December 05, 2011

The Similarities Project

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_PicBy Peter Kaufman

We all need food. We all need water. We all need air. We all have parents. We all have organs. We all have blood. We all need love. We all get sad. We all get annoyed. We all have friends. We all have hearts. We all need to learn. We all like to clip_image002laugh. We all feel pain.

These are just some of the responses that were generated last month when I took a group of college students to participate in The Similarities Project with a class of third graders.

clip_image004The purpose of the visit was to explore (and eventually draw) some of the similarities between these two groups of students. At first glance this might seem like a difficult task. Just thinking about their sizes, ages, and hobbies, it would appear as if third graders and college students have very little in common. But in less than an hour the students were able to identify over forty similarities.

The cclip_image006hallenge of finding things we have in common is not only difficult when we bring together two disparate groups; it is sometimes difficult when we are among our peers. I do a version of The Similarities Project in some classes. After the initial pairing, students then join together progressively into groups of 4, 8, 16 and 32. At each step, they need to find new things that everyone in the group has in common. Not surprisingly, as the size of the group increases it becoclip_image008mes more difficult to find things they all share.

The Similarities Project demonstrates the extent to which we are socialized to focus much more on our differences than our commonalties. This is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, opposites do attract and diversity does enhance our experiences.

But tclip_image012oo often, our emphasis on differences impoverishes instead of enriches our lives. It separates us instead of brings us together. We end up using these differences to assign value, worth, or legitimacy. And from this, artificial and arbitrary borders, structures of inequality, and institutions of oppression quickly develop.

If yclip_image018ou think about it, it is not an exaggeration to say that all of the harm we (humans) have done to each other and even to our planet comes from emphasizing our differences instead of our similarities. Consider the following:

· War: All wars have been fought over differences in religion, economic status, tribal affiliation, race/ethnicity, or territorial borders (which demarcate one of clip_image010the above or some other difference).

· Systems of Oppression (such as sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism): All forms of discrimination and oppression stem from identifying another group as “other”—as less equal, less worthy, less human.

clip_image016· Environmental Degradation: As we (humans) deplete natural resources such as air, water, soil, and as we destroy ecosystems rendering certain species of plants and animals extinct, we are doing so with the implicit assumption that we are separate from and different than other living organism—including being different from other humans whose lives also depend on these scarce natural clip_image020resources.

The fact that we overwhelmingly emphasize our differences at the expense of our similarities should raise some red flags for us because as sociologists we know that all of these differences are socially constructed. In other words, there is nothing inherent, natural, or essential about these differences. We humans have clip_image014defined them, created them, emphasized them, and eventually, have fought or oppressed each other over them.

The Similarities Project is a modest attempt to socially construct a different reality. Instead of identifying the ways in which we seem unalike, this exercise promotes the many things we have in common. You would think that for a clip_image022species that is said to be 99.9% similar we would not have much problem identifying our commonalities. But because we are socialized to identify and emphasize our differences the things that connect us are often obscured, neglected, or ignored.

Will the Similarities Project put an end to the harm and suffering humans clip_image024cause as a result of our over-emphasis on socially constructed differences? On the macro-level, probably not. But in our everyday social interactions, focusing on our similarities has great potential to reduce teasing, bullying, stigmatization, prejudice, discrimination, and voluntary segregation.

Moreover, there are numerous examples of groups and organizations engaging in similar efforts to socially construct a new reality by focusing on the things clip_image026that bring us together instead of the things that tear us apart:

  • In October 2011, there were nearly 2,500 schools around the country that participated in the Mix It Up program organized by Teaching Tolerance. This program encourages school kids to identify, question and negate social differences by sitting with someone new during lunch.

clip_image028PeacePlayers International uses basketball to educate and unite children who live in communities divided by racial-ethnic, religious, and cultural differences. Working since 2001, PeacePlayers International now has an operating budget of over $2.2 million dollars and currently works in Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Middle East, and Cyprus.

  • The Center for Ecoliteracy uses education as a way to promote sustainable living. Through programs, teaching strategies, and instructional tools, the Center for Ecoliteracy emphasizes our connections with the planet so that we humans live in unison with all living creatures (including each other) as opposed to seeing ourselves as superior to, different from and dominant over other living organisms.

clip_image030The next time you are among a group of diverse individuals or meet someone new, see if you can make a list of all of the things you have in common. The longer you think about it the more you will realize that you have many more similarities than differences. After all, we all need shelter, we all live on planet earth, we all have stereotypes, we all have names, we all suffer from war, we all have dreams, we all communicate, we all fail, we all need sleep, we all have ancestors, we all were born and we all eventually die.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Similarities Project:


This project shows that when it comes down to it, students who believe that they are so radically different from each other really do have things in common. When you think of cliques that divide schools and student bodies into groups, its hard to see the similarities that people from different groups might possess. However, when it is broken down you are able to see the bigger picture in life and understand that we all needs the same things and feel the same pain and happiness as the next person does.

This is a really cool activity, because it just shows no matter what you are going through, or how different you look; everyone is still the same. And i believe that is very important to have some sense of positive reality. It helped pull together groups that are very different to eachother, and showed them that even with age difference, they have some common things.

This is a really cool project. It makes you think differently than you have been trained to think. In school (and society) we are trained to emphasize the differences between us, and this divides us and causes tension. It makes me realize that high school cliques are not created because of similarities between people, but because of the overemphasized differences between people.

It would be nice if a project like this could be included in school ciriculum everywhere in the world, so that global inequality could be not as much as an issue as it is now. It would also be nice if in the work environment excercises like this could be part of training to teach diversity but equality.

War and oppression are about power -- the power to control resources we all need, but only a few can have. Perhaps the solution is not to see us as similar, but to see that resources need not be scarse, to see that they can be shared fairly -- to see a way to ensure, as best we can, that all can have what we -- you and me -- need to survive.

Read more:

This is a really unique idea of bringing everyone together and having things in common. I like the fact that you can bring in 2 different age groups from opposite sides of the spectrum and they still have certain things everyone has to have in common in life.

It's surprising how many things people actually have in common when they are from separate age groups. They may be little things, but they are still something. When different age groups are put together, it may take time to figure out what they all have in common but it's worth it because it could bring them together. On the other hand, all of the differences could very well separate them.

I love the idea of this project. I think in a world or society that is so diverse, this activity is unifying and eye-opening. My favorite part of this project is that it forced people from different age groups and environments to find similarities between them, when there are already so many differences within a group of people of the same age group.

We are 99.9% similar. It's so obvious but sometimes we need to be reminded.

It really is a way of perceiving reality. Seeing the differences is so ingrained in us, but it's a "simple" adjustment that could mean so much to society.

It seems like the basic things that everyone has in common, the major needs, have little effect or manifestation in social situations; it's specific and little things like interests and hobbies which measure personalities and therefore dictate whether we have something in common as a stepping stone to develop a deeper relationship.

There is a curriculum that teaches this. It's called Consenses. Check it out here:

It teaches students empathy for each others differences by having them interpret each other's artwork across mediums like a game of telephone.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Gender and Organizations | Main | Symbolic Interactionism on the Road »