Institute of Sociology

“Making up people” in world society:

analyzing the institutionalization of global social categories


Project team: Prof. Dr. Marion Müller, Dr. Hannah Bennani, Prof. em. Dr. Bettina Heintz, Annelen Fritz M.A., Nicole Sommer M.A., Sophia Cramer M.A., Sophia Falter, Mona Haddada

Former staff: Leandro Raszkewicz

Funding: DFG

Duration: 1.05.2020-30.4.2023

The world society is observed as becoming more and more diverse but it has not yet been examined how these cultural differences between persons on a global scale had come into being.  Drawing on a perspective of the sociology of knowledge, the project focusses on the making and institutionalization, but also the failure of global categories of persons in the context of international politics. Cultural distinctions drawn between people all over the world are not conceptualized as “natural” distinctions, but as contingent devices of observation that highlight similarities and downplay differences between a certain set of people. Hence, we focus on the underlying complex social processes of boundary making that transcend world regional economic, political and cultural distinctions.
We consider global categories of persons as major elements of world society`s structures and as mechanism of globalization: By describing and identifying people as members of the same categories, a global realm of observation evolves and within this realm, similarities and distinctions can be noticed. It is through these shared categorical affiliations – and despite differences – that the world becomes observable as a common social world. Based on these assumptions, we study processes of institutionalization and circumstances that favor (or hinder) the establishment of global categories of persons as legitimate political and legal distinctions. How have they been established as major modes of global sense making and how do they solidify (or not)? Who are the relevant actors involved in these processes and which mechanisms induce the institutionalization and globalization of these categories? Are there typical conditions for the success or failure of global categories?
We will reconstruct and compare the processes of institutionalization and globalization on the basis of seven cases: sex/gender“, „race“, „refugees/migrants“, „people with disabilities“, „indigenous people(s)“, „poor people“ and „LGBTI people“. To reflect the complexity of the cases, we combine different sources and methods: 1) document analysis of selected materials by relevant national and international organizations, 2) guided interviews with experts and contemporary witnesses; and 3) ethnographic explorations in the context of the United Nations and social movements.
The project is innovative in several ways: While the study of “human differentiation” (Hirschauer) has so far mainly focused on national or local processes, the project adds a global perspective. At the same time, it systematically uses the insights of a sociology of categorization in the context of world society research. By adopting an interaction theory’s perspective in examining the setting up of global categories, the project focusses on micro level processes which are mostly ignored by world society research.