Distinction Analysis: Intro

Distinction analysis is a method to gain information on situations by creating a representation of the distinctions they use. At the fundamental level, „distinction“ means to separate something from everything it is not, be it visually, conceptually, in an algorithm, or via brick and mortar. The analysis of distinctions as they are used to create and maintain a situation is an observational method with a wide range of potential applications. I have applied it in qualitative cultural research, empirical surveys, and in designing software algorithms. The idea is that distinction analysis allows its practitioners to gain an understanding of a situation that aims to avoid implicit preconceptions and conventions by including them in the structure of distinctions. Thus, they become visible and can be accounted for. This could lead to more cultural knowledge, essentially the understanding of why a situation is handled in a specific way versus all other possibilities (a new distinction in itself). Distinction analysis could then be one tool to make culture-specific calculations in algorithms possible, and it could potentially be used to compute very specific artifacts that take part in the very situations it observes. It could also be used to analyze one’s own lifestyle with regard to certain descriptors, such as creativity or ecological impact. Distinction analysis is therefore not developed as a neutral method for non-invasive observation technologies, but rather as a strategy that may influence how observers take part in social situations.

Distinction analysis is based on the concept that the observable world is constructed from distinctions. This view is informed by George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form, which provide the outset for our method and also a formalism with which it remains compatible. George Spencer Brown builds his theory on the premise that a) there are distinctions, and b) it is possible to indicate exactly one of their sides, i.e. what they make distinct from each other, in any given observation. Take, for example, the distinction between inside and outside. You, as the observer in this case, are able to reference any given observation to whether it was made inside or outside. When you made your morning coffee today, you were most likely inside, but then you crossed over to the outside by exiting the door in your house, perhaps taking a deep breath and sucking in the smell of the street. Both the making of the coffee and the smell of the street are observations (actually a multitude of observations as we will see later), but the point here is that both of them could be referenced to a distinction between inside and outside. It is the nature of a distinction to be a perfect separator. What is not inside has to be outside. This is true as a general statement, but we can also specify that what is not inside your house is outside your house. There are communication channels that allow information to cross this distinction (Flusser), such as telephone, television, and the internet, so you do not have to always walk through your door yourself to learn anything about the world outside. But the sources of the information thus acquired remain very much on the outside – probably a good thing considering all the bad news on television. The key message here is that everything you observe can have the underlying reference of the distinction between inside and outside. Try to observe yourself in everyday life, for example while reading this sentence. I bet you can easily reference whether you are reading this inside or outside. You do not have to make this reference explicit, but it is there nevertheless, as a latent part of your observation, a distinction that is made and can be made explicit whenever necessary. This latency constitutes knowledge, in this case knowledge of being inside or outside.


This page is about phenomena that oscillate between different states, hiding one part from observation while exposing another, like the seasons of a year or the pig cycle in economics. The key component that binds these phenomena together as one, even though only parts of them are observable, is the distinction between their states. The notion of the distinction thus becomes an important concept not only in observing phenomena as holistic structures, but also in an understanding of the operational flow of these phenomena as processes. Therefore, we will dedicate space on this page to the study of distinctions and the phenomena they allow for. As a part of this, we will develop distinction analysis as a method to observe phenomena that are characterized by being constructed out of distinctions – which, as I would argue, is true for the observable world in its entirety. So welcome, and happy oscillating!