Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous

By Maeve Maddox

A reader comments:

I have seen and heard the word homogeneous used to refer to a multiracial or multicultural society, whereas I would have used heterogeneous. Surely homogeneous describes an “unmixed” group of people or things?

Homogeneous is from a Greek word meaning “of the same kind.” It is often used in the context of describing a group of people who are all of one race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. For example, until 1932 when Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the US Senate, that governing body was homogeneous in that it was made up entirely of men. The following examples illustrate this meaning of homogeneous:

Pastors in the United States need to be intentional in making their congregations less homogeneous and more multi-ethnic, says the pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in the country.

Countries in Europe and Northeast Asia tend to be the most homogenous [sic], sub-Saharan African nations the most diverse.

Note: In the second example, the spelling homogenous is an error. The word spelled homogenous (without the second e) is used in biology with the meaning “having a common descent.” For example, “Any graft, either autogenous or homogenous, that is not immediately required can be stored for use at a later date.”

Heterogeneous is from a Greek word meaning “of different kinds.” It may also be used to describe inanimate objects as well as groups of people:

Now residents of highly educated, high income, racially mixed communities are often attracted to interethnic heterogeneous churches.

Rubbish is composed of a heterogeneous mixture of discarded materials and is largely of household origin. It is made up principally of paper, rags, wood, glass, crockery, bottles, tin cans, and numerous other wastes. 

The melting pot is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture. 

The “melting pot” example offers a clue to the apparent contradiction that the reader has noticed in “the use of homogeneous used to refer to a multiracial or multicultural society.”

For example, a group might include a mix of different races, but be the same in some other respect:

“Unlike state prisons, which almost exclusively hold people serving state sentences, jail populations are heterogeneous, making them particularly challenging to manage,” the report said.

In this context, prisoners in a state prison are seen as a homogeneous group, in contrast to prisoners in a local jail. The prison inmates, whatever their race or gender, are homogeneous in that they are all there for the same reason: all are serving state sentences. What makes the jail inmates heterogeneous is not race or gender, but the fact that they have different reasons for being there.

Perhaps the most controversial of all philosophical dilemmas concerning the structuring of people within the middle school is the homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping debate.

In this context, a “homogeneous grouping” would consist of children of similar abilities, whereas a “heterogeneous grouping” would include children of varying abilities.

When lawmakers speak of the necessity to create “a homogeneous multiracial society,” their goal is a society in which race, ethnicity, and religion are of secondary importance to a sense of civic equality and consciousness of a shared culture.

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3 Responses to “Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous”

  • venqax

    “When lawmakers speak of the necessity to create “a homogeneous multiracial society,” their goal is a society in which race, ethnicity, and religion are of secondary importance to a sense of civic equality and consciousness of a shared culture.”

    It is? I always just assumed they didn’t know what the word meant. There are certainly other examples of that.

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    There’s that too. I could be reading too much into it.

  • Vali Jamal

    You see homogenous quite frequently these days. Slightly off base: The word I hate to see is humungous (for enormous).

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