scholars who plan to collaborate on an innovative research topic over a longer period of time. The general idea behind the establishment of such research groups is to open up new areas of inquiry.
Human differentiation involves the identification or attribution of individuals as members of specific communities and groups in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, language groups, religions, or other factors, as well as intrasocietal differentiations on the basis of characteristics such as age, gender, or performance in school, work, or sports. There is a bewildering array of research fields that already deal with the categorization of humans. The new DFG group will take the corresponding findings as its starting point, but will also transcend these. The group will be thus be studying the important fundamental distinctions that form major research areas such as ethnicity, 'race', nationality, religion, gender - presumably the oldest form of human differentiation from a cultural history standpoint - and performance groups.
These various characteristics used for differentiation are usually studied separately in individual research areas, such as Gender Studies and Race Studies, but also as isolated topics within various disciplines, including Social Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, History, Literature, Linguistics, and Social Psychology. However, there are considerable differences in the approaches taken by the social sciences and the humanities while there is a general consensus that it is necessary to define those universal characteristics common to the practices of cultural categorization and demarcation. "It is our aim to investigate for the first time how the many different social memberships of individuals actually compete with each other in order to demonstrate that people are not merely 'different' but can be distinguished from each other in the social context in various ways - or are not distinguished from each other at all," explained Hirschauer.
Each of the group's eight sub-projects addresses various aspects of the broader issues and, at the same time, sets its own emphases. Two African ethnological and two American Studies projects will be primarily focusing on the factors that determine the cultural lines of demarcation between communities. Four Sociology, Linguistics, and Theater Studies projects will be considering the cultural aspects of the categorization of individuals. Once the project group has completed its work, we may at last understand what conditions obtain to the differentiation of humans and why we assign them to categories, why differences arise and disappear again, and what essentially lies behind our need to categorize humans as 'types'.